'Avengers: Endgame' Easter eggs explained, from 'Back to the Future' to Stan Lee's final cameo (spoilers!)

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The cast of Avengers: Endgame prepare for the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

This post contains major spoilers for everything in Avengers: Endgame. Consider yourself warned.

Yes, the rumors are true: Avengers: Endgame is the only Marvel Studios movie not to feature any mid or post-credits scenes containing Easter eggs or in-jokes that point to the future adventures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But before you complain, hear us out: The entire three-hour epic is basically one long Easter egg. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo are well-aware that they’re wrapping up a 21-movie series, and Endgame refers back to every single one of the movies that came before, while also pointing the way forward for where the MCU may go next. Confused? Don’t be. The Yahoo Entertainment crew is here to explain it all for you.by Ethan Alter, Marcus Errico, Adam Lance Garcia and Gwynne Watkins

Five by five

Trying to track the timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe almost always ends in headaches. (Although we thought we had a pretty good grasp on it.) Endgame makes the chronology both simpler, and more complicated, by moving the action forward five years. The movie begins in the immediate aftermath of Infinity War, with the surviving Avengers following Captain Marvel’s lead and tracking Thanos down to his Shrek-like retirement on a garden planet. Having destroyed the Infinity Stones, the conquerer proves an easy target, almost immediately overcome by the team and then killed by Thor, who doesn’t miss his shot this time around.

After that shocking opening, Endgame pulls its “five years later” time jump. The exact year is murky at first, but the Russo brothers clarify the future by, funnily enough, sending the characters back in time via the Quantum Realm to 2012, 2013 and 2014, respectively. During the 2014 portion, Thanos himself discovers the time travel shenanigans when “his” Nebula has her mind warped by the arrival of the “future” Nebula. At that point, he determines that his other Nebula comes from nine years in the future, which places the present day Endgame action in 2023.

That means that aside from any prequel films (like the upcoming Black Widow solo adventure) every Marvel movie going forward will take place several years into the future. Endgame also establishes that any character who wasn’t “dusted” at the end of Infinity War is now five years older than the last time we saw them. This includes Scott Lang’s daughter, Cassie, and Harley, the kid from Iron Man 3, who’s now 20 — perhaps old enough to keep Tony’s iron warm until his daughter, Morgan, is ready to inherit the mantle.

At the same time any character that was dusted — think Peter Parker, Black Panther, the Guardians of the Galaxy — are all the exact same age they were at the end of Infinity War. That’s why Peter Parker and his pal Ned are still in high school in Spider-Man: Far From Home and also explains why T’Challa and Shuri will have five years of Wakandan history to catch up on when we see them in Black Panther 2.

Watch: The end of Endgame explained:

Captain America's golden years

Admit it: You assumed Captain America was destined for a warrior’s death, didn’t you? After all, ever since awakening from his cryogenic sleep in 2016, Steve Rogers has mourned the life he might have lived with his 1940s sweetheart, founding S.H.I.E.L.D. member Agent Peggy Carter. Instead, he was trapped in a future he never made, often seeming more like a ghost than a fully formed man. It would have been easy, too easy, for the Russo brothers to end his suffering. Instead, the duo reward Cap for his years of service by giving him what he always wanted: to grow old with Peggy.

Tasked with returning the Infinity Stones to their respective past timelines after the super-team’s super-complicated Time Heist — and knowing that his long absence will last mere seconds in the present time — Steve returns to his former life and picks up where he left off. He returns to 2023 as an old man, finally at peace, and ready to pass his Captain America duties onto Falcon. The film's last shot is Steve and Peggy, in their own house, sharing that dance he promised her before he vanished into the ice in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) have a tender reunion in Endgame. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Dead and loving it

Even as we toast to Steve’s health, let’s remember that there are two Avengers who will never grow old: Iron Man and Black Widow. Tony Stark was there for the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he ensures its continued survival by channeling the otherworldly power of the Infinity Stones through his own all-too-human body. Ten years and 21 movies ago, it’s hard to imagine Tony making such a sacrifice. But he’s come a long way and stared death in the face numerous times since then, including at the start of Endgame when he and Nebula are stranded on an oxygen-deprived ship in the middle of the cosmos. Plus, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) himself confirms that his death is the one way that his loved ones continue to survive and thrive. It’s only appropriate that the last face he sees in this life belongs to his lady love, Pepper Potts.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets his final send-off in Endgame. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Besides resting in peace, Tony can rest assured that his funeral is a star-studded affair. Given a viking farewell (minus the fire) on the lake by the picture-perfect home he shared with Pepper and their daughter, Morgan, the one-time playboy was toasted by all of his Avenger pals, as well as special guests Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins). Robert Downey Jr. receives his own hero’s farewell in the closing credits: His name is the last to appear onscreen after the roll call of the core Avengers cast, and we also hear audio of what may be Tony building his first Iron Man suit as the Marvel Studios logo comes up.

