The Ending to “Infinity War” Presents a Long-Term Problem for the MCU

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By now, it seems like everyone on planet Earth has seen Avengers: Infinity War. However, if you’re one of the select few who haven’t seen the film (or one of the fewer who don’t have interest – shame on you, BTW), I should clarify that, as the title implies, this article will feature MAJOR SPOILERS for the ending of Infinity War, as well as the two-and-a-half hours leading up to it. Oh, and maybe a few other Marvel films, too.

Still here? Okay, let’s get to it.

I should start by specifying that this is not technically a “review” of Infinity War. While I enjoyed the film about as well as I expected, and I applaud the way it was able to juggle so many dozens of characters without feeling too overwhelming, I’m not quite over-the-moon enough to sing its praises in a lengthy review (at least for now).

But there’s one aspect of Infinity War that I feel is worth discussing more deeply – for the way it impacts the MCU, yes, but also for what it says about Marvel and its approach to cinematic worldbuilding at large. That aspect, of course, is how the film ends.

Let’s take it from the top. There’s no question that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most ambitious projects in modern film history. Since its inception a decade ago (I actually saw Infinity War on May 2nd, ten years to the day of Iron Man’s debut), the franchise has come to span nineteen films and ten TV shows, with many more of both assured for the future. The franchise has revived the essence of the “cinematic universe” (lain dormant since the Universal monster films of the 1940s), inspiring other filmmakers (notably rival superhero powerhouse DC) to try their own hand at filmic worldbuilding. And, not least, the films have become some of the most financially successful hits of all time.

Marvel Studios has done for film what Marvel Comics did for comic books: Prove that multiple stories can be blended together into a widespread and (mostly) coherent world. But despite the ambition and effort involved, there is a clear underlying business-mandate coursing through the franchise’s veins. And that’s readily apparent in Avengers: Infinity War.

When I first saw the ending in the theater, the audience reaction was swift and immediately understandable. There were gasps of horror as Black Panther, Spider-Man, and poor teenage Groot drifted off into the wind. A few cries of outrage, a couple of swears, and a reprise of emotion during the post-credits scene, which saw Nick Fury and Maria Hill join the other victims of the Universal Balance.

It was indeed a shocking and affecting final sequence… for approximately eight seconds. Then I remembered that Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy all have films slated for release in the next couple of years, and all the air went right out of the balloons.

Yes, it seems inevitable that Thanos’ ultimate plan will somehow be undone when Infinity War Part II (or whatever the higher-ups are now calling it) hits theaters next spring. On its own, the problem with this bit of corporate-spoiled knowledge is obvious – it deadens the emotional impact of what should have been a powerful climax (although the post-credits Captain Marvel tease does serve as a minor redemption). But viewed from a much larger perspective, it reflects an unflattering image of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole – and leaves me concerned regarding its long-term future.

In the MCU, popular or integral characters are rarely killed off – and even when they are, it’s usually not for very long. Across their miniature Universe, characters like Bucky, Groot, Nick Fury, and Phil Coulson have all been given dramatic “deaths,” yet the details always turned out to be greatly exaggerated. (One notable exception is Quicksilver, killed off after his debut in Age of Ultron – though even that can be viewed as a corporate-mandated decision, to prevent conflict with the character’s use in the X-Men films.) This isn’t too different from the world of comic books, where every dead character not named “Uncle Ben” has been resurrected at some point or another. But it doesn’t make for good or high-stakes drama.

The opening of Infinity War seems to acknowledge the franchise’s reluctance towards offing its characters, if perhaps not intentionally. The first scene features Thanos killing Heimdall and Loki, and the latter’s dramatic death seemed calculated to be a particular shock. Just a few years ago, Loki was the breakout star of the MCU, more popular than some of the heroes he battled in the first Avengers. To this end, Marvel never allowed Loki to stay dead for very long, even though he was apparently “killed” in each of the first two Thor films. Yet Infinity War seemingly offs him for good, with Thanos promising that there will be “no more resurrections.”

It should be a dramatic death, serving to underscore the darker, heavier tone of the latest Marvel adventure. But given the franchise’s long life-and-death history with Loki – as well as the fact that his popularity flame has fizzled in recent years – his death doesn’t feel too shocking or shattering. It instead feels like the studio was convinced that there was no place left to go with the character – particularly since the Thor series seems to have concluded with Ragnarok – and decided it was safe to get rid of him.

Marvel has long suffered from this form of “post-dramatic death disorder” – characters are only killed off if there’s no place left to go with them. (Or, in the case of Peggy Carter, if the character’s primary exploits are situated in the past.) The exceptions to this rule are memorable precisely because of how rare they are – Yondu’s death in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is perhaps the most impactful demise in the MCU thus far.

