It took 23 movies, not a single snap of big blue fingers, but Marvel Studios has undeniably reshaped our pop-culture universe. As the release of Avengers: Endgame approached, we picked the top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe moments, and enlisted the films’ creators – including Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, Iron Man director Jon Favreau and Anthony and Joseph Russo (directors of Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) – to explain how they came to life.
It used to be safe to leave the movie theater once credits rolled. Then came this addendum to Iron Man, which, in 32 seconds, altered the course of 21st-century pop culture, introducing Samuel L. Jackson as secret agent Nick Fury, along with the idea of the “Avenger initiative” and, most important, the previously undreamt-of prospect of a massively crossover-y (and lucrative) cinematic universe. At the time, though, director Jon Favreau didn’t take the scene all that seriously. “We thought it would be really good fan service,” he says. “Just a fun little post-credit thing. A lot of things had to happen before The Avengers actually happened — all of the movies had to work. So it was really more wishful thinking — a fun little question mark at the end of the movie.”
“The Hulk is just a big id,” Avengers director Joss Whedon told Rolling Stone — and nowhere was the green guy’s rage more satisfyingly unleashed than in his assault on the villainous deity Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hulk silences a supercilious monologue by slamming Loki with cartoonish speed into a concrete floor five times in a row, before grunting, “Puny god.” It was a welcome touch of Looney Tunes absurdity that hinted at the outright comedy in later films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok), and the most shattering series of blows Hiddleston would endure until his break-up with a certain pop goddess four years later.
Nobody puts Captain America in a corner. In the space of five thrilling minutes, Chris Evans’ Cap beats up 10 would-be assailants in an elevator cage match (despite getting manacled to a wall at one point), smashes through a window to escape S.H.I.E.L.D.’s headquarters, falls 30 floors or so, commandeers a motorcycle and single-handedly takes down a fighter plane with a shield and his bare hands. All that, and genuine dramatic stakes, too: “The whole universe turns on its head in that scene,” says Anthony Russo, co-director with his brother Joe — they aimed to make a more grounded Marvel movie, with a Seventies-political-thriller feel, though perhaps not that grounded, as the fighting-a-plane bit suggests. “This is where Captain America, the dutiful soldier, the guy who was born to serve, realizes he is being betrayed by those who he’s serving.”
They constructed the sequence by blocking it out with their stunt team, then going back to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to embed character beats within key moments in the action — a method that served them throughout the film. Hence, the highly quotable line where Captain America delivers a warning to the menacing elevator crew that surrounds him: “Before we start, does anyone want to get out?”
“I look around at us and I see losers,” Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord says, trying to get a ragtag, nihilistic group of interstellar ruffians to commit to a risky act of heroism. They have a chance, he tells them, to “give a shit.” It’s a pure character moment, simultaneously moving and amusing, with no standout visual effects — except for the fact that two of the characters, feisty, rodent-ish Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and ambulatory tree Groot (Vin Diesel), are entirely digital creations.
“They’ve come to life by that point,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, a key creative force behind the studio’s entire output. “So you don’t even consider them visual effects.” Guardians was Marvel’s boldest bet. “Everybody told us it was too weird,” writer-director James Gunn told Rolling Stone, “and that because they were unknown characters, the movie was going to be Marvel’s first bomb.” (It wasn’t.) An early draft of this scene prompted Marvel to push Gunn to get weirder. “We gave James the note, ‘Wait a minute, we need more scenes like this,’ ” says Feige, “ ‘more of your purely character-based fun. Basically, we need more James Gunn.’ ”
A “splash page,” in comic-book parlance, is dominated by a single image rather than a grid of panels — usually an action scene worthy of the scale. The Russos consider this battle — which pits no fewer than 12 superheroes against each other — their splash page, which makes even more sense when Ant-Man inverts his powers, growing so large that he barely fits onscreen. The movie has so many characters that the Russos joked that their only possible model was 1963’s all-star caper It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, though Infinity War and its sequel would be even more packed. “The second we started circling Civil War, that airport scene was part of the concept,” says Anthony Russo. “It was the most complicated action sequence we’d ever attempted.” Besides who-goes-where logistics, the scene’s other big trick was slipping in an extraordinary number of digital characters — unbeknownst to most viewers, Spider-Man, giant Ant-Man and Black Panther are all CGI, along with Iron Man, War Machine and Vision. “That’s one of the most challenging things,” says Anthony, “making CG characters feel part of scenes.”
Thanks to the brain-bending rush of Steve Ditko’s interdimensional art — trippy stuff for a strait-laced Ayn Rand acolyte — Doctor Strange was always the counterculture’s favored superhero: a famous 1965 San Francisco concert with the Jefferson Airplane was dubbed “A Tribute to Dr. Strange.” Appropriately enough, the sequence where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) shows a skeptical Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) the nature of the universe, shoving his soul out of his body and into a freaky cosmic journey, was known internally as the “magical mystery tour.” But another inspiration for director Scott Derrickson, Feige reveals, was the pink-elephant hallucination in 1941’s Dumbo.
There was definitely nothing new about a Spider-Man movie by 2017, but the sprightly Homecoming managed to feel fresh — in this vertiginous rescue scene, even his wall-crawling seemed wondrous again. Taking Spidey on a field trip was key. “We wanted him on a landmark we hadn’t seen before,” says Feige. “The other fun thing was a sense of vertigo. [Producer] Amy Pascal was obsessed with getting that across, so we don’t take it for granted that Spider-Man is extremely high up. Wouldn’t it be fun to put him on an icon not surrounded by other buildings, where he can’t just swing away? He’s stuck — if he falls, there’s not much to swing onto.”
After two rather dull Thor movies, Marvel set the brilliantly quirky Taika Waititi loose on the character — and let him bring in the Hulk as a co-star. The New Zealand director created a tribute to the cosmic visions of Jack Kirby spiced with absurdity, plus some Zeppelin on the soundtrack. This fight, kicked off with Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) “He’s a friend from work” line, was a high point.
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther achieved two milestones: It was a worldwide smash with a nearly all-black cast, and it scored an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Much of the movie’s awards-ready sophistication stemmed from its villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), one of the most complex characters the universe had ever produced — he has a legitimate claim to Wakanda’s throne, and there’s ample reason to sympathize with his dreams of revenge on behalf of his oppressed people. Coogler had the villain in mind from the beginning. ”Thematically, it was about exploring what it meant to be an African-American, feeling estranged from Africa,” says producer Nate Moore. In this battle scene, Killmonger defeats Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) so soundly that some producers wondered if they were emasculating their hero. “There was many conversations about that,” says Moore. “But Ryan was adamant, and he was correct. You had to feel Killmonger’s threat.”
It started with a line from comic-book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick: “Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? . . . In that one moment, every little girl flies.” From there, writers-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck built an affecting sequence where a cornered Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) recalls all the times she fell down in her life on Earth — and then remembers that every single time, she got up again. (Alas, despite the movie’s Nineties setting, Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” does not begin to play.) With that realization, and the embrace of emotions she’d been told to suppress, she gains her full powers for the first time, beginning to glow from head to toe. “It’s not about never failing,” says Boden. “We’re built to fail, as humans, and pushing past that is what gives us strength. She finds strength within herself, and in embracing all the qualities that she’s been told made her less-than. I feel like that is something certainly women can relate to. I can certainly relate to it.”