So, which stage of grief are you on?
It's been a couple weeks since "Avengers: Infinity War" was unleashed onto theaters like a moon hurled by a mad titan. In that time, both Marvel omnivores and casual fans alike have been processing the ending, in which — *SPOILERS FOR A TWO-WEEK OLD MOVIE YOU'VE EITHER SEEN 157 TIMES OR HAVE BEEN AVOIDING SPOILERS FOR LIKE THE PLAGUE SO WHY WOULD YOU START RUINING IT FOR YOURSELF NOW* —half of the colorful characters we've come to know and love after a decade made like Kansas and become dust in the wind.
Despite the breathless stream of jokes and action combined with heartwrenching sadness and great character moments, the movie is largely defined on its somewhat unprecedented ending, in which so many icons seemingly kick the collective bucket all at once. The apparent departures of Groot, T'Challa, Spider-Man (God, especially Spider-Man) and company kicked some people's excitement for the still untitled fourth "Avengers" film into overdrive as they pour over every single half-baked theory Reddit has to offer on how the heroes will come roaring back to life.
Others didn't handle it particularly well, like my fiance, who declared DC was the only comic book company that existed while "Infinity War's credits were rolling. I practically had to beg her to not burn every Marvel-related item we own after seeing the movie. My mom was in a similar boat, as she was so depressed after seeing the movie she had to watch the 1998 "Parent Trap" remake as comfort food. I thought it was wonderfully realized. When I first saw it, I wasn't thinking about the fact that most of these characters will return. In that moment, I was too busy focusing on the pillars of my childhood dissipating into nothingness before my eyes.
The ending and its aftermath has dominated conversations surrounding the film, so it only feels appropriate to go over the impact of the ending, what it means for the next film, and its interesting and potentially terrifying implications.
In the closing moments of the film, our cosmic harbinger of death, Josh Brolin's Thanos, kills half the universe with a snap of his figures. Most of the characters who bite the big one hail from the newer films, adding to the shock of their departure. Unless you count Bucky — who first appeared as Captain America's gung-ho best friend in "The First Avenger: Captain America," and was thought dead but didn't return proper until three years later in real and life and about 70 canonically in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014) — none of them debuted before Marvel's Phase Two of films. Shuffling these characters off the board adds to the sense that anything can happen.
Plus, nothing overwhelms an audience with hopelessness — therefore setting up an even more triumphant victory — like the death of the wide-eyed, optimistic Spider-Man, who has been set up over the last couple years as the face of the MCU once Downey truly finishes with these films, and a whimsical tree man who can only say three words.
The ending also sets the stage for the characters left — the OG Avengers who have been with the franchise from the early days, like Iron Man, Captain America Banner and Black Widow — to either die heroically saving every other person in existence or get an otherwise fitting swan song. With Stark and Cap, a true death they can never receive in the comics may be fitting here, considering both film versions have avoided death for years.
The first "Iron Man" featured him stopping some shrapnel from getting a couple inches closer to his heart with his own genius and some help from a kindly old man while "in a cave with a box of scraps" as Jeff Bridges so memorably put it in the first film. Cap escaped death's cold grip by being frozen in ice for more than half a century. The piper being paid for one of these two could feel appropriate. Both biting it seems unlikely, though, especially since IW hinted a bouncing baby Stark could be coming in the future. Plus, not every character's story always has to end in death. Anyone who knows anything about business knows most of the characters who died by the time "Infinity War"'s credits rolled will be returning —a "Spider-Man: Homecoming" sequel lands a couple months after the fourth "Avengers," for God's sake, and "Black Panther" is the third highest-grossing film of all time domestically. That said, how well the ending plays is a testament to how well the stakes are raised and how we care about the characters. Stunned silence ruled my screening until Spider-Man declared he didn't feel so good. You could hear frenzied whispers as poor Spidey fell into Stark's arms. To the audience, this mattered.
Enacting a mass genocide, as temporary as it may be, on characters audiences have spent more time with in the last decade than they have some of their aunts and uncles is a ballsy move and risked a "Last Jedi"-like backlash. Indeed, Facebook pages in the initial days following the release cries of the film were bursting with cries of the film being "depressing," followed by declarations from viewers that they were "done with Marvel."
That risk paid off dividends, however. Full confession: I didn't see "Infinity War" opening night — I know, I know, 16-year-old me would be ashamed. I saw it a couple days later so my fiance could see it with me, but the night before I finally saw it I talked to a friend about "Infinity War" We traded rambling theories about what we thought was going to happen. I told him my mom was so depressed she needed a double dose of pre-scandal Lindsay Lohan wholesomeness to get through the rest of the day and that my little brother had apparently declared the movie was "fine". Keep in mind, my little brother likes basically EVERY movie he has ever seen. That kind of reaction, plus the fact that a similar mass death occurs in the "Infinity Gauntlet" story line, helped me piece together the ending. But that didn't stop me from being absolutely flabbergasted when those final scenes unfolded before me on the big screen. I laughed like a madman as the screen faded to black and the title card appeared and faded like so many hopes and dreams, because I was amazed a mega-corporation had the collective cajones to risk upsetting its audience too much. I felt those deaths, even though I know in my heart of hearts that most of them won't stick — right!?!
