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'Avengers: Infinity War' Really Is the End of a Marvel Era

For fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the final scenes of Avengers: Infinity War (warning: spoilers ahead!) appeared to be as climactic as it gets: Not only is Josh Brolin’s villainous Thanos victorious, but the defeat of the good guys comes with a vast number of casualties, including characters who anchor their own movie serials—Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the entirety of the Guardians of the Galaxy. For the majority of moviegoers, it’s a startling end to the movie. It might also be the beginning of the end of Marvel’s reign as the dominant force in genre cinema.

Infinity War continues Marvel’s importing of comic book tropes into cinema, a mission that has worked out so well to date that almost every other major studio has attempted to do the same, with varying degrees of success. This time around, it’s the “comic book event” that is being repurposed—the idea of a story line so big that it takes place on an epic scope and encompasses more heroes than fans can imagine. So far, so good: Avengers: Infinity War features almost every hero that has appeared in a Marvel movie to date—sorry, Jeremy Renner and Paul Rudd, the two actors oddly left alone—fighting to prevent the death of literally half of all life in existence. It doesn’t get much more epic than that, to the tune of Hollywood's biggest opening-weekend haul ever. Unfortunately, the end of Infinity War also reveals that Marvel has also lifted a common, if somewhat unpopular, trope from the superhero comic book library: Dead Doesn’t Mean Dead.

The idea of characters returning from the great beyond is hardly restricted to superhero comics, of course; it shows up in everything from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories—arguably the first notable retcon (a.k.a. retroactive continuity) of a death in serialized storytelling, even if the term wouldn’t be invented for decades afterward— to soap operas, with impressive frequency. Yet, it’s in superhero comic books where the notion is so common that entire storylines—indeed, “comic book events”—have been devoted to explaining away why the dead just can’t stay dead in both Marvel and DC’s fictional universes, with characters commenting inside the stories about the potential for resurrection. (“Mutant heaven has no pearly gates,” muses a character in 1991’s X-Factor No. 70. “Only revolving doors.”)
It’s a gimmick that proves the truism that “less is more”; one resurrection may be dramatic and epic, yet for it to happen on a regular basis, or in mass quantities, cheapens not only the original death, but the idea of death at all. Why should readers care if their favorite characters kick the bucket, given how easy it apparently is to journey back from the afterlife? Dramatic tension is drained from the stories as a result, lessening the scope of what truly represents a danger to any character at any given moment, forcing creatives to ramp up threats to cartoonish scales in order to suggest true danger to the audience. Like, for example, an existential threat to 50 percent of all living things throughout the universe.

And Avengers: Infinity War is, unmistakably, preparing to hit the resurrection button. It’s clear not only on a metatextual, corporate level—it’s unthinkable that Marvel would leave Black Panther dead, considering the massive success of Ryan Coogler’s movie, and Spider-Man has already been announced for a 2019 movie—but also in terms of the movie’s own narrative: Outside of the fact that Loki’s ability to return from the dead is referenced on multiple occasions, Infinity War not only resurrects Captain America: The First Avenger villain the Red Skull, but ends with Thanos himself bringing the Vision back from the dead, albeit temporarily. It does all but signpost the fact that death is an impermanent speed bump in the Marvel Universe, rather than anything more serious.
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the removal of death as permanent solution will have on Marvel’s movies, and Marvel’s fan base.
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the removal of death as permanent solution will have on Marvel’s movies, and Marvel’s fan base. Audiences have treated resurrections in both Fox’s X-Men and Warner Bros’ Justice League movies with suspicion, if not derision. And it should be noted that Star Wars, Marvel’s Disney sibling—and while not a superhero series, the sole genre franchise that comes close to Marvel’s success—has stayed firm for four decades in ensuring that characters that die stay dead (albeit with the potential for ghostly appearances when the plot dictates). Is this correlation or causation? Do audiences, consciously or subconsciously, respond to a recognition of real-world rules regarding death, even in fantastical stories? Is death the one element where there’s no such thing as reasonable suspension of disbelief?

When the untitled follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War is released in May 2019, it’ll be fascinating to see how audiences react. Will the return of Spider-Man, Black Panther, et al, be greeted with relief or anger, with the end of this year’s installment revealed as the fake-out that it undoubtedly is? Marvel fans, for all their adoration of the brand, don’t necessarily respond well to being misled—there are still those unhappy about Iron Man 3’s Mandarin story line, and that happened five years ago—so it’s not unrealistic to speculate that pretending characters are dead for a year when it was never intended to be permanent could be the thing to break the spell Marvel has over its fanbase.

From its earliest promotion, Avengers: Infinity War was being sold as the culmination and end point of a decade’s worth of storytelling. It might also mark the end of 10 years of Marvel being the untouchable market leader when it comes to superhero stories on the big screen.

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