It’s strange when a reunion feels like a farewell.
That was the bittersweet vibe around Avengers: Endgame when Entertainment Weekly sat down with the Original Six, the actors who first united as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes once upon a time in 2012’s The Avengers.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (now known as the vigilante Ronin):
They’re in a class of their own. And that class is graduating. Endgame has been breathtakingly secretive through its production and its plot remains heavily embargoed until it’s out on April 26.
The movie’s creators have hinted at almost nothing, except for the promise of finality. It’s the 22nd movie in the saga, and while there will be many more to come, this film — from directors Joe and Anthony Russo — promises to be a conclusion for some of the characters at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Not that the actors can talk about that.
During our interview, they were teasing, joking, reminiscing, and still thinking about the future, just like they were seven years ago when EW first put them together for an epic roundtable.
Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, joined the actors; he was one of the key figures who helped unite this team of heroes — sort of like the real-life Nick Fury. “No, that’s Sam Jackson,” Feige objects. But that ex–S.H.I.E.L.D. spymaster is dust. (At least for now.) Until that changes, Downey declares Feige “Interim Fury!”
To wrangle the Avengers, you need all the help you can get.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys can’t talk about Endgame, right? But that’s the new movie.
KEVIN FEIGE: Correct.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: That is correct.
Do you want to make up an outrageous lie about your characters?
JEREMY RENNER: The only thing I can guarantee about Endgame is that it’s going to begin and then…it’s going to end. At some point.
FEIGE: No, no, no. Don’t even say that!
RENNER: Or it’s all continuous. [Laughter] It just keeps running!
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: I’m gonna have PTSD from this [press tour.] I mean, honestly, it is so stressful. At the end of every day, I lie awake at night and I think about all the things I almost said. It gives me panic.
MARK RUFFALO: Oh, you think you feel that way?
JOHANSSON: [Sarcastically] Tell us about it, Mark, how do you feel?
DOWNEY: You’re a repeat offender, Mr. Ruffalo.
RUFFALO: Nah, I’ve had reeducation camp!
What’s the biggest thing you’ve spilled about a movie, Mark?
JOHANSSON: [To Ruffalo] What about when you streamed the first 10 minutes of Thor: Ragnarok?
DOWNEY: That’s gotta be it.
RUFFALO: That was the one that got me the call from up high.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Wait, wait, that was actually genius! There might be some strategy there, because [the audience] laughed so hard during that [footage]. All [viewers] could hear was laughing. They went, “It must be good!”
RUFFALO: It sort of turned around on me, because when I came to work on Monday [on the set of Endgame] everyone ran up to me. I thought they were coming to scream at me — Barry, he threw his arms around me. “That was genius! We got more press than we could have possibly paid for!”
FEIGE: Yes, Barry Curtis, our supreme security at Marvel Studios, who now is immortalized as the Blockbuster parking-lot security guard in Captain Marvel.
DOWNEY: [Points at EW] Play your cards right, there’s a cameo in the future for you!
People always ask, what do you bring to your character? Are there any parts of your character that have become part of you?
HEMSWORTH: There was a much clearer [sense of] who the character was the first time I played it, and then…it slowly just became me screwing around and having fun. There’s more of me in the character now than ever. It’s the most honest place you can operate from as an actor.
Knowing everybody, I feel like the personal relationships start to echo through. What you see, the authenticity of Iron Man and Captain America when we’re on screen, there is a real friendship with Chris and Robert. Then it starts to just come through whether we like it or not.
CHRIS EVANS: It’s impossible not to take a little piece on. Anytime you play a role, when you’re in a certain headspace all day, you can’t help but take some of that home with you. Sometimes you play roles where it’s really exhausting, and it can be a cave of darkness, something you can’t wait to shed.
Other times, you can’t wait to get back to it. And that’s the fun thing about the role [of Captain America]. Usually when you’re done, you close the book and move on. This one, you just put it on hiatus because you know you’re coming back. [Gestures to castmates] The same way that these are all friends, the character becomes a friend too. You’re visiting an old friend.
