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Warning: SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame are ahead!
We’d already seen magical portals created in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Avengers: Endgame, but not on this massive a scale. After Hulk brought those who were dusted at the end of Avengers: Infinity War back to life, Doctor Strange and his fellow sorcerers created gigantic portals to transport those MCU heroes and their numerous allies to the battlefield where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the others were already engaged with Thanos and his forces.
This portals sequence definitely ranked as one of the most epic moments in Avengers: Endgame, but just as you probably imagined, it was a huge effort to pull off. As Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Matt Aiken told me when I recently interviewed him, the massive size of the portals required he and his team to tackle creating them differently than how that task had been carried out in past movies. Aiken explained:
… Just in terms the technicalities in terms of achieving them, we’ve got portals on a much larger scale than they've ever been seen before. So our simulation team had to find a recipe that would recognizably be… we need to know that this is Doctor Strange’s portals that we're seeing here. They need to feel like the same because they've been seen on a more human scale in the past, but they all had to be optimized because we've got shots of many, many portals. So they would have been prohibitive to generate and render that if we just used the original technique out of the box.
Creating portals is one of those most useful spells a sorcerer can conjure in the MCU, but until Avengers: Endgame, we only saw Doctor Strange and others creating portals big enough to transport one or a couple people. For Endgame, the portals needed to be large enough for armies to walk through with ease. That makes for quite the visual spectacle, but for the VFX crew, it required them to rethink the process of bringing these portals ‘to life’ while still making them feel like what’s been shown before.
But it wasn’t just the size of the portals that posed a challenge in Avengers: Endgame. It was also showing the locations that these individuals were coming from, whether it be somewhere else on Earth or a planet on the other side of the galaxy. Matt Aiken continued:
And then we’ve got the challenge of creating all the worlds that we see inside the portals as well, because these are all these CG environments, there’s no filmed elements inside the portals, and that’s necessary because we need to film those environments with the same camera move that we're filming the ruined Avengers compound on the other side of the portal because everything has to lock together and parallax. And so recreating the fields outside the city in Wakanda, we’re creating New Asgard, we’ve got Kamar-Taj for the sorcerers and Contraxia for the Ravagers. We even got a few shots that where we’re just in deep space, and we've got Ravagers coming out on their sky cycles. And then of course there’s Titan itself, we’ve got that in a few shots as well. That was an opportunity for us to go back to a place that we spent quite a lot of time at last year.
The Marvel characters who were dusted wasted no time banding together once they were brought back to life five years later, and while I’m still curious how they were able to coordinate efforts so quickly, they arrived just in the knick of time from all corners of the universe. It sounds like this sequence wouldn’t have been possible had the Avengers: Endgame team relied on recreating the actual sets of these other MCU locations, but through CG manipulation, it was a much easier, but still ambitious endeavor.
Needless to say that had all those reinforcements not arrived through the magical portals, the heroes we’d been following along with since the beginning of Avengers: Endgame would have been pulverized by Thanos and his minions, who came from 2014 to invade Earth thanks to 2014 Nebula disguising herself as her 2023 self and opening up the Quantum Realm for them. However, even with these extra bodies, the battle didn’t automatically shift in the heroes’ favor.
It wasn’t until Tony Stark swiped the Infinity Stones from 2014 Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet, put them in his own nanotech Infinity Gauntlet and snapped his fingers that the bad guys were defeated. Sadly, such a move is too much for a normal human to handle, and the man we watched fight evil as Iron Man for over a decade died soon after. Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, met her demise earlier in Avengers: Endgame, and while he survived to the end of the movie (albeit much older), Steve Rogers’ story also wrapped up, as he passed on the Captain America mantle to Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon.
The MCU isn’t wrapping up anytime soon, but it’ll probably be a long time before we see a battle of this scale again. The portals sequence was a cool way to set up the final leg of Avengers: Endgame’s climax; it’s hard to imagine all those heroes arriving on the scene in a more powerful way. The music, as if often the case with movies, also helped the moment emotionally resonate more.
For those of of you who are looking to experience more proper sorcery in the MCU, you’ll get that in spades whenever Doctor Strange 2 arrives, and perhaps some other movies coming down the pipeline will find a way to incorporate magic. Regardless, at least we know that if there’s ever a need to transport crowds of back-up into a messy conflict, Doctor Strange and his cohorts are on the job.
There’s still plenty of time to re-watch Avengers: Endgame in theaters, and while a Blu-ray/DVD release date hasn’t been announced yet, the movie will premiere on Disney+ December 11. If you’re wondering what’s coming up next in the MCU, head over to our Marvel movies guide for that information. If you’d rather learn what non-Marvel content is on the way later this year, look through our 2019 release schedule.