Warning: Spoilers for Avengers Endgame ahead.

The winding road of the Marvel Cinematic, often criticized for it’s lack of finality, just stuck the landing on an impressive finale. Avengers Endgame is perhaps the most anticipated film in history; a film 11 years in the making and one that has been specifically awaited by fans since the infamous Phase 3 announcements from 4 and a half years ago. The expectations were sky hell, on par with The Phantom Menace (1999) or The Force Awakens (2015), but Endgame has miraculously seemed to satisfy it’s vast fanbase beyond what those other films could accomplish.

Marvel’s operatic, time-hopping saga was effectively a curtain call for several characters, arcs, relationships, and storylines that have defined a generation of blockbuster filmmaking. 11 years ago, no one (including Kevin Feige himself) could foresee the impact the franchise would have on pop culture. But now that we’ve been graced with the superhero movie to end all superhero movies, and now that we’ve been forced to say goodbye to multiple cinematic icons, the question is – what’s next for the world’s most talked about franchise?

For starters, Phase 3 will officially close with this summer’s Spider-Man – Far From Home, a more light hearted cleanser for Endgame’s emotional gut punch. According to Kevin Feige, much of Phase 4 will be announced to the public once the new Spidey flick drops, alluding to the idea that Feige has this all planned out for at least the next decade. What we can surmise is that the MCU will continue to get more diverse. Black Panther and Captain Marvel were billion dollar hits, and their sequels are in the pipeline. Marvel Studios will also introduce it’s first Asian lead hero when Shang Chi hits theaters.

The studio is also planning an Eternals film, directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider). The film will open up the cosmos to an even greater extent, and potentially fill in some blanks on the backstory of supervillain and genocidal jackass Thanos. In addition, Disney’s acquisition of Fox studios dictate that the X-Men, Deadpool, and the Fantastic Four are on their way to the MCU along with the tantalizing rogues gallery they bring with them. This means Marvel could potentially introduce big events and concepts on par with the Infinity Saga.

But even as Marvel is acquiring and introducing more characters, will things still be the same? The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy series of films are arguably the most emotionally resonant franchises of this decade. Sure, they are well made films, but a huge amount of credit is owed to the cast that brought these characters to life and the connection they formed with the audience. People have cried in the theater over a talking tree, that’s how much these films mean. And it is a tall order to ask the next generation to fill the Hulk-sized hole that the original Avengers will leave in the hearts of fans across the globe.

Tony Stark is dead, and Steve Rogers is retired (more on them later). Hawkeye is getting his own Disney+ series, but it’s unlikely that he’ll have a big role in any film going forward. Its fortunate that Hulk, Nick Fury, and Thor are all still around, with Thor hitching a ride with the Guardians for what’s sure to be a fun 3rd film in that franchise, but are their journeys ending soon as well? One journey that is potentially over is that of Natasha Romanoff, A.K.A Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). She memorably sacrificed herself for the greater good, but her death is the greatest source of contention among fans, especially since she didn’t get to partake in the all-female portion of the final battle, despite being the first female Avenger. Perhaps the character, long since downplayed, will get her due in her upcoming solo film. We think that after a decade of Johansson providing thankless support for the more famous heroes, the MCU needs to really make her solo film count – she’s earned it.

And then there’s Iron Man and Captain America, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. They receive the two biggest send-offs of any character in Endgame, and deservedly so. This all started when Marvel Studios, who had to take out loans just to fund their first couple of films, took a chance on a Robert Downey Jr. who had hit rock bottom years prior and was desperately trying to make a career comeback. Downey was always a great actor, but never a box office draw. That all changed with Iron Man (2008), a film that felt like a breath of fresh air in the genre with it’s irreverent and improvisational energy. The film was basically a re-introduction of Downey as a powerhouse actor while Tony Stark’s path of redemption in many ways mirrored Downey’s real life journey, adding unexpected nuance to his performance.

In the aftermath of that film, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have acted as the backbone as well as the heart and soul of the MCU. They became the two most popular characters of the entire franchise, and the yin and yang of the greater narrative. It wasn’t just their individual attributes that propelled fans to keep coming back, but their contentious but friendly relationship, along with Downey and Chris Evans’ remarkable chemistry, is what beefed up the conflict in every major MCU event film. Steve Rogers’ selflessness and desire to right the wrongs mirrored against Stark’s devil may care, but only if he gets to take the credit and makes a few quips along the way, attitude made them the perfect foils.

For Rogers, his journey evolved into regret about the life he didn’t get to have. For Tony, his guilt caught up with him and he desperately feared that he hadn’t or wouldn’t do enough to protect his loved ones from an uncertain and potentially grim future. Stark, in the end, proved he could make the sacrifice play. In doing so, the former arms dealer ironically provided a greater tomorrow for his friends, proteges, wife and most importantly his daughter Morgan who will likely go through many of the same daddy issues that plagued Tony. Meanwhile, after all the fighting is done, Steve decides to take his frenemy’s advice, following Tony’s urge to start a life and family of his own. He goes back in time to show up for that dance with Peggy – better late than never. In the end, they both received the sendoff they’ve earned and they both rank as some of the greatest goodbyes in film history.

For Marvel Studios and Disney, there are many more sequels and many more billions of dollars to come. But for the fans, Endgame hit like a ton of bricks. The end of the status quo, and the goodbye to the sextuplet group of OG Avengers was a hard pill to swallow. The MCU won’t be the same without Tony, Steve, and Natasha, for better or worse. Yes, other characters can take up the alter egos, but no one can replace their characters.

But it was an end that was necessary; Steve gets to have his dance and lead a normal life. The final shot is a kiss between Steve and Peggy, putting his story to bed at last. After the credits, there is no scene for the first time in MCU history… but there is the sounds of Tony Stark working on his first suit of armor, signaling that the MCU can never forget where it came from and how far we’ve all come. Endgame, signified by the last shot and the last sounds of the film, was simultaneously a celebration of the end and the beginning of it all. It gave us a chance to say goodbye to the characters we loved, while previewing the characters we may come to love, all while celebrating the humble beginnings of this cinematic universe. Perfectly balanced, how bittersweet.