There are huge spoilers ahead, obviously! While Avengers: Endgame was still a long time away from hitting theaters, Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans were very vocal about it being their last movie. Their contracts were up and Tony Stark and Steve Rogers would be completing their character arcs as Marvel completed the 22-part Infinity Saga.
Both heroes certainly went out in style. Tony Stark used the Infinity Stones to snap Thanos and his armies out of existence, dying in the process, and Steve Rogers remained in the past to marry Peggy after traveling back to return the Stones. Both endings have been met with a mixed reaction from fans, but both were certainly fitting for their respective characters. Whose was the best, though?
Tony Stark has always been looking forward into the future. He’s never been able to rest in the present, because he was always worried about humanity’s future. Clint Barton mockingly called him “the futurist” in Captain America: Civil War in reference to Robert Downey, Jr.’s real-life studio album of the same name, but that’s what he is: a futurist.
As far back as Iron Man 2, his goal has been “to leave behind a brighter future.” It’s fair to say that, when he gave his life to ensure the safety of future generations and the disappearance of the only villain that Earth’s mightiest heroes were unable to defeat, he did leave behind a brighter future.
Steve Rogers’ whole character arc in the MCU has revolved around being a man out of his time. He struggled to adjust to the modern day in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he looked on in sadness at Hawkeye’s family when he realized he could never have the same thing in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and he had resolved to spend his life fighting bad guys by Avengers: Infinity War.
When Avengers: Endgame introduced the notion of time travel into the MCU, it only made sense for the man out of his time to use it to return to his time. That was the only satisfying way to end the arc of a guy who really has no arc.
There’s a lot of “science” in the MCU that has no scientific grounding whatsoever. Quantum phasing, nanotechnology, proportional shrinking, Vibranium – none of this stuff is real. Still, audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief as long as the established rules remain consistent.
As the Hulk explained over and over again, you can’t go back in time and alter the past, because time travel makes the past become your future and the present become your past. It creates a whole new timeline. Yet, that’s what Captain America did. Apart from being able to nab all six Infinity Stones at a moment’s notice, Iron Man’s ending was a lot more consistent with Endgame’s rules than Cap’s.
The music in Captain America’s final scene is more memorable than the music in Iron Man’s. When Iron Man snapped his fingers and died, the soundtrack was the same kind of orchestral score by Alan Silvestri that we’d been hearing throughout the whole movie.
It was a fantastic, sweeping score, but it wasn’t particularly distinctive (apart from the “Portals” track – that’s an Oscar-worthy composition). When Cap finally got that dance with Peggy, the song they’re dancing to pairs perfectly with the scene thematically, albeit with a tragic irony: “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” by Harry James and his orchestra.
The end of Iron Man’s character arc had to be his death. Everything came full circle, and not just because he said, “I am Iron Man.” Ever since he became a superhero, Tony Stark has been unable to give it up. Once he became Iron Man, he could never not be Iron Man, and the MCU – particularly Iron Man’s solo trilogy – hammered this point home.
Pepper summed up the end of Tony’s character arc perfectly when she told him, “you can rest now.” If he’d been alive at the end of Endgame, fans wouldn’t have had to cry quite so much, but it would’ve ultimately felt disingenuous to the character.
“Everybody wants a happy ending, right? But it doesn’t always roll that way.” Iron Man’s ending was the right ending for his character, but it was still really upsetting. Captain America’s ending was also perfect for his character, but it was a happier one.
We got the sad part of Cap’s happy ending – catching up with an elderly Steve Rogers who had grown old with his wife and then been widowed – but it was still happier than Tony’s. Fans cried at both endings, but they were tears of joy for Cap’s.
Iron Man’s biggest fear and his eventual character arc ending were both telegraphed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. First, he saw a vision in which an alien threat that he couldn’t stop arrived and killed all of his friends, leaving him alive with the regret that he wasn’t able to save them.
This was cemented as Tony’s worst fear later when he spoke to Nick Fury in the Barton family’s barn. He said that watching his friends die wasn’t the worst part of the vision and Fury said, “the worst part is that you didn’t.” In the final battle of Endgame, Thanos very nearly succeeded in killing everybody, but he didn’t, because Tony sacrificed himself.
Iron Man’s ending was at the peak of the final battle. It was loud and operatic and bombastic. Cap’s ending managed to be just as moving with two people standing in a room, slowly dancing to an old record. Hayley Atwell has said since Endgame’s release that she thought the ending was perfect, because it was so subtle.
To end an action-packed three-hour comic book epic with such a quiet moment was a bold move by the Russo brothers, but it worked, because it put the focus on Steve and Peggy’s emotional journey, and it was earned from years of storytelling.
While Steve’s dance with Peggy was a beautiful moment, it was nowhere near as cinematic as the moment in which Thanos goes to snap his fingers and wipe out all of life in the universe and realizes he doesn’t have the Infinity Stones, only to turn and see Tony Stark with the Stones in his own Gauntlet. “I...am...Iron Man.”
Robert Downey, Jr.’s delivery of this line, paired with the sight of Tony kneeling on the battleground, ready to fulfill his destiny, is unforgettable. It’s been months since the movie came out and this moment is still stuck in fans’ heads.
Since Iron Man and Captain America were definitely done appearing in the MCU after Avengers: Endgame, fans were expecting at least one of them to die. Due to Chris Evans’ cryptic social media post on his final day of shooting, it seemed slightly more likely that it’d be him, but there were basically 50/50 odds on who it would be.
Apart from a couple of MCU Nostradamuses who put two and two together and predicted that Steve would use time travel to reunite with Peggy at the end of Endgame, that ending was the more unexpected of the two (even if it was unexpected because earlier in the movie, we were told it was impossible).