It’s been a year since the Marvel Cinematic Universe ended its first epic arc, culminating in Avengers: Endgame. We’ve had a full year to think over what that film means, and what we were meant to take away from it. To decide where it ranks on our watch list. To argue with friends over how relatively enjoyable the exercise was for us all.
But I would like to register a complaint: You see, the most interesting arc of the film is nowhere to be found on screen. And I request that Marvel produce the deleted footage of this arc, otherwise I’m not really sure why this movie was made at all.
I’m speaking, of course, about how Doctor Stephen Strange stage managed an entire apocalypse solely for Maximum Dramatic Effect.
We all know what happens in the film’s climax—Thanos from the past follows the Avengers back from their time travel shenanigans and lays waste to their home base with extreme prejudice. Half of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are trapped under a fallen building. After the rest of his teammates are chucked aside, Steve Rogers gets into a fight with the big purple guy. The titan keeps knocking Captain America to the ground and, true to his origins, Cap keeps getting back up. But this time it’s not a scrawny kid doing his best against some alleyway bullies… the super soldier serum-ed wunderkind is losing. He’s exhausted, wounded, covered in dirt and blood, his formerly indestructible shield cracked into pieces. And still, he gets back up, knowing that this is probably his last stand. That’s his job, and he means to do it ’til the bitter end.
And in that moment, he hears the three greatest words in the English language. No, not I love you. He hears Sam Wilson’s dulcet tones, back from the dead to let him know… “On your left.”
Dozens of portals open near the destroyed Avengers compound, and the victims of Thanos’s first terrible Snap appear, every friend and comrade with the ability to fight returned to the Earth. They emerge at Steve’s back, ready to join the fray, and Cap gets to tell a battlefield full of newly minted Avengers that it’s time to get to work. Crowd goes wild, the real party begins, and we all know Thanos is about to be toast.
Here’s the thing, though: That moment is impossible without one hell of a coordinator.
You can’t have this incredible assemblage of Avengers, this last stand, the point where everyone in the theater is probably screaming and crying, through sheer random happenstance. It doesn’t just occur out of nowhere. It had to be painstakingly arranged, timed, and managed by the only person with the ability to run a show of that size—the Sorcerer Supreme.
Imagine, if you will, that Bruce Banner has just re-Snapped the new fancy Gauntlet, bringing back everyone who was wiped out at the end of Infinity War. Stephen Strange has rematerialized on Titan, so has Peter Parker and half of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but there’s no time to come to terms with that—there is only the mission to get home and end this fight once and for all. Doctor Strange has to portal-message Earth, find Wong, divvy up everyone who needs contacting between the two of them. Then they have to find each of the newly alive heroes and explain that they’re needed right this very instant in the biggest war of their lives, and no, they really don’t have time to say hello to loved ones or check their Twitter feed or pee.
In theatre terms, showtime is coming, and everyone has to be told “Places in five.” The only people available to do this are Stephen Strange and Wong. They have to communicate all of these things as quickly and succinctly as possible because they don’t currently have the Time Stone, so there’s no opportunity to rewind the scenario and get it together later on. There’s probably an agreed upon little speech that they give at each stopping point: “Sorry, no time to really get into it, you’ve been dead for several years along with half the universe, but that fight you were having right before you winked out of existence isn’t over, we need you up and running in like… three minutes? You can be ready to go in three minutes, right? We’ll portal you in to the relevant location, don’t worry about it. We’re sorcerers, long story, really no time—three minutes!” Everyone must have loved getting that run down immediately after coming to. (Do you somehow un-dust? We never get to see how people come back, but the idea of all that dusted matter suddenly coalescing is both creepy and extremely evocative.)
Once everyone has been notified, they have to be prepared for their first march through magic portals onto a scorched field where the enemy lies in wait. And even knowing that most of these people have fought their fair share of battles, that’s still a pretty tall order, particularly in regards to flawless timing. They have to all be standing in the exact right spots, and not facing the wrong way. Imagine how embarrassing this whole epic scenario would have been if all the necessary portals had appeared at the backs of the Wakandan army, or the Asgardians. No good. Everyone’s gotta hit their marks and get it right on the very first try. There’s no dress rehearsal, no cue-to-cue run.
This show-stopping entrance only works because Stephen Strange is a showy perfectionist with all out diva sensibilities. You can even see the moments leading up to it, if you close your eyes tightly enough—
Sam Wilson: Can you make us appear right behind Steve, to his left?
Doctor Strange: Uh. Why would I do that?
Sam Wilson: Trust me.
Doctor Strange: We don’t have time for this, Wilson.
Sam Wilson: It’s an inside joke. The payoff will be worth it, I promise.
Doctor Strange: *long-suffering sigh* Fine.
Then he probably shouts “Places!” and everyone else shouts “Thank you, places!” and lines up accordingly. My point being that we’re lucky Tony Stark made fast friends with a wizard—otherwise this whole event would have been decidedly underwhelming. Any other version of this involves people stumbling into the battle at disparate times and doing their best to join in. It’s just a mess of people and aliens hitting the scene and trying to figure out where they’re supposed to stand, staring blankly at Thanos’s goons and hoping someone gives them a directive. No sense of theatrics, no timing, no showmanship.
No chance for Steve Rogers to say “Avengers! …Assemble” with the might and fury he has always wished to impart using those two little words. And let’s be honest, we know Cap appreciates it—after all, he started his career on the stage. He is fully aware of what the audience wants.
And this is excellent because it’s a perfect meta-nod to what makes comics and superheroes work. People like to joke about weirdos in spandex costumes doing gymnastics to stop bad guys, but that’s the point. That is literally the appeal of these stories, no matter how much anyone wants to claim that they prefer the realistic and gritty reboots. We’re here for that, and Marvel knows it. They know we’ll talk about how much kids like flashy primary colors, but we all love flashy primary colors. We all love weirdness and absurdity, and we definitely love people in spandex doing gymnastics to stop bad guys. That’s what this moment is all about. Acknowledging that you can’t reach your true climactic summit without a jumped up magician as your resident Messy B*tch Who Loves Drama is about as honest as the MCU films will ever get.
The fact that we don’t get the behind-the-scenes build up to this climax somewhere is just rude, frankly. Marvel used to do those One Shots, right? Give us one of those, or a section of storyboards, something. This is the only part of the movie I actually care about. Show me the stage manager getting everyone ready for opening night, all harried and exhausted, and then occasionally remembering that he shared space in the Soul Stone with half the population of the universe, and trying to shake off that existential dread. Show me Doctor Strange’s clip board full of cues, his headset that he uses to talk to the rest of the crew, that one Asgardian who approaches him right before the portals open in a panic because their costume (sorry, armor) is ripped and they couldn’t possibly go out on stage like that.
It’s been a whole year, Marvel Studios. You’ve had plenty of time to prepare the best part of Endgame for us.
Emmet Asher-Perrin really wants to know how Doctor Strange pitched this to the Wakandans, who were already on a battlefield and probably very confused to be back with no battle taking place. You can bug them on Twitter, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.