Infinity War proves we need to stop thinking of death as the ultimate symbol of high stakes storytelling

Contributed by
Jul 19, 2019, 5:01 PM EDT (Updated)

Even before the film hit theaters two weeks ago, Avengers: Infinity War fans were kind of obsessed with death. We were all placing bets (sometimes literally) on which Avengers would breathe their last, and now that it's over we're speculating over which characters may or may not be gone for good. That's an inevitable and sometimes entertaining part of fandom, but the truth is it matters far less than we think it does.

SPOILERS for Avengers: Infinity War ahead!

There are plenty of criticisms you can level at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if you had to pick one that holds the most weight, it's probably that none of the films ever seem to reach a real resolution. The structure of the MCU has been compared to a long-running TV show rather than a series of films, because the narrative is always setting up the next thing rather than arriving at a satisfying denouement. As a result, some viewers come away never feeling fully invested. A film like Iron Man Three, for example, could have served as a kind of curtain call for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, but Iron Man kept fighting on for four more films and counting.

Infinity War, if you believed the marketing, was supposed to change all of that, and indeed it may have. With a snap of his gauntleted fingers, Thanos did what he set out to do. Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and others faded into dust. By the time the credits rolled on Infinity War, audiences were stunned into silence. Then the speculation began again.

Obviously some of these characters are coming back, right? After all, Spider-Man and Black Panther both have sequels to make. Moviegoers who demanded higher stakes in the Marvel movies for years got what they wanted, only to pull back and call shenanigans. Why are we supposed to be so invested in these "deaths" when it's been established that there are magic space rocks out there that can, among other things, reverse time?

Because the deaths were never the whole point.

Thanos Avengers Infinity War

Credit: Marvel Studios

Devastating character deaths matter in fiction, as any fan of Harry Potter or Game of Thrones will tell you. They're powerful storytelling tools, but in an arena like superhero comics they're often just a bump in the road. No one stays dead but Uncle Ben, the saying goes, because you don't want to kill Peter Parker for good if the kid's still selling books. There's an element of cynical commercialism here, but in the 80 years since Superman leaped onto the page and launched a genre, something else has grown out of that.

Infinity War is perhaps the Most Comic Book comic book movie ever made, with all of that baggage that entails, including the idea that death is never permanent. Peter Parker is definitely coming back in some form, and even Gamora could one day return. Does that mean their deaths don't matter? Does that mean Superman's "death" didn't matter 25 years ago? If you care about these characters and you're invested in their stories, of course they matter, because they matter to the characters around them. Yes, everything Thanos just did could ultimately be undone, but does Tony Stark — bloodied and weeping and lost on Titan — know that right now? Does Steve Rogers? Perhaps most importantly, does Thanos?

Killing off characters in massive genre stories can be as easy as pulling a name out of a hat. It can give you a way out of narrative knots that come with things like an overabundance of major players in the story. In the 80-year ongoing saga of superheroes, though, death is never that simple, and you have to find other ways to make things interesting. Infinity War isn't about killing a bunch of characters only to reveal in the next movie that you had your fingers crossed. Infinity War and whatever it evolves into next is about the burden of survival, of being cursed with knowledge, as Thanos puts it. What do you do when you finally lose? How do you keep fighting? How do you put the universe first when all you want to do is curl up and weep?

To my mind, the most telling shot in the entire film comes when Stephen Strange hands the Time Stone over to Thanos. The camera focuses in on his scarred, shaking hands as the Stone leaves them and floats away, and in that moment the arrogant and superior sorcerer we've been watching for two hours is gone. In his place is a scared man who has seen the future and now has to trust that what he saw will come to pass. He has to give himself over to defeat, to death, in order to know life and victory again. If you care about these characters and the story they're still telling, dead or alive, that can matter far more than anyone crumbling to dust. That's what Infinity War is really about.

And if that still doesn't do it for you... well, at least remember that the most famous character in the book at the center of virtually all of Western literature is a guy who died and rose from the dead three days later.