[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”]
The heart-rending death of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man was clearly a defining moment in “Avengers: Endgame,” completing his arc with self-sacrifice, dignity, and a touch of that signature snark. And it fell to Weta Digital to pull off the CG facial burns to make it believable but not grotesque.
“It was about working to find a balance between showing that he is mortally wounded but also not distracting from his performance or denying his dignity,” said Matt Aitken, the VFX supervisor. “It couldn’t be so gory and over the top that it became a horror show. Until you go too far, you don’t know if you’ve gone far enough.”
With Marvel having enough faith in Weta to handle the concept work on its own, the iterative process was still delicately nuanced. Internally, Weta called it “Charred Tony,” as they experimented with variations on a burned look. At its most severe, Stark’s hair was singed off on his temple, with a large burn groove on his neck that branched out across his cheek. Fortunately, Weta benefited from the fact that there wasn’t a lot of extreme facial animation going on in the scene.
The notes Weta got back from directors Joe and Anthony Russo and Marvel ranged from: “Add more blood coming out of his eyes and mouth” to “Don’t have so much blood on his eyeball.” “Once we had the look, we started off working in CG with a double for Tony,” Aitken said. “We match-animated the head and then rendered the digi-double with the wounds, and then, in a 2D comp way, we tracked the wound onto the deformations on his face to lock it in.”
Weta also worked on the action beats for the final face-off with the ultra-villainous Thanos (Josh Brolin). Teaming alongside Cap (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man used bleeding edge tech in his suit to generate a new weapon that Weta termed the Lightning Refocuser. “So that’s something Thor can direct his lightning at and then the suit can convert that into something that can become the energy that Tony blasts Thanos with.”
The look of the energy force from the Refocuser was a riff on the traditional Thor lightning, which became more colorful and flamboyant. “Our model department enjoyed designing that whole new weapon [on the back of his suit] from scratch and that become a new toy that ties in with the merchandising,” Aitken added.
Finally, Weta was instrumental in helping with the climax of the final battle: Tony grabs the Infinity Stones, snaps his fingers, and proclaims, “I am Iron Man” (taking us full circle from the same declaration at the end of “Iron Man”). Tony then turns Thanos and his army into dust. It was not only the last scene that the Russos shot but also the last VFX shot delivered by Weta.
As with the “Charred Tony” look, it was delicate balancing act. “It had to be severe enough that we knew he was being mortally wounded by it, but not so distracting that it broke the audience’s connection to him at that very key character moment in the film,” Aitken said. “He’s ultimately choosing to sacrifice himself. That’s the one in 14 million, 605 [universes] that Doctor Strange [Benedict Cumberbatch] talked about.”
At the last moment, though, Weta got an update to the VFX plate with a different take of Downey delivering his immortal line. “He’s so good at riffing on a line with different emphases,” Aitken said. “After they reviewed other versions, they gave us a different take that they must’ve liked better. It was a slightly different nuance to the performance. That’s the one that feels right now.”