How do you feel about that, Robert? You kicked it all off.
DOWNEY: [To Feige] Consciously or otherwise, Kevin, you put us in a position where we lived our lives looking each other in the eyes, playing these big-stakes moments, and being in trouble together, and saving each other, and worrying about each other. The smallness of our lives has been the constant in this massive endeavor, and it’s impossible not to be humbled by it. [Pauses] Hell, if I’ve been, then it’s completely impossible.
JOHANSSON: These characters have grappled with their past, and they’ve grappled with their destiny, and I think we’ve seen them over these past 10 years come into their own as fully realized people. That’s probably reflective of a lot of the dreams we’ve all had.
I mean, just having 10 years of time and growing, and having ups and downs, and sharing our lives with one another, has been a real pillar of strength in all kinds of crazy times. I think that’s what the audience also reacts to: The characters have grown in a way that feels reflective of their own experience.
I met this girl yesterday who was a Black Widow superfan. She was awesome. She was like, “I saw the first movie with you [in 2010’s Iron Man 2]. I first saw Black Widow when I was 6.” Now she was 15 and she was like, “I grew up with you!” I was thinking, Gosh, she was this little girl and now she’s a beautiful young woman and she feels like the journey of these characters coming into their own is very much a part of her own experience.
Anything the actors tweet or say about the characters gets people really worked up. Does that feel odd? Is it moving? Or powerful? What does it make you feel?
RUFFALO: A little scared. You become more careful. You have a bigger responsibility. You also see the power of storytelling. One thing I think about these movies that’s really exciting is they’re forward-leaning in the narrative of good versus evil. We’re able to transcend some of the divisive narratives that are happening now. These stories do touch a lot of different kinds of people with different kinds of beliefs.
And The Avengers is really about coming together, too.
RUFFALO: Yeah, it is. It’s about unifying. And it’s about people who have [differences], and Civil War is the ultimate example of that.
[Downey throws an arm around Evans, and the stars squeeze each other, smiling broadly.]
And look at you now!
RUFFALO: Yeah, I know, they love each other! I always feel like somehow we’re always one or two steps ahead of the political scene. You know, the bad guys win sometimes. And we lose good people. Unless you lose sometimes, you don’t value winning — and winning doesn’t mean anything. I feel like that has been this final journey into our…end game.
EVANS: Awwwww…look what he did there!
FEIGE: Nice, nice.
DOWNEY: Now that is a redemptive act happening in real time. I think you’re back to zero [with Marvel] now.
Scarlett, the last time we had you all together, we were talking about Black Widow and the lack of female superheroes leading films. Now there are more, and you’re making a Black Widow solo film…
DOWNEY: Kevin, can she talk about the film that’s been announced — or not even?
FEIGE: We haven’t announced anything. We’ve announced Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
JOHANSSON: [Draws deep breath] The PTSD is a real thing! I have so much anxiety!
Anyway, what part do you feel that Natasha Romanoff and Black Widow have played in changing the way people look at female heroes?
JOHANSSON: It’s a good question. I don’t know that I have total perspective on it, but the character has certainly grown. I think [Iron Man 2 director Jon] Favreau got a little offended [in the press conference] when I called her a “sexy secretary.” He was like, “She was undercover!” Okay, definitely, that was true, but through The Avengers and then certainly with The Winter Soldier, she had an opportunity to become a woman who realized, “Oh, I haven’t really made any active choices in my life.”
That’s different now.
JOHANSSON: She’s come into her own as a woman, saying, “Who am I? And what do I want? And what do I need out of my relationships and also out of my own self?” She’s someone who’s understanding her own self-worth. And that is such a powerful journey to see anybody take, but certainly to see a woman on screen represented in that way: a flawed superhero with a gray moral compass coming to terms with what’s happened to her. It’s definitely shown some sort of path for these other female superheroes to be able to walk down. I certainly don’t take credit for that, though.