Black Widow’s death doesn’t receive the same level of fanfare, but it arguably cuts the sharpest. Dispatched to Vormir with Clint “Hawkeye” Barton in pursuit of the Soul Stone, the longtime friends soon realize that one of them isn’t leaving the planet alive. That results in their last big fight, with the winner being the one that literally takes a fall. Clint seems to have the upper hand at first, but Natasha ends his sacrifice with a big tackle, followed by an even bigger plunge. While it’s frustrating that the world at large won’t know how she saved the day, as a covert operative, Black Widow was never intended to be in the spotlight. And it’s safe to say that her teammates will never, ever forget her.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) share a moment. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Whither the Avengers?

So where does the rest of the original team go from here? Thor, for one, is taking to the stars with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Having left New Asgard in the beyond-capable hands of Valkyrie, the reluctant king climbs aboard Peter Quill’s ship and makes it more or less clear that he owns the place. That’s a great place for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to begin, especially knowing that James Gunn is back onboard to oversee the Star-Lord-Thor bromance. Their first mission is presumably going to involve locating Gamora, who traveled forward in time from 2014 with Thanos, and therefore has missed out on the past nine years of her relationship with Peter and the rest of the Guardians. Remember the Gamora they (and we) knew and loved died in Infinity War when Thanos got the Soul Stone, and she's not coming back.

Thanks to 18 months of intensive gamma research, Bruce Banner is now Professor Hulk, a super-strong, super-smart hybrid of his two personalities. This incarnation of the character comes straight out of the comics, where Professor Hulk was a fan favorite now made (digital) flesh. We’re not entirely sure where the brainy muscleman is headed from here, but after surviving two Avenger-pocalypses, he deserves a vacation. The same goes for War Machine, who should take additional time off to mourn his best friend, Tony.

Meanwhile, the team’s newest recruit, Captain Marvel, literally takes off by the end of Endgame, probably to save some of the thousand other planets where she’s apparently the only superhero. Everyone else opts to stay on terra firma, with Ant-Man and the Wasp headed back to San Francisco, Peter back to Queens and Black Panther and Shuri back to Wakanda.

Finally, there’s even a theory that the five-year time jump combined with Professor Hulk’s off-handed comment about the high levels of gamma radiation given off by the Infinity Stones could create a scenario that would allow the introduction of the X-Men and other mutants into the MCU.

Plus one

If you think Endgame is the end of the road for the MCU, think again. Many of these characters are spinning off into their own series on Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, and the movie gives us a preview of what to expect from those shows.

For example, with Steve Rogers now retired, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will feature Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan as a brand-new version of Captain America and Bucky. Loosely based on the comics — when a similarly aged Steve handed over the shield to Sam Wilson — the prospect of a black Captain America is a welcome and socially relevant change to the MCU’s status quo.

Sam Wilson as Captain America (Image: Marvel Entertainment)

Another change that could massively alter the MCU is Loki’s escape with the Tesseract during the Battle of New York visit. Thanks in part to elevator weight limits, the Hulk had to climb down a massive amount of stairs in Stark Tower and his rage at taking the long way down ran headlong into Future Tony’s plans to take the Tesseract back to 2023. Instead, he lost the glowing box, and Loki nabbed it back, vanishing from the scene into parts unknown instead of going back to Asgard with Thor to “die” in The Dark World. This might mean Tom Hiddleston’s Loki series will feature him bouncing around the new timeline, Infinity Stone in hand.

Clint Barton is also getting his own TV series, but since he adopted the name Ronin following the Snapture, his daughter may be the new Hawkeye. He certainly seems to be training her in the family business at the start of the film, watching her archery game with a careful eye.

Vision is one of the few Avengers who notably doesn’t return in Endgame, since Thanos killed him at the end of Infinity War by plucking the Mind Stone from his noggin. This means that the Vision and Scarlet Witch series will probably feature Wanda finding a way to bring her android lover back to life (remember, Shuri probably has a backup on one of her hard drives in Wakanda). Or it could be a flashback series, highlighting their romance leading up to the beginning of Infinity War. We’d pay $6 a month to see either one.

