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Avengers: Endgame still ranks among the more emotionally taxing superhero movies ever made, with major character deaths that marked the end of an era in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. According to directors Joe and Anthony Russo, though, early versions of the story were almost much, much more brutal.
In a recent interview on the Happy Sad Confused podcast, the Russos revealed that early discussions with producer and MCU mastermind Kevin Feige included the idea that all of the original Avengers would somehow meet their end in the film, creating a kind of clean break between the Infinity Saga and the next phase of the universe.
"Kevin did actually pitch at one point taking all the OGs off the board," Joe Russo said. "We thought it was way too aggressive and that the audience wouldn't be able to process it, and that in fact picking one or two characters to make sacrifices throughout the movie might give you moments throughout the film where the action could stop and you could have emotional catharsis and then continue with the narrative, and then add more emotional catharsis."
So, instead of losing every member of the original crew, the Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely killed off Black Widow as part of a sacrifice play to get the Soul Stone, and Iron Man as part of a sacrifice play to get the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos long enough to end the fight one last time. Though that last part was met with resistance from people like Iron Man director Jon Favreau, Tony Stark's demise managed to serve the same purpose as the idea to kill off everyone, closing the book on the saga that Stark launched back in 2008. Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Thor all got reprieves, but not without wounds and circumstances of their own, including Steve Rogers' alternate timeline life that took him off the board without actually killing him.
In describing the proposed moment, which Anthony Russo noted never got past the "conceptual level," Joe Russo explained that Feige had been inspired, in part, by the near-death of the toys at the end of Toy Story, and proposed that the original Avengers "jump into a fire to save the universe," leaving successors like Spider-Man and Captain Marvel to take over the position of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
That didn't happen, of course, and characters like Hawkeye and Hulk have gone on to be important legacy players in the larger MCU. Still, it's an interesting study in what might have been, and an illustration of how much room there is for experimentation within the MCU's master plan.
Looking for more superhero action? The 2003 adaptation of The Hulk is streaming on Peacock, as well as The Punisher and The Punisher: Warzone.