[Warning: Massive Spoilers Follow]
Avengers: Infinity War is, in many ways, an end. But its apocalypse is, it’s clear, a beginning as well.
The arrival of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Marvel extravaganza finally brings to a close over a year of speculation about which of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes might meet their maker—which, in this case, is Thanos (Josh Brolin), a purple alien goliath with a chin that looks like a “nut sack” (per Chris Pratt’s Star Lord), a left hand encased in an enormous golden glove, and a belief that bringing balance to the universe requires genocide on a half-the-population scale. With Chris Evans constantly discussing his desire (and plans) to step away from the role of Captain America, and with Robert Downey Jr. as the franchise’s longest-running headliner, speculation invariably posited them as the most likely candidates to take a one-way trip to the morgue. Though the studio refused to comment on such conjecture, there’s a reason the film’s final trailer climaxed with the sight of Cap struggling to catch, and repulse, a mighty blow from the Mad Titan.
That sly attempt to stoke the online-rumor fire was merely another in a long line of clever Marvel marketing maneuvers—and made all the cannier by the fact that, as those who’ve seen the film now know, it was a giant fake-out. After relegating Evans’ all-American do-gooder to a relative background role in Infinity War, the Russos tease his demise during the Wakanda showdown with Thanos, only to have him simply suffer a massive knockout punch to the face. Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, meanwhile, similarly seems destined to die during his own mano-a-mano confrontation with the villain, suffering an escalating series of attacks that decimate his shiny new nanotech armor, and conclude with him being literally stabbed through the gut. However, he too makes it out alive, if barely, his body left in ruins and his heart broken by Thanos’ ultimate act.
As it turns out, they’re the lucky ones. Marvel immediately establishes Thanos’ fearsomeness by having him kill Thor’s buddy Heimdall (Idris Elba) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The body count only rises from there, with Thanos acquiring the Soul Stone—one of the six magical gems that will give him complete control of reality—by murderously throwing his own daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) off a cliff, and the Mind Stone by lethally ripping it out of the skull of Vision (Paul Bettany). When, after crushing Loki’s windpipe with his bare hands, Thanos proclaims “No resurrections this time,” he’s not just speaking to Thor about the God of Mischief’s penchant for faking his own death—he’s conversing directly with the audience, letting them know that we’ve entered uncharted Marvel territory.
There’s no reason to disbelieve the legitimacy of those deaths; their depiction indicates that, barring some wholesale screenwriting backtracking, those characters have come to the end of their Marvel Cinematic Universe run (that Saldana is about to spend years making four Avatar sequels makes even Gamora’s stunning demise fathomable). Consequently, the film plays like a grim culmination of the past decade, decimating prior assumptions that these wisecracking comic-book heroes can triumph against insurmountable odds by being on the morally right side of a conflict, or joining forces and “winging it” (like the Guardians of the Galaxy), or even by sacrificing those they hold most dear for the greater good. Infinity War says the good times and comforting paradigms of old are finished forever, replaced by the far bleaker truth that sometimes, things don’t turn out for the best.
Marvel, however, isn’t about to cease moviemaking operations after this blockbuster and its already-shot follow-up set for next year, Avengers 4, whose title is apparently such a spoiler for Infinity War that the studio has yet to announce it. As such, the aforementioned departure of Heimdall, Loki, Gamora and Vision can be seen as not only a way to provide real stakes for the series—something that’s been sorely lacking for the past ten years—but also as a cleansing maneuver, aimed at giving the MCU a fresh start. And that’s even more plausible in light of the film’s jaw-dropping last moments, in which Thanos, now in possession of all six Infinity Stones, turns every other on-screen figure to dust with a snap of his fingers.
Among those casualties are Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Star Lord (Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Soldier/White Wolf (Sebastian Stan). As you might immediately recognize, the top half of that list is comprised of the MCU’s more recent additions—all of whom (meaning Spidey, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy) are already scheduled to star in forthcoming stand-alone movies. That knowledge, when coupled with the fact that this bloodbath features no actual blood (instead, everyone simply disintegrates/vanishes), suggests that these characters aren’t really dead at all, but just gone.
Beginning with Iron Man’s post-credit sequence, the MCU has defined itself through interconnectivity—telling stories that are self-contained, and yet always concerned with laying the groundwork for upcoming installments. The same is true of Infinity War, which in The Empire Strikes Back-style fashion wraps up with a heroes-scattered-to-the-wind cliffhanger destined to be resolved by 2019’s sequel. Its climactic deaths are pure comic-book soap opera, completely in tune with superhero sagas’ love of occasionally dispatching (and then resurrecting) popular personalities. But more fundamentally, they appear to be a device aimed directly at setting up a post-Infinity War world devoid of Iron Man, Captain America and many other founding Avengers.
And that’s because, in all likelihood, the studio has merely transported them to one of the many Alternate Earths that exist in the larger Marvel Multiverse.
That twist would allow Marvel to reboot the MCU for the years ahead, with its next-generation stars—Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt and Brie Larson (whose Captain Marvel arrival is teased by the post-credits scene)—at its center, and a clever reason proffered for why Downey Jr. and Evans aren’t around anymore. Moreover, it would let the Russos get away with reversing Infinity War’s biggest bombshells without seeming like total cheats. Regarding his decision to save Tony Stark by giving Thanos the Time Stone, the multiverse-fluent Dr. Strange says, “It was the only way,” and it’s difficult not to read those final words as the clue to what’s really going on—namely, that Strange has somehow tinkered with the Infinity Stones enough to guarantee that when Thanos snaps his fingers, it teleports rather than annihilates his victims.
This is, of course, pure conjecture: I have no more insider information about the filmmakers’ plans than most of you. Knowing how the studio operates, though, it’s apparent that Infinity War has been designed as both a closing chapter and the dawn of a new era. It is, in typical Marvel fashion, a slam-bang spectacular with one eye on the present, and another on the future.