Cool cool cool cameos

Before they matriculated into the MCU, the Russos studied at Greendale Community College and they brought some of their favorite pupils to their new institution. Community stars Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown both pop up in Endgame as, respectively, a security guard at the storage facility where Scott Lang’s stuff is packed away and a Camp Lehigh worker bee. (Bonus Easter egg in the Jeong cameo: He’s reading the J.G. Ballard anthology The Terminal Beach, which contains a story called — you guessed it — “End-Game.”) Joe Russo himself has a history-making cameo (as the MCU’s first openly gay onscreen character) early on in the film as one of the members of Captain America’s grief-counseling group.

Stan Lee’s excelsior adventure

Filmed prior to his death last November, Stan Lee’s Endgame cameo is one of the last times we’ll see the Marvel icon in the MCU. Lee appears during Tony and Steve’s trip back to 1970, driving a car past Camp Lehigh that sports a “‘nuff said,” bumper sticker, referencing one of Lee’s iconic comic book catchphrases. “Make love, not war,” Lee yells out the window at Cap and Iron Man. “It’s sort of the hippie era, and Stan’s cameoing as a hippie and it’s the free-love era,” Joe Russo told Entertainment Weekly, adding that they used the same de-aging treatment that Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell have undergone to transform Lee into his ’70s self. Groovy, man.

Count the callbacks

When the Avengers go back into their pasts to recover the Infinity Stones, the audience gets to take a stroll down Marvel memory lane. Endgame contains volumes of references to the 21 previous films of MCU's Phase I, but our heroes also revisit some of them, literally.

For example, when Bruce, Steve and Tony travel to 2012 to get the Space Stone (contained in the Tesseract), the Time Stone (from the Eye of Agamotto) and the Mind Stone (in the Chitauri Scepter), they land in the middle of the Battle of New York from the very first Avengers. (Not to be confused with The First Avenger.) During that sequence, Steve goes to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and finds himself in an elevator full of undercover Hydra agents. Anyone who's seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier will recognize this as the set-up to Cap's greatest fight scene — but this time, Steve handles things differently. (On that elevator ride with him is Brock Rumlow, aka Crossbones, who sets off the titular civil war in the third Captain America movie.)

Meanwhile, Thor sends himself back to Asgard in 2013 to retrieve the Reality Stone (aka the Aether), and discovers that he has arrived shortly before his mother Frigga dies, during the events of Thor: The Dark World. (Thanks to Endgame, mother and son finally have a proper goodbye, and Rene Russo gets a decent scene.) We also see Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) for the first time since The Dark World in a cameo that’s likely an outtake from that 2013 film. And then there’s Nebula and Rhodey, who go to Morag in pursuit of the orb containing the Power Stone and observe Peter Quill dancing to "Come and Get Your Love" on his walkman as he did in the opening-credits scene of Guardians of the Galaxy. Last, but not least, Natasha and Clint travel to Vormir, the place of Gamora's death in Avengers: Infinity War, where they must make the same terrible bargain as Thanos: the life of a loved one for the Soul Stone.

In addition to revisiting major scenes from past Marvel movies, Endgame also includes some major walk-on cameos. When Professor Hulk executes his part in the Time Heist by visiting the Sanctum Sanctorum during the Battle of New York, he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) instead of Stephen Strange, who hasn’t had his career-transforming accident yet. Meanwhile, a still-undercover Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) tries to wrest control of the Tesseract away from the 2012 Avengers before its recovered by 2023 Tony and then lost again to Loki.

Besides Lee, there are two crowd-pleasing cameos during the 1970 trip: Tony meets his father Howard Stark (played by the returning John Slattery), and Howard greets his driver, Jarvis, played by James D’Arcy from the gone, but not forgotten Agent Carter series. That’s one of the few overtures that the Marvel movies have made to the Marvel TV shows, and we’re just glad they picked the best one.

Missing in action

Most of the major players from the previous Marvel films — along with a few minor ones — show up for at least a cameo in Endgame. But there are a couple notable absences. Lupita N'yongo's character Nakia, who has probably had her hands full in Wakanda for the past five years, is a no-show. Neither does Paul Bettany's Vision, who remains dead in this film while others are resurrected. Rachel McAdams, who played Doctor Strange's girlfriend Christine Palmer (and who might have become Night Nurse if given the opportunity!), isn't there. Carol Danvers’s best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) isn't part of the fight; neither is Maria's daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar), who would be an adult (and potentially the superhero Photon) in the film's present-day setting. Finally, Liv Tyler, who played Betsy Ross (girlfriend and potential She-Hulk) to Ed Norton's Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008), still hasn’t been invited back even though her father, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), remains a player. Let’s all agree to get #JusticeForBetsy trending.

