We’re a few weeks out from the release of Avengers: Endgame and the Russo Brothers have declared that it’s open season on spoilers. Either way, proceed at your own risk, because I’m going to spoil the movie’s biggest plot point.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe – now cosmic in its narrative scope and infinite in its temporal reach – began with scientists. In 2008, we were introduced to two geniuses whose alter egos were products of their own hubris: Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Iron Man was an invention of desperation, conceived in a self-inflicted, near-death experience and born out of engineering resourcefulness. The Incredible Hulk was created when a mad scientist pushed the boundaries of human capacity too far, and he spent decades paying the price.
When it comes to origin stories, the focus (rightfully) tends to be on character development rather than the specific mechanics of a significant causal moment. But in the case of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, the entire future of our audience experience was made possible by the fact that we believed that their principal accomplishments were within the realm of possibility – based on the knowledge of our real world and a reasonably minor suspension of disbelief.
After all, we live in an age where technology advances at an exponential rate, war profiteering drives innovation, and genetic manipulation is an increasingly common occurrence.
Iron Man 2 expanded this framework by democratizing Tony Stark’s knowledge. He was the alpha inventor, but Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Rockwell’s characters could at least wield Stark’s power with varying degrees of success. And Stark himself makes quick progress. The movie opens with an automated robotic process for removing the Iron Man suit, piece by piece, and then quickly jumps to a new prototype that fits in a suitcase and deploys unassisted. That’s a specific example, but Tony Stark’s rapid (and believable) advancements are the perfect proxy for the speed with which the MCU needed to grow to match Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s vision.
The first big test of that strategy came a year later when Marvel had to bridge the gap between the science fiction-lite of Iron Man and the Hulk with the fantastic Norse mythology of Thor. It could have been a moment of cataclysmic failure, ruining the good will of the first three MCU movies and plunging the audience into a world that was too absurd to believe. Instead, Thor worked for a lot of reasons, none more important than the fact that Marvel doubled down on the science angle with a single elegant explanation from the God of Thunder himself – “Your ancestors called it magic and you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they’re one and the same thing.”
It wasn’t a faultless leap of logic, but the subtext approximates to, “Just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
A few months later, Captain America re-grounded us in Stark Science and layered on the Asgardian science of Thor. Then the first Avengers movie added in an alien invasion and, together, the three core elements of the MCU – science, magic, and space – opened the door to endless storytelling possibilities (and ever-growing ticket sales).
I suspect that if Marvel had tried to launch its brand with the bizarre intergalactic adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy or mind-bending realities of Doctor Strange, the MCU wouldn’t have gotten too far. Just look at the DC universe, which tried to expand its canvas so fast that the entire thing immediately ripped apart.
But for Marvel, the most outlandish elements of its cinematic universe didn’t arrive unexpectedly. They can be traced back, one movie at a time, to the initially simple worlds of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Or, to put it another way, the successful internal consistency of the MCU – and the reason its now shattering the biggest box office records in the history of the world – is because Kevin Feige is a methodical architect. Which brings us to the end of the beginning.
Avengers: Endgame, colossally epic (is that redundant?) in its scale, ultimately puts the fate of the universe back into the hands of its two founding scientists. The final battle takes place on Earth rather than in the far reaches of space, and the victory happens for three key reasons: Stark and Banner invent time travel, Banner’s merging of his brain with Hulk’s physique makes him strong enough to control the Infinity Gauntlet, and, in the end, Stark’s most valuable piece of tech is a gauntlet of his own that lets him snap Thanos out of existence.
In effect, this phase of the MCU comes full circle.
Now, with Tony Stark’s death, a fundamental element of the franchise is gone. I don’t mean Tony as a character – though Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal was the vibrant spirit of the first decade and will be deeply missed – but the possibility of universe-altering innovation that seemed only possible because of Stark. He could invent his way out of a cave or into the anomalous netherworld of the Quantum Realm. He could also be used as a deus ex machina plot device when other characters’ development called for it – like Spider-Man’s didactic suit, for example, or Vision’s corporeal existence. For the MCU writers, the spectrum of opportunity was so wide because they could always fall back on the idea that, sure, Tony can make it happen.
So, where do we go from here? Without Stark innovating the meta-story forward with his brains and billions, who can pick up the slack?
Bruce Banner survived Thanos, but a few challenges persist. Banner was always at his best in partnership with Tony. He hasn’t necessarily been presented as an equal mind though. Also, will Mark Ruffalo be willing to show up in supporting roles for other character’s movies or shows? And, honestly, can we get back to Hulk smashing things instead of talking about them, at least for a bit?
The stealth country of Wakanda is so technologically advanced that it hides out of fear for too strongly influencing the rest of the world. But with a generous king, a Stark-level genius of a princess, and a hungry audience, the Black Panther team will certainly be a driving force in the next phase.
If the trailers are to be believed, the next Spider-Man movie – well, Nick Fury, specifically – calls upon Peter Parker to step up and become the next Iron Man. He’s Stark’s protégé in Civil War, Homecoming, Infinity War, and Endgame, so the passing of the torch is most likely to happen here. Maybe Banner will take Peter under his wing? What Peter is missing, however, is Tony’s enabling wealth – though Happy Hogan is an obvious conduit to it.
Hope Van Dyne
With her father, Hank Pym, and some eager-but-ignorant support from Scott Lang, Hope helped blaze a trail into the Quantum Realm. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a supporting character in one of the MCU’s smaller (though best, for my money) franchises.
Now that Disney owns Fox, there’s a scientific void in the MCU, and New York’s former Avengers Tower is looking for new tenants, it’s the perfect moment to bring the Fantastic Four into the mix. Mr. Fantastic shares the same versatile skillset as Tony and a brain to match. In the long term, he’s an obvious choice. In the short term, he’s an un-established character who would need a few years (and cosmic rays) before he could have the same MCU-spanning reach as Tony Stark. Hey…where’d this picture come from?
At the end of the day, Tony Stark probably can’t be replaced – as a character or anchoring narrative element – and his functions will probably be spread across all of these characters, and more. But my feeling is that the future success of the MCU will rely on Kevin Feige’s ability to humanize the marvelous for audiences and draw a continuous line back to where it all began: with semi-credible science.