Why Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man Had to Have the Last Word Against Thanos

When people talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, one aspect that doesn’t get talked about much is the editing, and that’s understandable and baffling at the same time.

It’s understandable because when people think of Marvel movies, they tend to think of the actors or of visual effects first. When it comes to the editing, some people assume it’s just a lot of fast cutting or, in the case of Avengers: Endgame, not cutting enough so that a superhero movie runs three hours. 

It’s not that simple. More than any other technical craft, editing is what makes movies into movies, and even in the MCU, editing can be more subtle than you might think. It played a pivotal role in arguably the most dramatic moment in all of the MCU — Tony Stark’s death

Robert Downey Jr. had a say in the editing

Robert Downey Jr. at D23 Expo
Robert Downey Jr. | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Editing isn’t simply a matter of choosing what to put in or take out of a movie. For many filmmakers, the process includes creating a lot of options on the set that the editors can choose from, and that’s largely how Robert Downey Jr. works. He’s known for not sticking to the script and trying to find different ways to express an idea. 

“The way Robert works is, he sometimes likes to explore,” Endgame editor Jeff Ford said to Collider. “He likes to try different things. And because he’s an intuitive actor, he likes to do that on camera in case he hits something that is special. Very often he does.”

Ford didn’t get specific about the different ways Downey would play a scene, but he said on one end of the scale, he made a lot of jokes, as one might expect Tony Stark to do. But on the other end of the scale, Downey went for silence, something very un-Stark like.

Ultimately, Ford and directors Joe and Anthony Russo decided there had to be some kind of give and take between Tony and “I am inevitable/I am Iron Man” did the trick.

It’s not just Downey driving the editing

It’s not just Downey who gave the editors an interesting challenge, it was an actor we never saw in the flesh: Josh Brolin, who played Thanos. Brolin performed with the other actors on set, giving the other actors something to respond to while wearing motion-capture gear.

So even though Thanos in his final form was a digital character, Ford and his team edited Josh Brolin’s performance just like they would Scarlett Johansson’s, whose work involves not as much digital trickery. 

Ford said to Pro Video Coalition

“In the case of Infinity War, we had the gift of Josh Brolin who gave truly one of the great performances I’ve had the privilege of cutting in a Marvel movie. He is absolutely breathtaking in his performance. It is the thing that people are going to take away from Infinity War as one of their favorite things …. so my job — once I got to the cutting room — was, even though he was going to be replaced with a digital copy, or a digital extension of what he did, we wanted to carry his performance through as nuanced as possible all the way to the end.”

Editing can change a lot in Marvel movies 

We brought up Johansson’s Black Widow as an example of a character who doesn’t involve as much CGI as some of the other characters. Her heroics involve mostly practical work, with Johansson and a team of stunt doubles, and the editors labor to make sure her fight scenes have more than just a literal kick. 

However, just as Tony Stark’s death changed in the editing, so did Natasha’s. Editor Matthew Schmidt told Business Insider: “It was reshot to make it more intimate between Clint and Natasha, which fully worked in the end version of the movie. We just came up with a better idea, something that serviced Natasha a little bit more.”

Surprisingly, since the MCU debuted in 2008, not one Marvel movie has even been up for an editing Oscar. The Dark Knight was nominated, and so was The Force Awakens. There is often a summer blockbuster mixed in with the films also nominated for Best Picture.

But no Marvel movie has ever made the cut – not even Black Panther, which got a Best Picture nomination. We’ll see if that changes with Endgame next year.