Okay, we’re going to say it again…
Tony Stark dies in Avengers: Endgame.
While we already made that prediction and offered one theory on how Tony will return to help defeat Thanos, we’re doubling down on our read that he in fact passes away on that marooned spaceship as well as offering a new theory on how he returns - a theory based on the most revealing 13 seconds of the Endgame trailer and a bit of Marvel Comics history.
Now we’re not going to repeat all the reasons why we believe Tony has to die on that boat, which you can read here (along with the alternative return theory). Most of that has to with Marvel Studios’ narrative house style and we’ve only become more convinced as the weeks pass he can’t simply be rescued with hours left to live. The idea is simply too trite for a film with the necessary gravitas of Endgame.
So we’re now re-imagining that scene and that the end of Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘journey’ will be the lone opening scenes of the film, concluding with his death, and followed by an ominous opening title card while moviegoers catch their breath from the shock, and then a jump in time to several months if not years later where the story picks up.
Now Marvel Studios of course is not above manipulating audiences in trailers ([cough], the Hulk in Wakanda, [cough]) to throw people like us off the scent of important plot developments, but assuming there is no digital manipulation this time around, rewatch the first 13 seconds of the trailer and tell us what you see…
What we saw and then circled back to after a few (dozen) views is Tony’s helmet isn’t just recording him, it’s scanning him - him in particular and not anything surrounding him - in blue laser light.
If that feels somehow familiar, here’s an image from 1994’s Disclosure...
And 24 years later in 2018’s Ready Player One...
We could offer many more examples, but being scanned by blue light has for decades been near-universal cinematic language for being scanned to be later rendered in virtual reality.
And that is certainly a possibility we’ve considered - that Tony returns later in Endgame as a virtual reality version of himself, until such a time as Thanos’ snap is prevented and anyone and everyone is free game to return to the living.
But if you’re a real MCU connoisseur, then you also know that Endgame won’t be the first appearance of blue laser light in a Marvel film.
Consider this scene…
That’s right, Tony’s $611 million B.A.R.F. (Binarily-Augmented Retro-Framing) invention from Captain America: Civil War - already the subject of rumors and theories surrounding Endgame - renders its virtual reality in blue laser light, which raises the possibilities of what happens to Tony up several notches.
As a refresher course, B.A.R.F. ‘hijacks’ a person’s hippocampus and projects its user’s traumatic memories (although we assume it can access any memory) in a VR environment that can be manipulated by the subject, including interacting with people in ways that did not originally occur, as Tony does with his mother in the scene from Civil War.
As we say, there are already multiple theories out there has to how B.A.R.F. may factor in Ant-Man and Tony Stark seemingly revisiting the past like The Avengers’ Battle of New York (as captured by paparazzi on-set photos) but what has more intrigued us here at Newsarama is less in what the device can project, but more of what it can access, read and record.
So here’s a shot at what the Endgame trailer is telling us:
Tony isn’t just trying to say a final goodbye to Pepper in a video (remember, he refers to it as a “recording” and not a "message" in the trailer), he’s scanning himself and essentially recording his emotions and memories, which he’s maybe done for whatever weeks, months or years he’s been adrift on the ship. Understand this is from a genius who has already dabbled in the cutting edge of artificial intelligence by creating not one or two but several A.I.s (J.A.R.V.I.S., F.R.I.D.A.Y. and Ultron) who reflected his own personality traits - and in Ultron’s case became sentient.
In other, shorter words, Tony has already forged the tools that combined may create a sentient A.I. version of himself that could incorporate his own recorded memories and emotions - i.e. his personality.
This has precedent in Marvel comic books.
In Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's "Stark: Diassembled" arc of Invincible Iron Man, a brain dead Tony Stark is revived when his own memories and brain patterns are re-downloaded into his body from a computerized back-up.
And more recently, while Tony was comatose following the events of Civil War II, an A.I. version of his personality served as Riri Williams’ mentor in her role as Ironheart, and even contributed to the Avengers’ fight against Secret Empire’s Hydra-Cap.
So while some version of a VR/A.I. Tony could have numerous applications in Endgame - as a virtual companion to Scott as Ant-Man travels time vortexes to collect Infinity Stones, or as a guide to the Avengers who use B.A.R.F. to learn something about the past to help then defeat Thanos - we’re going to take it a step further and take an even deeper dive into Marvel Comics history.
In MCU lore, the Vision’s personality is created by some combination of J.A.R.V.I.S’s artificial intelligence and the Mind Stone, resulting in a wholly unique entity, which would seemingly be ‘dead’ now that Thanos ripped away the Stone. And there is already voluminous speculation that the Vision could return in Endgame as the emotionless, colorless version of himself from John Byrne’s Avengers West Coast run. But what if - paying homage to the Vision’s comic book origin - Tony’s helmet is eventually recovered and returned to Earth years later (by Nebula? Rocket? Kraglin? Captain Marvel?) and because the Vision’s body was last located in Wakanda, Shuri (yes, we know she’s missing) fixes another white boy and downloads Tony’s hippocampus recordings to the Vision’s A.I. brain?
This again has roots in comic book continuity, as Ultron originally implanted the then-deceased Simon Williams' (a.k.a. Wonder Man's) "brain patterns" in the Vision.
So in this case, Tony's brain essentially takes over the Vision's body.
And because the Vision can manipulate his appearance at will, including to look human, Tony-Vision renders his body to look like Tony. Hell, we even have an explanation for Tony’s seemingly blond-ish looks from the paparazzi photos - that’s his snarky homage to Tom Hanks in Cast Away when Hanks returns years later from his island isolation with sun-bleached hair. In the Endgame trailer, his Iron Man helmet even looks a little like Wilson the volleyball.
So there you have it - Tony is effectively back as back can be to aid in the ultimate (likely time travel) plan against Thanos, but now with the abilities of the Vision. And because Wanda has been snapped, there’d be no icky romantic complications to gloss over. Tony would return as an sentient/A.I./virtual/android version of himself who could potentially wield an Infinity Gauntlet where a human could not (remember, the Vision could lift Mjolnir) until the events preceding Thanos’ victories on Titan and Wakanda are reversed and human real Tony returns.
Doctor Strange, said what? There is just one of 14 million possible futures in which Thanos is defeated. Well, Tony living long enough for his brain to be scanned into his helmet to eventually be downloaded into Vision’s body to create a hero who can maybe wield a time-collected Infinity Gauntlet to take on Thanos certainly qualifies as a longshot.
But the bet might be worth a couple of bucks.