Warning: major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame follow.
When you spend more than a decade in the company of a group of iconic characters, figuring out what pop culture might look like without them feels practically impossible. From 2008's Iron Man to this month's Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s Avengers and the other geek-approved men, women, and aliens of the MCU have inhabited a mind-boggling 22 movies.
They have dominated cinema screens for so long that the idea of simply retiring them seems illogical considering how lucrative they are. Heading into Endgame, Marvel movies have racked up $18.6 billion at the box office — and that’s before we consider what the commercial tie-ins and merch are worth. But as the "Infinity Saga" draws to a close with Endgame and MCU phase three officially ends with this summer's Spider-Man: Far From Home, retirement is a fate many of these characters face — or worse.
Second warning: seriously, these are major Avengers: Endgame spoilers.
We’ve seen the deaths of peripheral characters before, such as Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver, who came and went in the span of Avengers: Age of Ultron (unless you count the mid-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but Endgame is the first time the kill count has reached the top, previously untouchable tier of heroes.
Endgame takes place five years after Thanos' finger snap kills half of all life in the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. In the new movie's second act, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye find themselves on the planet Vormir to recover the Soul Stone, having traveled back in time with a group of finger snap-surviving heroes to recover the Infinity Stones before Thanos can track them down.
As Thanos and Gamora did in Infinity War, Black Widow and Hawkeye are confronted by the Soul Stone’s keeper, Red Skull, and told they must sacrifice someone they love to claim the stone. Whereas Thanos threw his daughter from a cliff to get the stone, Black Widow and Hawkeye argue to be the one martyred for the cause. After a struggle, both are suspended from the cliff: Hawkeye by a line, Black Widow by her friend's grasp. She eventually frees herself and plummets to her death. In the film's denouement, Hawkeye also appears to back out of the story peacefully, suggesting his road in the MCU has come to an end.
But that doesn’t mean Black Widow won’t return. A solo film is in the works for the MCU's fourth phase, with Johansson — still with two films to go on her nine-movie Marvel contract — attached to play the lead. At this point, it looks set to be an origin story, chronicling how KGB spy Natalia Alianovna Romanova became S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff. Of the film, in 2018 Johansson told Entertainment Tonight, “I think there is definitely an opportunity to explore the Widow as a woman who has come into her own and is making independent and active choices for herself, probably for once in her life.”
We can assume the reportedly out-of-contract Robert Downey Jr. and his Iron Man are gone for good, however. Another martyr, Tony Stark dies after Endgame's epic final battle, where he takes the Infinity Stones from Thanos and uses them to turn the villain and his army into dust.
Chris Evans is another MCU actor now out of contract, although his Captain America — contrary to rumors over the last year — survives Endgame, albeit with an unexpected twist. After Thanos is vanquished, Cap jumps back in time to replace the Infinity Stones but doesn't return as expected. In a moving scene, an elderly Steve Rogers appears on a bench near the time machine after it becomes apparent to Hulk and Bucky Barnes that he isn't returning. Old Cap reveals his choice to stay in the past and live a normal life with Peggy Carter before symbolically passing on his shield to Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson/Falcon ahead of phase four.
The loss of Evans, Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor — the Australian actor is also out of contract — is no surprise. All three actors have been playing their characters since the early MCU days and are among the series’ most lucrative stars. It's expected that a new generation will step forward, meaning the next time we see these characters — an inevitability given their financial value to Marvel and Disney — there will be new actors filling their boots.
The development of Hulk’s story in Endgame, transforming from science genius-meets-angry green dude into a brilliant hybrid of the two, means Mark Ruffalo might be up for sticking around if his now-expired contract is renegotiated. It seems unlikely, but given Ruffalo hasn’t had a standalone film (Ed Norton played Bruce Banner in 2008's The Incredible Hulk), it's definitely an option worth exploring.
But the contract issue doesn’t always apply. Samuel L. Jackson has been a fan favorite for years as Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain Marvel was supposed to be the last film of his nine-movie deal, but not only does he appear in Endgame, he’s now set to become Peter Parker’s new mentor in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Other loose ends are yet to be tied up before new characters are introduced. We have the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie to come, due sometime in 2020. All of the Guardians returned and survived Endgame, including Zoe Saldana's Gamora. Doctor Strange, one of the lesser-loved MCU movies, also appears set for a sequel with star Benedict Cumberbatch, while the popularity of Black Panther and Captain Marvel meant follow-ups for Chadwick Boseman and Brie Larson were a shoo-in.
While Endgame will have left fans shellshocked at the loss of Iron Man and Black Widow, the Marvel machine shows no sign of slowing down. Galvanized by the wild response to Black Panther, Marvel is branching into more inclusive, diverse aspects of its canon, including a Shang-Chi film and potentially a Ms. Marvel movie based on a young Muslim girl aspiring to follow in Captain Marvel’s footsteps.
Ready or not, there’s no time to rest: this might have been Marvel's Endgame, but really it was the start of something new.