I wrote a few years ago about death in fiction, and how the threat of a character’s mortal end drives much of the plot tension in a story – even if it’s a character we know the film or TV series won’t kill. As I discuss in that article, Buffy the Vampire Slayer smartly used the “death” or its main character to springboard into something much deeper and more interesting than mere live-or-die shenanigans. But Buffy was also (in 1997, anyway) a little-watched show on a little-watched network, and could risk making a number of seismic dramatic shakeups. But a widely popular blockbuster franchise doesn’t have as easy a time, particularly when that franchise has spent so long avoiding the Grim Reaper. For a franchise like the MCU, killing off a popular and/or necessary character with the sole intent of bringing him or her back is, to say the least, disingenuous.

Which brings us back to the climax of Infinity War.

We’re nearing the end of what’s been dubbed “Phase Three” of the MCU, which kicked off in 2016 with Captain America: Civil War and will last through Avengers 4 next year. After that, franchise veterans like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth are likely to step aside, while newer players like Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland are expected to take more of a central focus. But with the overarching Thanos/Infinity Stones narrative nearing an apparent conclusion, Marvel will have to generate some new energy if it wants to maintain its overarching cultural status in the 2020s.

So why in the holy world of Wakanda does Marvel decide to “kill” Black Panther, and Spider-Man, and nearly all the Guardians of the Galaxy, while fully intending to resurrect them? (Gamora has a hazier fate than most, but her triumphant return wouldn’t surprise me much, either.) Why toy with the audience’s investment of characters who are set to carry the weight of the MCU for the foreseeable future?

That’s not to say that the “deaths” of Iron Man or Thor would have better suited the story, as it would still be difficult to believe Marvel would allow their deaths to taint their respective franchises. But “killing” the fresher and newer superheroes with the sole intent of resurrecting them will make it that much more difficult to invest in the life-threatening exploits they and others will face down the line. Anyone can die, because anyone can return. Comic book logic at its most superficial, and its most damning.

I don’t want to sound too negative towards the film at large. I enjoyed much of Infinity War, and you can count me among the millions of fans who are eagerly awaiting next year’s follow-up. But unlike the way Thanos finally activated the Infinity Stones, Marvel should not expect that they can undo everything in their world with just a snap of the fingers.

7 thoughts on “The Ending to “Infinity War” Presents a Long-Term Problem for the MCU”

  1. Since Avengers 4 is meant to be Chris Evans’s last MCU film, I have a feeling that Captain America will be killed off. I don’t see him simply walking off into the sunset. That death is bound to have a major impact on the MCU.

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  2. I think they will likely stick to their comic book origins and resurrect certain dead characters as the comic stories would. It happens frequently in the comics, so there’s no reason to not do it in the next Infinity War part. Some people don’t like it when characters are killed off and brought back, but 1) context is king, and 2) hard luck. It’s too common a trope and unlikely to fall out of favour anytime soon.

    Speaking of context and to continue the Buffy comparison, BtVS killed off its lead character twice. The first time, they could afford to do it as you say – if Buffy had not been renewed for Season 2, there was nothing lost, and she was actually not ‘dead’ for more than a couple of minutes of screentime. Fast forward to the second time, and everything is different. Buffy is a pop culture juggernaut but sadly it was not known until a certain point whether it would return for Season6. So killing off the lead was still not a huge risk – either it was the end of the series or Buffy would’ve been promptly brought back.

    The main issue with Buffy’s treatment of death and resurrection in season 6 was how it was handled. Instead of being a quest for the remaining characters over several episodes, it was done within a single episode and not given the pathos that even should have been. Instead, they created a terrible ‘Buffy is depressed’ arc which added very little to the character’s personal journey/arc. Like a lot of that season, it did not handle the ramifications of a character’s death and resurrection the way it really should have in a Whedon project.

    Overall, it really depends HOW you handle death and the resurrection of characters. Do it right and it is still amazing storytelling. Muck it up…and like any poor story, people won’t like it.

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    1. I have little doubt that Avengers 4 will provide a strong and satisfactory conclusion to the story – the MCU writers have proven time and again that they know how to play to their audience, and they’ll likely deliver another crowd-pleaser next year. But I do have concerns that the Marvel bubble is about ready to burst, and the sheer brashness of the Infinity War ending did little to assuage those fears.

      Also, Buffy Season Six is great, but I’ve been down that path too many times already.

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  3. “So why in the holy world of Wakanda does Marvel decide to “kill” Black Panther, and Spider-Man, and nearly all the Guardians of the Galaxy, while fully intending to resurrect them? (Gamora has a hazier fate than most, but her triumphant return wouldn’t surprise me much, either.) Why toy with the audience’s investment of characters who are set to carry the weight of the MCU for the foreseeable future?”

    Because the execs at Marvel, under the supervision of Disney, are absolute corporate geniuses when it comes to these films. i’m not sure you’ve seen the general reaction post-theatrical screening and back in front of their computer screens (or phones probably being just as likely). Most fans lauded it. They lauded it even knowing that the characters are probably not permanently deceased (or inside the Soul Stone, but w/e). I despised it.

