STACK caught up with the cast and filmmakers of one the year’s most anticipated blockbusters, Avengers: Endgame. And while spoilers were forbidden, there was ample reflection on their journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

In terms of sequels, Avengers: Endgame is the mother of them all. Well, it surely is until we see what James Cameron unleashes with Avatar 2 next year.

Endgame serves as the follow-up to last year’s Infinity War, which raked in US$2 billion worldwide and ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) disintegrating half the Earth’s population, including the still-bankable likes of Black Panther and Spider-Man.

In the weeks running up to this hotly anticipated sequel, fans played a guessing-game of who will survive in this rematch with the mad god who crumbled their friends and loved ones into oblivion.

When STACK meets with the filmmakers and cast in Los Angeles, the actors who show up on this sunny April morning don’t necessarily indicate the survivors in this tense bid to restore order to the universe.

Take for example, Chris Evans, 37, the franchise’s reliable Captain America, who’s said he’s done playing the character after this. Becoming increasingly politically active, he’ll retire his shield in exchange for directing gigs and a personal battle waged against America’s own mad god, Donald Trump.

Then there’s Robert Downey Jr. – in many ways responsible for launching the entire multi-billion franchise with his 2008 stand-alone movie Iron Man. Directed by his pal Jon Favreau, Downey’s Tony Stark was so clever, funny and likeable, audiences wanted more. Downey, 54, has also hinted he may be getting a little long in the tooth for action heroics and saving the planet, indeed the galaxy.

And of course there’s Scarlett Johansson, 34, who is going nowhere – already in pre-production for her long-awaited stand-alone movie, Black Widow, directed by Australian Cate Shortland and co-starring Hellboy’s David Harbour.

Joining Evans, Johansson and Downey Jr. in Avengers: Endgame unity today is our own Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Brie Larson (Captain Marvel), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk) and Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), alongside directors Joe and Anthony Russo and Marvel maestro Kevin Feige.

Making his older Endgame colleagues cringe a little, Hemsworth, 35, reminisces about how he first glimpsed into the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he had just left high school back home in Australia.

“I remember watching Iron Man 1 and thinking, ‘Oh my God, imagine, I wish I could be a part of that world’,” says the actor who, just a few years later, would be cast as Thor in his own 2011 movie.

“So then having the opportunity to embark on this thing when, at the time I thought, ‘Was this film even going to make it past DVD or make to the cinemas even? Or was I going to be recast, and all those sort of questions.

“What made it so special for me was just the different people I was able to work with, from Kenneth Branagh in that first film, which was completely in his hands, yet he was basically willing to do whatever it took and wherever he needed me to go for the character.

“And then through the films, with each director and each different cast member, I would learn something different, so by Ragnarok, I finally had enough confidence to go, ‘Okay. What is it that I could possibly bring to this?’

“But then to have this great collaboration with Taika [Waititi], we really decided to do something different to see how we could make it unexpected and unique. I remember calling Joe and Anthony and saying ‘Look, I’ve got this new version of Thor that we’ve just shot – and I want to continue that version. I don’t want to do the old version.’ But then they said, ’We’ve got an even newer version for you.’ And it was. As is this film now.

“It’s really about the people that’s made it so special and unique each time with all our characters. Everybody you get to interact with – and the fact that we’re all willing to be open to what new possibilities lie ahead of these franchises and these characters. It’s been a pretty remarkable journey,” says the actor, concealing his new even-more-muscular physique beneath a tailored jacket, already in preparation for his next role in a Hulk Hogan biopic.

Echoing Hemsworth’s sentiments, Evans adds, “There’s been so many wonderful elements of working on this movie. And, honestly, the friendships and connections I’ve made over these ten years now; it truly has become a family.”

Ask Downey Jr. if he could ever have envisioned Tony Stark’s character arc 12 years ago, and he says, “I’ve been thinking about this recently. There is always two tracks at least in my mind: One is the sky is falling and the other is the sky is the limit.“

Looking back on the first Iron Man, he says, “I just wanted to not drop the ball. So I’ve been just feeling like I’m kind of an oddball ‘manny’ who’s been offered the opportunity to usher in this large franchise and becoming a family in the process. I look around and we are so close and growing closer by the moment. For my money, it’s just the coolest relay race in the history of entertainment.”

