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With the re-release of Avengers: Endgame upon us, let’s take a look at why the film is so effective and how one line of dialogue can completely change the entire MCU in one fell swoop…
SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: ENDGAME FOLLOW
I love you 3000. It’s simple, it’s cute, and it’s easily memorable.
It’s also the most important line of the MCU.
Sure, a delightful little girl says it to her dad in the beginning of the film, and it’s brought back at the end of the film. There’s nothing quite like a good bookend. Add in the great story that it actually originates from the interminably charismatic Robert Downey Jr. in real life — he used to say it to his daughter and suggested it when the original dialogue (“I love you tons”) wasn’t working. That’s a great mix for the line to find a way of embedding itself in our popular lexicon.
But there is a larger tapestry in the making as to WHY it is the most important line in the MCU.
“I love you 3000” is the emotional fulcrum upon which the conclusion of a 22 film arc rests. In other words – it’s the most emotional line, that provides the inciting incident for the plot to move forward, in the most important part of the Marvel story – the end – which also happens to be the second highest grossing film of all time (very soon to be highest). Without this line, Tony does not move forward with essentially creating a time machine, and we have no emotional connection to what happens if he fails.
It’s a simple line, meant to generate a simple writing tool: stakes.
Stakes are important to a film because it gives us an emotional response. A perfect example of stakes is, “if I cut this specific cord, the bomb won’t blow up and I’ll save a bunch of people.” Cut the cord, stop the bomb, save lives. Stakes. What am I risking, and what happens if I fail? Easy, right?
Every film, every scene, is about stakes. If I do X, the result is Y.
Over the years, stakes have been used in many different ways. Will Smith has to stop the aliens in Independence Day before they blow up the planet. If he shoots the nuclear missile into the mother ship (spoiler alert) and it explodes, humanity lives. If he fails, humanity dies. Those are HUGE stakes.
But there’s one tricky little hiccup when it comes to stakes – the viewer has to care about them.
So we may watch the White House blow up in Independence Day, and we’ll probably remember it because it’s something that we’d never seen before, and we have an inherent emotional connection to that building in the U.S.. But that connection is fleeting. A building blew up. A bunch of people we don’t know died. It’s sad, it’s shocking, but we have no connection to anyone in the area. So, we move on. We care, but only for that moment.
Avengers: Infinity War also used similar massive stakes – if Thanos snaps his fingers then half the universe disappears. But notice what happens in Infinity War – the real stakes are half The Avengers disappear, but also, and most importantly, Thanos has to sacrifice the only person he ever loved: Gamora. That’s the emotional connection we as viewers have to Infinity War.
In Avengers: Endgame half the world is gone, half the Avengers are gone and there’s an obvious answer – we have to find a way to bring them all back. It’s the most emotionally accessible aspect of the film – bringing them all back is good. It’s the right thing to do. But when there is only a single point of view, or options that are so heavily weighed on one side of the spectrum (either good or bad) there is no conflict. There are no stakes.
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Sure, there’s a big fight with Thanos, and there is a big battle at the end of the film to save the world. That’s conflict, but it’s almost too big for all of us to comprehend on a personal level. It’s The Avengers version of The White House blowing up.
That’s why we need a smaller, more personal, set of stakes.
Enter Tony Stark’s daughter, Morgan Stark. AKA: personal stakes.
This little girl, whom we have known for about a sum total of about 45 seconds at the beginning of the film, provides the entire emotional stakes for the main character, and for us viewers.
Remember: what am I risking, and what happens if I fail?
Tony is risking his daughter. If Tony fails, his daughter could potentially die. If he succeeds, his daughter also has the potential to be erased from existence. So he sets up specific rules to make sure his daughter has the best chance to stay alive.
True, we should care about Morgan because Tony does – but that’s not enough in this kind of film. We need more. The more comes from one line that endears us to this girl above all other lines or actions. “I love you 3000.” It’s adorable. It’s cute. And it’s unique to her. How can we not fall in love with her? We don’t want anything to happen to her anymore than Tony does now.
In a film filled with over 20 protagonists, the stakes and this line allow us to root our emotional connection in a single relationship. Tony and Morgan. Like we discussed in my previous post about character relationships, any good drama is about change and how RELATIONSHIPS affect, and are effected by, that change.
It’s this line that informs Tony’s relationship to his daughter. It moves Tony forward. It moves the story forward. It gives us the reason to effectively alter time, save humanity, save the Avengers, defeat Thanos, and make everything right again. There is also an emotional catharsis for us when Tony says it to his daughter at the end of the film too. It’s affecting for him, and we believe him when he says it. He just gave everything within his power and ability to protect his little girl. So the emotional math adds up. There’s nothing like a good bookend, right?
Without this line, I’m not too sure Tony makes the choice that he does to “solve” time travel, and if he doesn’t join the fight, then the world never changes. If all that is true, we, therefore, don’t have Avengers: Endgame.
Is it possible that Endgame still gets written in a different way? Absolutely. But without Morgan Stark and her now famous line, I don’t think we care as much, and I don’t think the film is as emotionally affecting to the viewers and it doesn’t become the second highest grossing film of all time. The end simply wouldn’t matter as much as it does now, and if the end doesn’t matter, then what’s the point of the whole arc of 22 films we just watched?
So when Tony does say, “I am Iron Man” we know what he loves most, what he has risked, and what he is giving up. It informs the stakes, but it also informs the MCU’s most important character, the guy who began it all – Tony Stark/ Iron Man. A man, when we first met him, who had no time for anyone else, or anything else, eventually sacrificed his life for someone else. That is a complete arc.
That’s why “I love you 3000” is the most important line in the history of MCU (as of now). It gave us stakes, and an emotional thru-line to massive film that served as a conclusion to one of the most important, and risky, film experiments Hollywood has ever produced. Without the emotion, without the stakes, the conclusion simply wouldn’t matter. It justifies the existence of Tony Stark, Iron Man, and the MCU itself.