Regardless, I talked to my friend again a couple days later, who had also since seen it. He said if I hadn't inadvertently planted the idea in his mind that that half the cast would meet their end, he probably also would have declared he was done with the MCU, as my fiance and my mother did. It was in that moment that I realized Disney had done its job. It made you feel, in the context of the film, that those deaths of these fictional characters were not only meaningful but were going to last in the long run, though most audience members know that's unlikely.
The film's climax is also well-earned, as the rest of the film prepares you slowly prepares you for it without tipping its hand. The film's opening minutes feature the deaths of Idris Elba's Heimdall and fan-favorite Loki. Tom Hiddleston's snering take on the character is unquestionably beloved and, up until a couple years ago, was the only reasonable answer to the question, "Who are the good MCU villains?" As forced as his death may have been — Really? He thought trying to simply stab the interstellar death god, immediately after feigning loyalty to him, was going to work? — it told the audience that everything else they were about to see was not going to go down the way they thought it was. After Peter Quill pulls the most infuriating move ni the film and punch Thanos right before the other heroes could pry the Infinity Gauntlet from his hand, he mutters "Did we just lose?," showing even the heroes know they're moments away from a rare defeat.
Thanos had been teased since ever since most moviegoers wondered why mutant Barney the Dinosaur was suddenly flashing his pearly whites at them at the end of "The Avengers" six years ago. When you tease a character across three films and over a half a decade, you want to make sure he lives up to the hype. Having build that character a somewhat earned emotional connection to one the main characters - mostly earned through the performance of both Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldana as Thanos' adopted daughter/longterm kidnap victim Gamora - while also wiping out half the characters in your franchise is a pretty solid way of doing that. He accomplished his goal without any convoluted schemes; He simply beats the heroes at the one thing the MCU has been accused of boiling down to: fighting. "Infinity War" is a marathon of well-realized fight scenes, with scenes of characters making quips while cooling down from a fight or preparing for another fight interspersed in between. There is something poetic and a tad state that after a decade, with the stakes seemingly never been higher, no character could beat Thanos at the one thing they all constantly do. And life everywhere in the universe because of it.
Speaking of devastation, the ending brings up an interesting idea. Realistically, every film after the fourth "Avengers" would consist of every character, especially the younger, more fragile "Spider-Man" cast, dealing with the fact that that they either died and then suddenly materialized again or were dealt with everyone they know and love dying. But since franchise gotta franchise, so one can imagine a lot of that turmoil will be brushed aside, or at least not emphasized heavily.
I also can't help but wonder if the Marvel/Netflix shows will be affected by any of this. The shows have little interaction with the films, so this seems doubtful. From a continuity standpoint, that is absurd, since you'd think half the people in the world - New York City included - suddenly disappearing would come up, since the alien invasion from "The Avengers," which wouldn't have nearly as much death, occasionally still warrants a mention on the shows. The problem is that it would require every series to halt their current plots. Logic would also dictate that at least some of the characters would be killed as well, right? Unless everyone important just simply was simply lucky enough to be spared. Hand-waving the ending with "Oh yeah, New York's population has been devastated. That's weird." would also be stupid, so it's probably best for all involved if the showrunners just sidestep it entirely.
(Aside: If Disney and Marvel decide they don't like money and opt not to resurrect half the cast, "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" needs to be nothing but two hours of Rocket futility attempting to crazy glue the shattered pieces of his life back together as the only Guardian left. He'd spend the entire movie talking to a money tree that wouldn't respond back. He would have a ship full of mannequins made to look like his fallen teammates — football gear for the Drax mannequin, one of those headbands with balls on top for Mantis' antennae, etc. - in order to delude himself into thinking he still has the family he pretended he barely tolerated but actually can't live without. I'm picturing a pitch-black comedy with elements of a soul-baring PTSD drama starring a desperate and lost CGI raccoon. It would be the career-high performance of Bradley Cooper AND Sean Gunn. You will never convince me that isn't an incredible idea. Say it with me: "Guardians of the Guardians Vol. 3: One is the Loneliest Number.")
In terms of how the ending will be undone, one can only imagine it will happen through either shenanigans with the Soul Stone or time travel. Set photos of the fourth film suggest the latter will happen, but I'm against it, since throwing time travel at a franchise is normally a surefire sign of jumping the shark. At best, it could feel like a momentous examination of the MCU's history and footprint over the decade and wrap up certain characters' stories with style and grace. At worst, it may just feel like a gloating victory lap as Marvel replays its greatest hits. I'd wager the Soul Stone and its "You have to sacrifice what you love most" feature will come into play, because the wait to see it was so long. Regardless, however, the ending in context hit the mark and had made an substantial impact on audiences. To do that ten years and almost 20 films later is an achievement.