But you played a part.
RENNER: Yeah, Scarlett, and you played it so well.
JOHANSSON: I was a small cog in a giant machine.
RUFFALO: There was a time, not so long ago, there was a belief that there couldn’t be a lead female superhero. Not by this guy, by the way. [Points at Feige] Never. But that was industry standard thinking.
Exactly. I think Black Widow helped change that a lot.
JOHANSSON: For sure. And I think [Avengers and Age of Ultron writer-director] Joss [Whedon] was a huge part of that too. He is such a huge believer in strong female characters and story lines. He really celebrated the characters’ flaws and wanted to bring them to light. I say flaws — not really, but what she perceives [flaws] to be. Just having [Whedon’s] support and him wanting to shine a light on that character really made a huge difference.
As Tony Stark says in the new movie, part of the journey is the end. We said goodbye to Stan Lee last year after a big, long life. Do you guys have any poignant memories of him or stories of meeting him from all his Marvel cameos?
RUFFALO: [To the group] I’m going to make this joke again.
EVANS: It’s okay, I’ll act like I’ve never heard it. Go!
RUFFALO: Playing Hulk is like my generation’s Hamlet: We’re all going to get a chance to do it. [Forced laughter] So I was really nervous about “Would I please him?” I didn’t meet him until the premiere of The Avengers. I walked up to him sheepishly, and he’s like, “Hey!” and he’s like, “You got it, kid!” I was like, “Aww, that’s amazing! Thank you, Mr. Lee.” Other than Downey and Kevin, I was so nervous over whether he would be happy with what I’d done.
How about you, Robert, on the first Iron Man? Is that when you met Stan Lee for the first time?
DOWNEY: Yeah, but my mind goes to Civil War, when Rhodey [Don Cheadle’s War Machine character] and Tony are having a moment at the end, and [Lee] is playing a FedEx guy. He’s like all of us. He’s a really big deal, but he’s just another schmuck and we have to get his coverage in the can, too. It’s like, “And roll sound…” and he’s like, [in a Bronx accent] “I have a delivery for Tony STANK!” [Laughs] It went completely downhill after that. I was like, I am exactly like him. It all goes downhill after Take One. You gotta capture it before it’s gone.
DOWNEY: You’re right, Take Two is my strong take. But you should stop after that. [Laughs, sits back looking self-satisfied] “Aaand…he guided it back to himself!”
JOHANSSON: I also had a similar moment as Mark when I saw him. I think it was after the Iron Man 2 premiere, and I was just so nervous. I didn’t know how the audience or anybody would react to this beloved character and my interpretation of her, especially because I wasn’t originally cast, so I also had a lot of feelings about that. [Emily Blunt had been offered the role first.] I made a career out of that! Number two! Strong number two! [Laughs] But yeah, I had a lot of feelings about it, and I saw [Lee] in the theater and he was very excited. I had a big sigh of relief after that.
FEIGE: The amazing thing is, just as you’ve all said, he said the right thing to the right person at all times. Every interaction was what one’s dream interaction with Stan Lee would be. He made that come true every single time. He left me a voicemail once in 2004, and I kept it for years until I think the phone disintegrated. It was: “Fearless Feige! Stan Lee here!” I listened to it over and over and over. That’s what he was always like. Always supportive.
EVANS: See, I’m going back to Fantastic Four. The first time I met him was 2004, when I was doing Johnny Storm, and the day that he was on set we actually happened to have a B-roll crew. So one of my first interactions with him is all caught on video. And I found the footage! At the time, I was very early in my career, and it was the biggest role I’d ever done. To meet someone like him was so, so overwhelming, and he was in true Stan Lee form — full of life and just so kind and gregarious. He just made me feel right at home.
RENNER: I aspire to be as strong-minded. The guy lived an amazing life. When you spent time with him, you just knew this guy was burning with the fire of life. He had a great sense of humor and a smart, smart mind. I hope and aspire to be anywhere half of what he was as a man. It’s really fantastic.
