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Why the heroes didn’t take a knee in ‘Avengers: Endgame’ — the co-director explains

Joseph Russo agrees the deleted scene was ‘powerful’ but says he left it out for a reason.

Grieving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is the first to take a knee in a deleted scene from “Avengers: Endgame.”
Marvel Studios

WARNING: The following article begins with major spoilers about the final scenes in “Avengers: Endgame.”

If your heart was touched by that recently released “Avengers Take a Knee” deleted scene from “Endgame,” I’m with you.

It’s a devastatingly effective, heartbreaking sequence, with the Avengers taking a knee one by one on the charred battlefield in honor of their fallen comrade Tony Stark.

If you’re wondering why in the world the filmmakers decided against including that scene in the theatrical release of “Avengers: Endgame,” co-director Joseph Russo hears you — but while Russo has no issue with fans seeing the deleted scene as part of the bonus features in the home video release, he has zero regrets about keeping it out of the theatrical cut of the recently crowned highest-grossing film of all time.

“When you take things out of context … sure, you can look at that scene and go, ‘Wow, it’s very emotional, why would they cut it, that makes no sense,’ ” Russo told me over a drink at the Chicago Athletic Association on Monday evening.

“Avengers: Endgame” co-director Joseph Russo discusses the film during a Chicago visit Monday.
Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

“But when you put it in the film and you watch it back-to-back with the scene where everyone is on the shore, which is a very protracted shot and consumes a lot of screen time—[those scenes] were eating each other.

“The kneeling was our idea. It was something we were very passionate about. And then once we watched the film a few times with some test audiences and felt the repetition. …You’re robbing Peter to pay Paul at a certain point.

“Because the REAL moment was that moment on the shore, and you’ve got basically every major character in the Marvel Universe. That felt like a historic moment. And the kneeling, as powerful as it is, was stealing from that moment.”

Amen.

Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo have directed four blockbusters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all of them released in the last five years: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014); “Captain America: Civil War” (2016); “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018); and “Avengers Endgame” (2019), which grossed some $2.795 billion worldwide to become the highest-grossing film ever.

Joseph Russo was in Chicago in advance of a Tuesday appearance at a North Side Best Buy — one of nine stops on a fan appreciation tour that kicked off in July at Comic-Con in San Diego. Tuesday is also the release date of the 4K/UltraHD+Blu-Ray+Digital (say that three times fast!) edition of “Avengers: Endgame.”

Whether our conversation touched on the Russo brothers’ brilliant directing work on the groundbreaking TV series “Arrested Development” and “Community” (they co-helmed the pilots for each and separately directed subsequent episodes) or their approach to the four MCU films, one theme surfaced again and again:

A disruptive narrative.

“I think making disruptive choices is very effective,” said Russo. “All of my favorite TV shows and I think a lot of peoples’ favorite shows, are disruptive.

“What we did in the Marvel Universe … in ‘Winter Soldier,’ the good guy is the bad guy. In ‘Civil War,’ the good guys fight each other. The end of ‘Infinity War,’ we kill half your favorite characters. In ‘Endgame,’ we kill off your favorite character.

“These are all choices that create a conversation. … Audiences want to talk about it after they leave the theater.”

With so many character arcs and storylines in the Marvel Universe evolving over a long-form, multiple-movie format, Russo said it’s only natural fans will develop increasingly deep attachments — and strong opinions about how things should play out.

“There is a ratio between time commitment and emotional fulfillment,” he said. “If you kill someone eight episodes into a 10-episode series, it’s going to have more of an impact than if you kill someone an hour into a two-hour movie. That’s just undeniable. … What Marvel has done is imprint that [into the MCU films].”

But with great creative power comes great creative accountability, at least in the mindset of certain rabid MCU fans who hunt for Easter Eggs with the crazed enthusiasm of sugared-up kids, cheer or boo various casting decisions with a passion rivaling face-painted football fans, consider it their sacred duty to expose even the tiniest timeline inconsistency — and throw online tantrums over plot developments not in keeping with their hopes and expectations.

(Full disclosure: While I believe in withholding verdicts on casting decisions until I’ve actually seen a movie, I’m a rabid collector of Easter Eggs and I’ve occasionally saddled up my High Horse to question a timeline here and there.)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) makes a momentous decision on the battlefield in “Avengers: Endgame.”
Marvel Studios

Did Russo expect to receive an earful from Chicago fans voicing their opinions about the “Take a Knee” scene, or the Sloppy Drunk Thor narrative, or the controversial “Endgame” timeline involving Captain America?

Russo told me in his experience, that type of feedback occurs only on the Internet.

“That never happens when I’m in public,” he said. “People are always very respectful and very grateful and very courteous and gracious.”

Of course, that’s not always the case on the Internet, as Russo is keenly aware.

“We live in a very interesting time,” he said. “With the advent of social media — and I’m going to call it an advent because we’re still in the baby stages of it — there’s an intense ownership on the part of a fan base over a narrative they didn’t create. Look at the violent reaction to the end of ‘Game of Thrones.’

“But I tend to think it’s a real minority that is very loud on the Internet. They’re a minority because it takes energy to go bitch about something on the Internet. And it takes a healthy dose of narcissism. That’s a very specific category of people that will expend that kind of energy.

“The media is in a cycle of taking information from the Internet and voices from the Internet and turning that into a story. … It gets a lot of clicks, and people like reading incendiary things. [But] how is a 16-year-old kid from St. Louis suddenly an expert on anything, other than the fact he can write a clever tweet?”

As we talk about the Russo brothers re-teaming with “Spider-Man” star Tom Holland for their next film, “Cherry,” based on the memoir of an Army medic with PTSD, the spacious bar/workplace fills up with young professionals who zone in on their laptops, and groups of friends clustering in groups of three or four, ordering drinks.

If you asked any of them to pick out the guy in the room who has co-directed four staggeringly successful, critically acclaimed “Avengers” movies, including the biggest film of all time, there would be no easy ‘tell,’ no clear signs of a filmmaker who has developed an insufferable, attention-magnet persona. (Not saying I’ve witnessed one or two directors affecting rock-star personas after hitting it big. Not saying I haven’t.)

In fact, Russo himself sounds like he’s still processing it.

“It’s crazy to think about. I don’t know that we’ve had any time yet to have perspective on it. We grew up in a very close family, a big, close, Italian family, a very loving family. And I’ve got four kids, and my brother has two kids. Family is primary to us, the most important thing …

“[The box-office record] certainly holds a reverential place for us. By no means am I intending to diminish it. But it’s not a primary focus for us, whether we hold records or don’t hold records.”