Johannson tells STACK how she’s enjoyed watching her character grow in strength. “She really started posing as sort of a sexy secretary with a skill set on the side. I certainly didn’t know how the audience would react to my interpretation of the character and, obviously, a very beloved character for a long time.

“And then the next time that we saw her in Avengers, she was one of the boys for better or worse. And that made sense then.

“But as the fans and audiences, and certainly Marvel, have pushed all the studios and filmmakers to really throw up on the screen what represents what’s going on in the zeitgeist and wanting to see diverse films and casts that represent their own aspirations and how they feel, I feel all the movies have grown in reaction to that fan encouragement.

“I remember when Lizzie [Elizabeth Olsen] signed on and Cobie [Smulders] was there, we were all clinging to each other after I felt like I’d been in this testosterone fest for such a long time.

“So it was so nice to see other female cast members, and then with Brie coming on and Karen and Danai. And now I’m amongst so many wonderful actors, and it’s just grown beyond my wildest dreams. I could never have imagined where this would take all of us.”

Gillan‘s Nebula has long lost out in the sibling rivalry stakes, with Thanos favouring her screen sister Gamora [Zoe Saldana] instead. “I think it’s safe to say that Nebula suffers some daddy issues. Her dad is Thanos, so who wouldn’t?” she laughs. “So I’m excited for her to finally face the source of this abuse which has been building through multiple movies within the Guardians movies, where she’s talked about how she wants to inflict revenge,” she says today, careful not to divulge any plot spoilers.

Co-director Anthony Russo describes how he and brother Joe approached Avengers: Infinity War – a cliffhanger of epic proportions, which has now led to this day, and Endgame. “One of our favourite storytelling adages is to write yourself into a corner. And what we take that to mean is put yourself in a place on a narrative level where you have no idea how you could possibly move forward from here – and that’s a very exciting place to be.

“It forces you to come up with some really creative ways forward and we’ve tried to do that with the endings of every single Marvel movie we’ve done and never more so, of course, than Infinity War. We think stories lose their meaning and relevancy and resonance unless there are real stakes.

“So, moving into Endgame, the story is very much about: How do these heroes deal with resounding and devastating loss? That’s what they experienced in Infinity War, which was a unique experience for them all. And how does a hero move forward from that moment? So our road into this story is how is everybody on an individual level dealing with that experience and then how do they collectively deal with it?” he teases.

Newcomer Brie Larson, whose stand-alone origin story Captain Marvel broke many box-office records earlier in the year, believes she entered the MCU at the most magical time. “My first introduction to everyone was the 10-year anniversary photo, which was a really remarkable and special day,” she recalls. “The whole thing has always felt like a dream. And this film will always be personally dear to me because it was my first time playing Captain Marvel.

“We shot Endgame first, so I had to try figure out who this character was with no script for either this or Captain Marvel – and then perform for the first time in front of legends.

“The set, as big as it is, it still feels like a bunch of kids. Just like what I was doing over summer break, making movies in my garage. There’s still this sense of wonder and play and encouragement. And of course this film deals with some heavy subject matter so you’re bouncing between things that feel very deep and serious – and then we’re going off and playing Boggle. Which I am very good at,” she adds with a smile. “The whole thing has been nothing short of surreal.”

For MCU producer and god-daddy of the biggest super-hero universe in celluloid history Kevin Feige, today’s starry superhero gathering is a triumphant moment.

“Part of the journey is the end. And about four or five years ago, we all started talking about doing something that’s never been done before. What if a superhero outs his identity at the very last shot of the movie? We can’t do that? No one does that. We’ve never seen an ending, a definitive conclusion to an overall saga. So that’s why it’s called Endgame and why I think it’s very, very special.”

With Avengers: Endgame clocking in at a lengthy three-plus hours, Mark Ruffalo suggests, “Bring a box of Kleenex and a diaper.”

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas on April 24

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