    I sat on the edge of my seat the entire film enjoying every minute of it, all the while in awe at how well they brought all these characters and all these egos together into one compact package without a single one feeling out of place or like the actor didn’t want to be there (an exception being perhaps Chris Evans). It’s nothing short of directorial masterfulness, frankly, and it’s a shame it won’t be (or can’t be) acknowledged with something more tangible (not “Best Director” awards, but it’s nothing like has ever been accomplished or even really attempted that they pulled off here). I could go into more of the geeky fan-boy side, but just know that persona was also satisfied.

    Then the ending happened. And it was nothing but a feeling of, initially, joking frustration with my brother and a friend (who agreed) but that became a real feeling of betrayal later on that night. I’m not usually gullible, but I really believe there would be something of a permanent consequence to this film because of how monumental it was and how much hype it would have to deliver on. It was literally our favorite little word around here, or at least used to be, known as being “manipulative.”

    But that brings it back to Marvel’s genius. They literally treaded the finest line between fan expectation and what would amount to fan outrage. The decision they made with this film has most fans, obviously prematurely, putting “Infinity War” as their favorite film in the MCU thus far, which is a testament to the heavily positive impact its had since release. How, how did they do that? Use something so manipulative, so obviously manipulative, and some even practically admit it as such, yet are almost universally praised for it?

    I’m not as upset about the reception as I was a couple of days after my initial viewing, it’s not worth it and I realize this now. I’m more in awe that the usually outrageous internet communities are all essentially… “brainwashed.” And it’s not in a malicious sense that I view Marvel’s machine; it’s more along the lines of sheer disbelief. I enjoy and praise the cinematic universe for what it has done despite obvious shortcomings, and to be honest they are the last of the true “blockbusters” that deserve any kind of recognition in an analytical respect. It has evolved and addressed fan concerns over the years and continues to show it can, potentially, continue to sustain itself no matter how much you expect it to crash and burn.

    Disney has, on paper, purchased Fox’s film division and if all goes well legally will have access to the short list of Marvel franchises they held. That you can be certain is a huge hand they wish to fall back on after having cashed their chips here seeing as they could ride the likes of X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man for ten more years – Marvel’s initial A-Team before Iron Man, Captain America, etc. were brought into fold with their successes. If all goes well, they have exactly what they need. And as much as I feel they manipulated me and a billion people worldwide I can’t help but root for them. Disney is almost creating a monopoly within the film industry and I still want it to happen. A bit off topic, but it’s just so astonishing I’m “okay” with this.

    I guess my point is: they are masters of their craft. If anyone can take this manipulative, soulless, hugely disappointing ending to a stunningly well crafted film and convince everyone it was the “highlight” of the film – yeah, great film has bad ending and bad ending is one of the highest of its praises – it’s them. Infinity War 2 will be the one that either solidifies its dominance for another 5 – 10 years or sinks it. If the Fox integration goes through, they have even more firepower then we could imagine. And I personally believe it will succeed if their boasts about being real permanent consequences and it being nothing like we expect in regards to Infinity War 2 are true. That’s what fans are anticipating, so the ball is in their court and they usually sink it easily into the net.

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    1. I think the reason you’re not hearing much outrage about the Infinity War ending is that Marvel has, over the last decade, built up a certain level of trust with its audience. They know what people want, and viewers know what they’re going to get. It’s a like-kind exchange that has reaped both parties plenty of rewards.

      It also helps that the MCU, despite its decades of comic-book backing, is a relatively fresh and in-the-moment franchise, and thus untainted by the wants of nostalgia. Compare this to something like The Last Jedi, which set off an online firestorm, in part due to many fans feeling that it “betrayed” the classic representation of Star Wars.

      But, good comment. And I’m glad you’re still invested in the MCU, whoever you are. 🙂

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  4. That´s what someone told me when I said I didn´t enjoy it. That this was a movie that took 10 years in the making, that took 18 movies to build up this monster of a movie with a villain like Thanos.
    I find it funny that some people use that as an excuse to not criticize the movie.
    Like I said in the forums, the movie frustrated me because I felt manipulated and I didn´t feel the movie was genuine.
    As for the ending, I must admit that Peter´s cries to Tony about not wanting to die affected me but as for the rest, I also felt it was cheap how they did it. But apparently and as someone told me, there are millions of fans who loved it, millions want to see how it continues and that I´m alone in my complaint. But I don´t mind being the only one. 🙂

    But I still love Marvel I just felt cheated with this movie.
    btw, amazing, amazing article.

    PS – I am now on a Marvel break. I don´t know why but I feel I need it.
    PS1 – Have you watched “A Quiet Place”? Will you consider reviewing the movie?

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    1. Glad you liked the article. And you’re not the only one I know who’s reeling from Marvel fatigue – it feels like every week brings another superhero film or TV show.

      I’m going to see A Quiet Place next week. I may write something about it if the mood strikes me, although the initial hype for the film has died down in the month-plus since its release. Right now, I’m considering a Deadpool-related article for next week… assuming I don’t succumb to Marvel fatigue.

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