Warning: Major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War lie ahead.
Everybody knew there would be deaths in Avengers: Infinity War. Nobody was prepared for how many. But now that the world has collectively gasped as hero after hero disappeared in Infinity War’s final moments, everybody knows they’re bound to come back, and that we shouldn’t take their deaths seriously. This is a comic book movie, and Marvel’s films operate by comic book logic that dictates no death lasts forever, except formative ones like Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. (Plus, many of the affected characters have upcoming movies that were announced long ago.)
The only problem: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote Infinity War and its still-untitled sequel, have said we should take that ending seriously. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Markus said, “I just want to tell you it’s real, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you will be able to move on to the next stage of grief.” While we have every reason not to take that statement at face value, it’s at least worth turning his claim into a thought exercise. Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe be a more surprising, dramatically compelling place if, in spite of the superheroic efforts of those left behind, none of the eradicated characters ever returned to the story?
The first of two Avengers films directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, Infinity War pits the combined protagonists of a decade of Marvel movies into one universe-spanning megastory. The buildup to the film led to a lot of speculation about who wouldn’t survive to appear in 2019’s still-untitled sequel. Some losses were expected, especially since neither Chris Evans (Captain America) nor Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) have publicly signed on for more sequels. But fans largely didn’t expect what they got — a bloodbath to rival the climax of The Godfather. Or maybe dustbath would be a better term, since the film ends with the disintegration of everyone from headliners Black Panther and Spider-Man to, in the post-credits stinger, SHIELD operatives Maria Hill and Nick Fury, both unseen since Avengers: Age Of Ultron, two years and seven Marvel movies ago.
Also disintegrated in those final moments: Doctor Strange, Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Groot, Drax, and Mantis. Others — Loki, Heimdall, Gamora, and Vision — are killed in the action leading up to that climax. That leaves the MCU much emptier, but it also opens up some intriguing possibilities. Consider the implications of permanently wiping out some of these characters.
Released earlier this year, Black Panther won instant, justified acclaim as one of Marvel’s best movies. It introduced viewers to Wakanda, an independent, technologically advanced African nation straight out of the Afrofuturist fantasies of ‘70s Herbie Hancock album covers. Chadwick Boseman makes for a terrific T’Challa, serving as the film’s calm-yet-badass center. That said, T’Challa is maybe the third or fourth most compelling character in Black Panther. It’s easy to imagine future installments simply shifting the focus. Perhaps Nakia or Okoye could take on the Black Panther mantle. Or maybe the film would simply focus on other aspects of Wakanda, and explore what happens to its culture if the Black Panther role is vacant. The title might not make sense, but that doesn’t mean the movie would be bad.
Viewers have barely met this guy — he starred in one pretty good movie, and cameoed in another. He vaulted to the head of a mystical organization so quickly that we barely got to see what that organization looks like when he isn’t disrupting it. Like T’Challa, Stephen Strange helped introduce moviegoers to a fascinating world that would still be fascinating without him — it might, in fact, be more fascinating without him. Nothing against Strange, or Benedict Cumberbatch, but would future films be that much less intriguing with Wong as the Sorcerer Supreme?
Admittedly, this would be a tough loss. After a promising introduction in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland proved he was the right choice for Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. His Peter is bright, winning, good with a quip, and fully convincing as a kid whose perpetual haplessness never gets in the way of his heroism. He’s the quintessential Peter Parker, in other words. And now he’s dead. But that doesn’t mean Spider-Man has to die with him. This could be a good time to introduce Miles Morales, whose existence within the MCU has already been hinted at in Homecoming, and who will be starring in Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. (A world without Spider-Man would also make more sense of Sony’s upcoming slate of superhero films, featuring Spider-Man-related characters like Venom and Black Cat, but no Spider-Man himself.) What’s more, a dead Peter could be a martyr figure for the remainder of the MCU’s existence. He’d become a saintly, too-pure-for-this-world symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice. RIP Peter. You’ll always be in our hearts.
Guardians of the Galaxy
With the additions of Nebula, Mantis, and Yondu, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 proved the cosmic super-team could have a flexible lineup. Yondu’s death also proved that not everybody who signs up for Guardians duty is going to make it to retirement age. True, the elimination of the entire team might make recruitment efforts a little rough, but it’s a big universe, filled with characters who could make fitting stewards for the Guardians name. Maybe John C. Reilly’s Rhomann Dey could start a new team. There’s always room for more Reilly.
Eh. Who cares? As he proved in I, Tonya, Sebastian Stan is a multifaceted actor who will hopefully enjoy a long, colorful career. But if the drippy Winter Soldier stayed dead, would anyone but Cap notice?
And the rest
Some of the remaining characters would be missed more than others. Heimdall never had enough to do, and Idris Elba is too big a star now for such a tiny role. Loki had completed his journey from heel to hero, and bringing him back for a few more rounds of “Can we trust him today?” would just cheapen a solid, memorable story arc. Vision and Scarlet Witch might work better as doomed romantic partners than a viable couple. The MCU would feel their loss, and the loss of everyone else above, but would still work without them. For starters, it’s not like these absences would leave only Happy Hogan behind to continue the fight with Thanos, or the supervillains sure to follow in his wake. Many of the heavy-hitters would remain, as well as the many Marvel heroes who haven’t made it to the films yet. And the possible influx of characters previously held by Fox, but now theoretically available to Disney post-acquisition, could certainly fill out the world considerably.
Sticking with the ending and forcing fans to move on to the “next stage of grief” (and presumably past it, unless Markus and McFeely want everyone stuck on “anger” for the next year), would also introduce a new element of danger to the MCU. Real deaths with real consequences and a movie universe in which anything can happen. Doctor Strange can become a permanent resident of the astral plane. One false move, and it’s Spider-Man no more. Even taking characters off the storyboard for a few years might not be a bad idea, and there’s plenty of precedent for that in the comics that inspired these movies. Peter Parker, Thor, and Wolverine, among many others, have all enjoyed extended leaves of absence this century, and their disappearances just made viewers appreciate them more.
Granted, none of this will happen. Some of the fallen heroes will be returning — probably most of them. Possibly even all of them. But with their returns will come lowered stakes and a less dangerous world. What meaning does death have, if it can be undone with a snap of the fingers?