HEMSWORTH: He just had a childlike wonder and enthusiasm. You’d want to talk about something like what-it-all-means and so on, and he was just like, “No, I’m just telling stories and we’re having fun!” There’s a deeper meaning in the message, which he achieved so beautifully, but the childlike nature about him made me think, “Oh, good, we can all just stay big kids forever.” He’s the perfect example.
Some movies disappear from people’s minds after a week. These Marvel movies have endured for a decade. What do you want people to see in these films 30 years from now?
EVANS: I’m always amazed with the ability that Kevin has had to house this giant tapestry of all these woven plotlines. I just don’t think it’s ever going to happen again. I don’t think anyone has the ability to launch all these different rockets, and then years down the road have them all explode at once. It’s just the planning and the care and the subtlety to it.
RENNER: I wonder what the ripple effect of it will be in 30 years. “Look what Feige’s done!” How do you do a series of films? Twenty-two films! How do you do that?
FEIGE: Let’s just hope they’re still talking about it in 30 years. That would be nice.
RENNER: I absolutely can guarantee that. I mean, it’s impossible not to.
JOHANSSON: There are very few franchises like that, when you think about it. It’s like Star Wars…
HEMSWORTH: Which was just three films!
JOHANSSON: Indiana Jones, maybe. It’s such a small group. James Bond, for sure, Mission: Impossible. But the breadth of [Marvel] is so, so massive.
EVANS: But even Bond doesn’t have the continuity. Bond was about constant reinvention. Star Wars has a similar continuity, but that was a big start-and-stop thing. [Marvel’s films] all took place in a finite amount of time. [Laughs] And that finite amount of time is a decade! That’s a huge landscape that he managed to make into this unbelievable ribbon of continuity.
FEIGE: Well, we’re following in the footsteps of what Stan and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were doing when it was a small group of them in a bullpen in Manhattan, having fun.
What’s fun for me on the tail end is…I’m intimidated by actors. I’m intimidated by their ability to do what they do, because I get these cameras on me, and I’m shuffling, and I don’t like it. So they’re almost like a whole other species. When they’re in their costumes, I get intimidated because I’m standing in front of these superheroes that I’ve been dreaming about. It takes me about 10 years to get comfortable with people [Laughter].
EVANS: He finally doesn’t give a s–t anymore.
RUFFALO: [Incredulous] Are you really intimidated by me?
FEIGE: Yes! Particularly when you’re wearing the [motion-capture] suit.
RENNER: In the pajamas! [Laughter]
DOWNEY: [To Feige] I’ll just say this, and you’re not going to like this. I’m noticing over time, even just the last couple of days, if you look into Kevin’s eyes, he’s looking at us lovingly, like a proud parent.
FEIGE: What’d I used to look like?
DOWNEY: You used to look like you were concerned. Like it was DEFCON 5. [Laughter] I’m just saying, it’s really nice that this has been your labor of love, and you can look over it like a conscientious parent. Now I see fear in your eyes. [Laughs] But before that, there was love in your heart and in your eyes for all of this — and for all of us.
FEIGE: I don’t have any regrets creatively. I do regret that we haven’t had more time around tables like this together. I’ll nerd out for a moment. In the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard sits down with his crew at their weekly poker game — and he didn’t attend the poker games.
FEIGE: Why am I talking about Star Trek? [Laughter] The crew is like, “Oh, he’s sitting down,” and they go, “Oh, Captain, is everything okay?” and he goes “Yeah, I’m doing something I should have done a long time ago.” But it wouldn’t be poker with this team. It would be Boggle. And I would be terrible!
Is that the Avengers game? Boggle?
FEIGE: Boggle! It’s something I should have done a long time ago.
For more on Avengers: Endgame, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday. You can buy all six covers, or purchase your individual favorites: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hulk, and Ronin. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.