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.
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.”)
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.
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.