Avengers: Infinity War is finally out after years of speculation and hype. As millions flock to see the movie this weekend and digest not just its epic storyline but the implications of its unsettling ending, the thoughts of more than a few of those viewers may turn to next May. That's when the yet-to-be-titled fourth Avengers movie arrives in theaters to conclude a story that will leave the MCU much different than it was before.
The question is, how different will it be, and what could happen in Avengers 4 that could alter it, perhaps irrevocably? Let's formulate a few theories and take some educated guesses below.
Just in case you don't realize it yet, the rest of this article contains massive spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. Like, movie-ruining massive.
"We're in the end game now"
As you know by now if you're still reading this (or just like having movies spoiled before you see them), Avengers: Infinity War ends with the Marvel superheroes losing: having finally obtained the Infinity Stones (while killing Vision, Gamora, Loki, Heimdall and a lot of humans and Asgardians along the way), Thanos (Josh Brolin) snaps his fingers and wipes out half the living beings in the universe.
In an eerie and shocking series of images, we watch Black Panther, Groot, Scarlet Witch, Bucky Barnes, Falcon, Mantis, Drax, Star-Lord, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man all literally crumble into dust. Nick Fury and Maria Hill suffer the same fate in the movie's sole post-credits sequence (more on that later).
In the last shot, Thanos sits outside what looks like a small farmhouse on an unnamed alien planet, a peaceful smile playing around his features. He's succeeded in his quest, and even though the universe is presumably in chaos and all our heroes -- the Guardians, the Avengers, the Wakandans and assorted others -- are devastated, Thanos rests easy.
What will happen now? Will what's left of Earth's Mightiest Heroes and their allies pick up the pieces and just try to live through this new reality? Or will they attempt to find a way to restore the lives of untold trillions of people who have just been wiped out of reality? What do you think?
"He came to steal a necklace from a wizard"
Perhaps a good place to start with what might happen in Avengers 4 are the original comics themselves. These two films are based loosely on The Infinity Gauntlet, the legendary comic book storyline by Jim Starlin that ran from July to December of 1991.
When we say the MCU version of the story is "loosely" based on the comics, we mean it: although Starlin's tale revolved around a battle between Thanos and a boatload of Marvel heroes after the former murders half the living beings in the universe, the plot involved a very different motivation for Thanos, a different overall series of events and a number of major characters (Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, Mephisto and Death, among others) who have yet to appear in the MCU, if they ever will.
One part of the story, however, could provide a kernel of what might happen in Avengers 4: Thanos is essentially tricked into believing he has vanquished his enemies, but loses the Gauntlet to his granddaughter Nebula (who is his "adopted" daughter in the MCU and played by Karen Gillan). With the help of Warlock and Strange, Thanos, in turn, tricks Nebula into restoring the universe to the way it was before. Nebula is put on trial, Thanos retires to his farm, and Warlock becomes the keeper of the Gauntlet, with the Stones divided among five others who will keep them separate.
Three aspects of that story stand out as possible elements of Avengers 4: the involvement of Doctor Strange in a crucial role, the presence of Nebula, and the idea that Thanos can be tricked into thinking that he has not just succeeded but defeated everyone who tried to stop him. The key may lie with Doctor Strange...
"It was the only way"
Just before he dissipates into dust, Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) cryptically tells Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), "It was the only way." Strange seems to be referring to his own decision to hand the Time Stone over to Thanos in exchange for Stark's life. Until that moment, Strange had sworn to protect the Stone, even telling Stark that the latter's life was forfeit if it came down to him or the Stone.
While Stark and Strange eventually develop a grudging respect for each other, they don't exactly become BFFs, which is why Strange's change of heart seems somewhat puzzling. But remember that before their final battle with Thanos amidst the ruins of Titan, Strange had gazed into the future and saw the heroes winning just one out of 14 million possible outcomes of their clash with Thanos.
Did that one victory involve allowing Thanos to win -- or at least think he did -- while laying some sort of trap for him? Did Strange see that the only way to win was to lose, and badly? It's also possible that Strange put a spell on the Time Stone that could lead to a reversal of time, meaning that Strange is one step ahead of everyone (among other things, this is an awesome Doctor Strange movie -- far better than his origin film).
And that leads us to the next question: who is really dead?
