Robert Downey Jr., at a recent press event, called the 10-plus years playing Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the “coolest relay race in the history of entertainment, for my money.”

That cinematic universe featuring Captain America, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and many more, will end with 22 films when “The Avengers: Endgame,” opens in theaters Friday, April 26. To date, the franchise that began with “Iron Man” in 2008 has grossed nearly $19 billion world-wide, and will easily add billions more after “End Game” opens.

The filmmakers and cast were extremely tight lipped about “Endgame,” showing press around 10 minutes of footage. At the end of “Avengers: Infinity War,” which was released a year ago, super-villain Thanos had decimated the Avengers.

“The story is about how do these characters, how do these heroes, deal with resounding loss,” said Anthony Russo, who co-directs with brother Joe. “That’s what they experienced in 'Infinity War,' and that was a unique experience for all of them.”

Kevin Feige has produced every film in the series beginning with “Iron Man.”

“We were looking at dailies and as we were looking at effects tests coming in, we realized that this was really going to be special and perhaps more special than we thought,” said Feige about “Iron Man.”

Because the cast was worried about leaking any secrets, they mostly reminisced about what it meant to be part of a world-wide phenomenon.

Chris Evans joined the Marvel universe with “Captain America: The First Avenger” in 2011. He's followed that up with appearances, small and large, in 10 other Marvel films,” including “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Captain America: Civil War.”

“The friendships and connections I’ve made over these 10 years, it truly has become a family,” Evans said.

When Chris Hemsworth first saw “Iron Man” at a theater in his native Australia, he “wished he could be part of that world.” When he was cast as Thor, he was worried that it would go straight to video or he would be recast. “Thor” opened in theaters in 2011 and was followed by “Thor: The Dark World” in 2013 and “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017. Hemsworth has been in eight Marvel films.

“What made it so special for me, it was the different people I was able to work with, from Kenneth Branagh in that first film,” Hemsworth said. “I was completely in his hands. I was basically wiling to do what it takes and wherever he wanted to go with the character. Through the films with each director and each different cast member I learned something different.”

Black Widow made her debut in “Iron Man 2” in 2010 as the “sexy secretary with a skill set on the side,” according to Scarlett Johansson, who said she wasn't sure how the audience would react to her interpretation of the beloved character.

“Next time we saw her in 'The Avengers' she was sort of one of the boys for better or for worse,” said Johansson, who has appeared in eight Marvel films. “I think the fans and the audiences have really pushed, certainly Marvel, but pushed all the studios and filmmakers to really throw up on the screen what represents what's going on in the zeitgeist, wanting to see diverse films and casts... The character has grown in reaction to that and the movies have grown in reaction to that fan encouragement.”

Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk, entered the Marvel universe in 2008, starring Edward Norton as the title character. But Mark Ruffalo took over the role in 2012's “The Avengers.” Six films followed including “End Game.”

Ruffalo said the end of The Avengers” is bittersweet.

“As actors, we're like vagabonds, we bounce around, we have these intense relationships,” Ruffalo said. “Then you don't see anybody until you get nominated for something and you end up at an award ceremony... this has been the closest thing to continuity and friendship.”

Paul Rudd said joining the Marvel universe with “Ant-Man” in 2015 was like being asked by The Beatles to jam.

“I keep taking steps back and try to recognize this for what it is,” said Rudd, who also starred in the sequel “Ant-Man and the Wasp” last year. “It is so surreal and profound and incredible to be part of it. It's amazing to meet so many who are so passionate about it. It's incredible to meet so many kids who's lives are affected by these characters and to play a small part in that, pun intended, is just something I will always treasure.”

“Captain Marvel” recently surpassed $1 billion in world-wide box office. Star Brie Larson said she shot the “End Game” footage before the feature film.

“I had to stumble and try to figure out who this character was with no script for this and no script for 'Captain Marvel' either and perform for the first time in front of legends,” Larson said.

Larson added that the set felt like working with a “bunch of kids.”

“There's still this sense of wonder and play and encouragement,” she said. “Of course this film deals with some heavy subject matter. Your bouncing in between things that feel very deep and serious and then going off and playing Boggle.”

Co-director Joe Russo said “a lot of people have invested a lot of heart and soul into these characters.'

“When we take these movies sound the world, it's really heartwarming when people come up to you and say, 'I started watching these with my classmates when I was 10 years old and were now 21 and were going to see this together, or my parents have taken me to every film.. it's a sense of community,” Joe Russo said.

But some of the Marvel characters are expected to return in future films including Black Widow, a Doctor Strange and Black Panther sequel and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in 2022.

Contact this reporter at mhixon@tbrnews.com or on Twitter @michaeljhixon.com.

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