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.