Warning: Major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War below.
When Avengers: Infinity War opened on April 27th, it exceeded even Disney’s own lofty expectations, besting Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the biggest box office opening in history. Given that it’s the film meant to bring together all previous 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity War certainly had plenty of audience hype working in its favor. But it also had a secret weapon to help inspire interest: death.
For years now, fans and critics have vocally assumed that when the movie’s big bad, Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally came to battle The Avengers face to face, at least one beloved character would end up dead. Some felt it would almost certainly be Captain America (Chris Evans); the constant back-and-forth of contract negotiations made Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark another likely possibility. But as audiences discovered at the end of Infinity War, it wasn’t just one character who died. It was half of the team, with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) just a few of the headliner characters who crumbled to dust when Thanos snapped his Infinity Gauntlet-clad fingers. And that doesn’t even count Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Heimdall (Idris Elba), and Vision (Paul Bettany), all of whom bit the dust well before the movie’s climactic moment.
Thanos slaughtering half the universe, and half the characters built up as stars over the course of the past 10 years, was arresting, shocking, and utterly heartbreaking. It was a stunning ending. There was just one problem: it was totally meaningless.
In the moment, the emotional impact of seeing all of those characters vanish is undeniably powerful. This is a franchise where no topline hero has truly died or even abandoned the series. I’ve seen the film twice, and both times, the audience in my theater has had the same gasping, horrified visceral reaction. It’s a cinematic moment, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern blockbuster filmmaking. But the best way to gauge viewers’ reactions to the ending is watching how they respond to the credits, and what comes after. Marvel fans have gotten used to two extra moments at the end of the studio’s films: a mid-credits scene and a post-credits teaser, Infinity War drops the mid-credits scene, and subs in a title card, which crumbles to dust in the same way the fallen Avengers did. Both times I’ve seen the film, the audience has groaned audibly at that title card, as if they were hoping for some light-hearted moment of reprieve to make everything a little better. (The lone post-credits scene does tease Captain Marvel as a possible savior, but it’s hard to get too excited after watching Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury disintegrate.)
But the reason savvy movie audiences know to stay for post-credits sequences in the first place is the exact same reason the ending of Infinity War feels so cheap upon further reflection. This is an interconnected cinematic universe, with one movie setting up the next in an escalating series of introductions, team-ups, setbacks, and triumphs. No MCU film operates in isolation. And most fans of the series have an intrinsic awareness at this point that Infinity War sets up both Ant-Man and The Wasp (coming July 2018) and Captain Marvel (set for March 2019), which will inevitably set up the still-untitled Avengers sequel, and so on and so forth.
If Marvel had killed off Captain America or Iron Man, audiences might have believed there would be no walkbacks or resurrections. Their characters have been milked by the MCU in numerous films over a decade, and it would not be hard at all to accept that their time had finally come. Instead, Thanos’ grand act of destruction wipes out the characters that represent the future of the franchise. It targets the characters that Marvel’s corporate parent, Disney, would simply never let go — especially since some of them already have sequels lined up.
Black Panther became the highest-grossing film in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe earlier this year. Ryan Coogler’s film made tremendous strides in terms of representation, cultural awareness, and the kind of timely, powerful storytelling that is so often absent from superhero blockbusters. In 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming finally folded the iconic character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a sequel already announced for 2019. Over two films, Guardians of the Galaxy has practically become its own Marvel sub-brand, with James Gunn adding his unique flair and sense of humor to the world — with, yes, a third installment on the way in 2020.
The protagonists of these movies aren’t just fan favorites who could be killed off for shock value, or in a cruel twist of narrative fate. These are characters with tremendous cultural importance and untapped box office potential. Audiences already know they’re coming back. The sole exception to the latter point is Black Panther, who doesn’t have a formal sequel yet. But even there, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly, “we absolutely will do that.”
So once audiences step outside the theater and begin thinking about Avengers: Infinity War, what initially felt like a devastating loss begins to feel like the cheapest of stunts. People are just far too aware of the way entertainment is produced, promoted, and consumed to not recognize that none of these horrible deaths are actually going to stick. And to be fair, there is a positive element to that. Beloved characters dying is a downer, and an audience that truly believes their newest favorite character may be gone for good is an audience that could be disincentivized to check out the next Avengers installment when it rolls around. Instead, millions of Black Panther and Spider-Man fans — all of whom know T’Challa and Peter Parker will be back — will head into next year’s Avengers movie eager to find out how their favorite characters will survive Thanos’ wrath. The plot also sets up a potentially powerful torch-passing moment. The old-school Avengers survived Infinity War, but what if they eventually sacrifice themselves for real, in order to let the new generation of MCU heroes carry on the bigger fight?
But even that calculation on Marvel’s part betrays a certain amount of audience meta-awareness, a level of strategic thinking about the way corporations and studios position their intellectual properties to maximize their value across movies, TV shows, books, games, theme parks, and every other vertical possible. It’s recognizing movies as pure business, rather than pure storytelling. And that may be the saddest lesson of Infinity War.
I recall seeing The Empire Strikes Back when I was young. At the time, there were just two Star Wars movies. Darth Vader being Luke’s father caused all kinds of good-guy vs. bad-guy cognitive dissonance, even for a child. Seeing Han Solo stuck in a block of carbonite and shipped off to a gangster was emotionally devastating, but it seemed all too possible that his story was over. There was no ongoing production pipeline to feed or larger ecosystem that required these characters to exist in perpetuity. The movie’s cliffhanger ending set up a sequel, but there were no guarantees about how any of the storylines would actually turn out.
It was a simpler time, and not just because I was younger. It was simpler because individual movies were still their own primary driving force. For audiences, there was no certainty about what could or couldn’t happen when a storyline decided to get dark. For the simple experience of cinematic storytelling, it was a purer experience. In the days since I first saw Infinity War, I’ve wondered how its ending would have played in that environment. I would have been outraged, to be sure — but that outrage would have led to an even more potent catharsis when some of these “dead” characters inevitably return to the land of the living.
Instead, we got a facsimile of loss, a moment where audiences go through the motions, aghast that a movie had the guts to kill off a leading character, without having to deal with any messy emotional ramifications. In a way, it does seem like the most Marvel approach possible. These are comic book movies, where nobody can really die — even after we see them turn to ash.