"I don't want to go"
The startling deaths of so many Marvel heroes, either as a result of Thanos' quest or when he finally snaps his fingers and "dusts" half of all life away, is almost certainly getting three very different kinds of reactions as those final minutes unspool on the screen.
Casual moviegoers, who like Marvel films but aren't necessarily invested in the mythology, the connectivity and what the heroes eat for breakfast, will probably be flat-out stunned at how many heroes get dusted, especially characters like Black Panther and Tom Holland's Spider-Man, who we've only recently met.
A second group who are savvy about the movie business itself will know that there's no freakin' way that we've just seen the last of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, since his first solo movie just finished making more than a billion dollars and Disney shareholders will personally come for Kevin Feige if there's no Black Panther 2 (which we will already know there will be, just as we already know that the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming is due out in July 2019).
The third faction will be the hardcore Marvel fanboys and fangirls who not only know that Black Panther and Spider-Man and Guardians sequels are coming, but also know that in the Marvel Comics universe, time travel and alternative universes are as common as ham and eggs, and you can't walk from one end of Avengers Tower to the other without tripping over heroes who have died and been resurrected.
But still, there are some deaths that may well remain permanent. The best and most widely accepted guess at this stage is that anyone who died before Thanos activated the Gauntlet -- Loki, Heimdall, Vision and Gamora mainly -- will likely stay dead (some folks believe that Gamora is trapped in the Soul Stone, but I think for dramatic purposes her loss has to really count).
Yet it's also widely believed that most, if not all, of the people who vanished when Thanos snapped his fingers have a good chance of being restored when our heroes figure out a way to reverse what the Mad Titan has done. But at what cost?
It's been pointed out that it's no coincidence that the original Avengers -- Stark, Cap, Thor, Hulk and Black Widow (and almost certainly Hawkeye, although we have yet to see him) -- made it intact through Thanos' mass slaughter, along with random others like Rocket, Nebula and War Machine (there are also some surviving Asgardians out there, including possibly Valkyrie). So it's the original core of heroes who will save the universe...but don't be surprised if some of them sacrifice themselves in the process.
Avengers 4 may well be about many of the first heroes we met in the MCU -- almost certainly Tony Stark and Steve Rogers -- laying down their lives for the next generation of heroes to take the wheel and protect the universe they just saved. There is some criticism that most of the deaths in Infinity War, like Black Panther's, don't matter because you know a number of these characters are coming back. But they do matter, because it's not about whether they come back but how, and at what price.
"I went forward in time to see all the possible outcomes." "Did we win any?"
There are two more variables to consider before we get to Avengers 4, and they are Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel.
Ant-Man and the Wasp comes out in July, and we already know that a good chunk of the plot will involve Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and newly minted Wasp Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) probing deeper into the Quantum Realm to find the original Wasp, Hope's mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The Quantum Realm is a microverse, an alternate dimension really, where time and space are not relevant and the normal laws of reality may not apply. We also know that Doctor Strange can access other dimensions through magic. Can he somehow access the Quantum Realm? Will the Quantum Realm somehow tie into the events of Avengers 4? Perhaps everyone who gets "dusted" by Thanos is actually transported there. Or perhaps the Realm is the gateway to another reality where all those people still exist.
Since we know that Ant-Man and the Wasp will both appear in Avengers 4, don't be surprised if their new movie ends with some sort of revelation involving just what we described above (the film is set just before the events of Infinity War).
Then we're onto March 2019 and the arrival of Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), an Air Force pilot who turns into one of the most powerful beings in the universe thanks to the introduction of Kree DNA into her system.
Her first solo film is set in the 1990s and needs to address two queries: where has she been for the next 20 or 25 years until Fury sends his distress call, and what if any impact does the Kree-Skrull War -- a conflict between two alien races that Carol and Earth get caught up in -- has on future events.
It seems certain that the Avengers will need Captain Marvel's considerable powers to help them physically defeat Thanos, while the Quantum Realm and Ant-Man's knowledge of it (combined with that of Strange) may hold the key to restoring reality or reversing time in tandem with the Infinity Stones.
Whatever happens, Avengers 4 will conclude a 10-year journey that has told a gigantic, ongoing story unlike anything ever seen before on movie screens, and will most likely leave the MCU a far different place than it was a decade ago. As I write this, a year seems a very long time to wait.