Pull list

You’ve never needed to be a comic book reader to enjoy the Marvel movies... but in the case of Endgame, it helps. The Russos deserve to earn free comic books for life (like they don’t get them anyway) for incorporating such classic ripped-from-the-pages moments as Captain America lifting Mjolnir as well as letting slip a “Hail Hydra,” a knowing wink at one of the least-popular storylines since the Clone Saga. There’s also a Morgan Stark in the comic books, but it’s not Tony’s adorable daughter. Instead, it’s his less-adorable adult cousin, who has designs on the Stark fortune. And when Black Widow tracks Clint down to Japan, where he’s committing bloody violence as Ronin, he’s pursuing Akihiko — a Yakuza scientist-warrior who appears in Nick Fury’s solo book from 2017.

When Captain America utters, "Hail Hydra" in the elevator, he's not only referencing the Civil War movie but also a controversial storyline from the comics. (Image: Marvel Entertainment)

Thor really ties the team together

They may have spent the last five years in a post-apocalyptic world where half of Earth is dead — including, we’re assuming, a good portion of the Hollywood creative community — but the surviving Avengers still enjoy their pop-culture references. Take Thor: He’s been living it up in New Asgard since the Snapture, growing a beard and pairing pajama pants with wool cardigans. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the distinctive uniform worn by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’ favorite, The Big Lebowski. And even though Thor may not be familiar with late-'90s classics, Tony Stark certainly is: He refers to the thunder god as "Lebowski." (The scene in which Thor puts on sunglasses indoors seals the Dude deal.)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) before he channels Lebwoski in Endgame. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Other pop-culture nicknames that Stark lays on his teammates include "Blue Meanie" for Nebula (a reference to the villains of the classic Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine); "Mr. Rogers" (as in Fred) for Captain America; "Build-a-Bear" (after the customizable-stuffed-animal chain) and "Ratchet" (the cat-like space mechanic in the Ratchet & Clank video games) for Rocket Raccoon; and "Stuart Little" (the mouse-boy from E.B. White's book), "Thumbelina" (the fairy-tale miniature girl) and "Pissant" (get it?) for Scott Lang.

Unsurprisingly, all of the Avengers have seen some sci-fi and fantasy movies at some point in their downtime. In the scene where Scott, Tony, Rhodey and Bruce are discussing their "Time Heist” — the name of a classic Doctor Who episode, though no one brings that up — they mention the following time-travel films: Time Cop, Hot Tub Time Machine, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Star Trek, Terminator, A Wrinkle in Time, Somewhere in Time, Time After Time, Time Bandits and Die Hard (which is not a time-travel movie, but Scott tosses it in there anyway).

Besides time-travel staples, Rhodey also has spent a lot of time watching Indiana Jones movies. When he and Nebula enter the temple on Morag to get the Power Stone, he pauses at the entrance in order to warn her about the booby traps that typically exist in this sort of place. Think spikes in the walls, a la Temple of Doom. But the experienced planet-hopper has no use for those really old movies. She rolls her eyes, and walks right in.

Meanwhile, in a scene briefly teased in the trailers, Hawkeye flees Chitauri attackers through the constricted corridors of the ruined Avengers headquarters, reminiscent of a similar sequence in Aliens.

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) prepares to face some scary aliens in tight quarters. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

Here’s the best pop culture news: Ben & Jerry apparently survived Thanos’s snap. In an early scene, Professor Hulk is glimpsed eating green ice cream from a giant Ben & Jerry's tub. That flavor would presumably be Banner's favorite, Hulk-a-Hulk-a-Burning Fudge, as mentioned in Infinity War. That film also reveals that Tony was given a flavor: Stark Raving Hazelnuts which sounds considerably less tasty if you ask us. (Fun fact: Ben & Jerry’s had an ice cream station at the Endgame premiere serving up a version of the frozen Avengers-themed treat.)

Who runs the world?

This year's Captain Marvel was the MCU's first solo female superhero film, but Marvel has been steadily building a roster of kick-ass women over the years. In one glorious Endgame moment, the female Avengers and allies assemble for the first time on the big screen, and proceed to kick Thanos’s big purple booty. Among their ranks: Captain Marvel, Scarlet Witch, Valkyrie, Shuri, Okoye, Nebula, Gamora, Mantis, the Wasp and Pepper Potts in her armor (a nod to her heroic alter ego, Rescue, in the comics). Based on Brie Larson’s own account of how these multi-group Marvel shots happen, it’s doubtful that all the actresses were there on the same day. But it doesn’t lessen the emotional power of seeing them kick ass together.

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