This article contains major spoilers about the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
The old adage in superhero comics used to be that any character could come back to life, no matter how tragic or meaningful their death was, with three exceptions: Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes, Batman’s former ward Jason Todd, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. Those three deaths were seen as so crucial to those heroes’ backstories that they couldn’t be undone, no matter how good an idea a new writer might have. Then, in 2005, both Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes were resurrected. And fans reacted with near-universal approval.
In short, even a casual consumer of superhero comics knows that death never really sticks in the genre. That would be antithetical to the nature of a storytelling form that stretches over decades; indeed, many of the Marvel comics published today are rooted in plotlines written more than 50 years ago. Spider-Man or Captain America or Thor might die in an issue, but they’d all be back soon enough, be it through mystical means, time travel, cloning, or cosmic interference. Jean Grey, famed member of the X-Men, acquired the codename “Phoenix” partly because of her propensity for constant deaths and rebirths.
This is all to say that I’m sympathetic to any audience member who might have scoffed at the dramatic end of Avengers: Infinity War, the latest and largest of Marvel’s ongoing cinematic universe, in which the supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin) fights for control of the all-powerful Infinity Stones. After a lot of fighting, he succeeds, and he snaps his fingers, instantly halving the number of living beings in the universe. As a result, many of the film’s heroes—including big names like Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Star-Lord—vanish from existence by simply disintegrating into ash. The scene is played as horrifying, with Spider-Man’s death (in the arms of Iron Man, pleading that he doesn’t want to go) feeling particularly brutal.
On both of my viewings, the moment hit hard for me. The second time around, even though I knew it was coming, I dreaded it. At the same time, I’m perfectly aware that there’s a fourth Avengers film coming (set to be released May 3, 2019) that will certainly retract this tragic ending. Black Panther is not dead forever, certainly not after his last movie made so much money; a new Spider-Man film has already been confirmed for 2019. So does that make the Infinity War ending “fraudulent,” as Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey described it?
Obviously, everyone can walk away from the film with their own takeaway; some will go into Infinity War knowing more about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future plans than others will, and thus be less worried about these characters’ fates. But the “comic-book death” has never really involved permanence. Claiming that someone like Spider-Man is gone for good is an empty threat—he’s too popular, too beloved a brand to be truly eradicated. Bill Willingham’s comic-book series Fables (a modern take on fairy tales and folklore) established that as long as a character was still well-known—say, Goldilocks—they’d be practically impossible to kill. The same goes for Marvel’s heroes.
The tragedy of the comic-book death instead sprouts from seeing the effect it has on other characters, which Infinity War leans into as much as possible. As Bucky vanishes, the movie cuts to Captain America’s pained reaction; Okoye watches in horror as Black Panther goes; Rocket sobs at the loss of his pal Groot, and so on. Both times I’ve seen the film, the audience has gasped in horror at every death—because they love the characters. That’s a sign of real emotional investment in Marvel’s 10-year moviemaking project (the only better sign, of course, is the billions of dollars these films have made for their corporate overlords).
The next question concerns the fourth Avengers movie, which will likely reverse most of these deaths (but will just as likely add a few new losses to the pile to balance things out). Will viewers be more cautious or numb about fatal plot twists every time they’re deployed in future films? Quite possibly. But for now, even these temporary losses register as gut-punches. It might feel cruel, but being upset about them is a helpful reminder that you still care.
In Infinity War, Thanos is 10-foot tall radical nihilist, hell-bent on clearing out the universe’s rampant overpopulation. He exists as an embodiment of the notion that the Marvel movies have gone too far, gotten too cluttered, and are entirely lacking in stakes (since we know there are always more films on the way). With a click of his fingers, Thanos solves all those problems—the universe is depopulated and half the heroes wiped away. If that were indeed a permanent state of affairs, fans would be in uproar—a thrilling sign to Marvel Studios that their grand experiment has worked.
Will it continue to work? Infinity War is currently setting box-office records, but you can’t dodge franchise fatigue forever. A wave of resurrections, however expected, might start finally tipping viewers into exhaustion. As Bailey noted in his piece, Infinity War could’ve been a chance for Marvel to move away from the old tropes of comic-book storytelling and set out a fresher formula. But the success of these movies is rooted in those very conventions, and they come with the implicit promise that no hero is ever really gone for good—no matter what Thanos might think.