Death has become passé in comics. Major characters die with regularity, only to be brought back within a couple of years. But while characters’ sensational resurrections are often timed to coincide with their next appearance on the big screen, superhero movies have been far more reluctant to kill major characters as a plot device.
That may change soon. In a recent interview, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige admitted that Avengers: Infinity War will be the final chapter for some staples of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While death has always been a part of the MCU, with villains especially unlikely to live to see the post-credits scenes, the death of a prominent hero has been rare.
The only major hero to die in the MCU to date has been Quicksilver, whose super-speed was somehow not enough to dodge a hail of bullets in Avengers: Age of Ultron. However, the MCU version of Quicksilver was hardly a beloved character. He had only been introduced in Age of Ultron, where he received limited screen time, and paled in comparison to Evan Peters’ nuanced portrayal of the character in Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. While Pietro’s death may have been mourned by Wanda Maximoff, few in the audience felt enough of a connection to the character to care.
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The situation was very different for the MCU’s most prominent supporting character death, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, who was (seemingly) killed by Loki in 2012’s The Avengers. His demise is a major plot point, and (with a little push from Nick Fury) inspires Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to come together and fight to the bitter end. It was an emotional moment, although it ended up being short-lived. Within a few months, Marvel had already announced the fan-favorite Coulson would be back, headlining his own television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. While Quicksilver was expendable (in no small part because he was shared with a rival studio), Agent Coulson was simply too valuable to Marvel Studios to let him die. Or, at least, stay dead.
The death and resurrection of Coulson hints at the real reason Marvel’s fascination with dead superheroes has not crossed over to the MCU: Superheroes are big business, and it’s tough to have a tentpole summer blockbuster starring a dead hero. While legacy heroes offer a way around this in the comics, studios tend to be inherently conservative and are wary of recasting major roles unless absolutely necessary. Better to keep Robert Downey Jr. around as Iron Man until he refuses to renew his contract than take a $100 million gamble with someone else.
Instead, we have had a series of fake-outs and close calls, some harking back to the comics and some not. Captain America and Bucky both seemed to die in Captain America: The First Avenger, only for each to be thawed decades later. War Machine seemed to meet his doom in Captain America: Civil War, until Rhodey turned up in physical therapy at the end of the film. Groot nobly sacrificed himself to save the team in Guardians of the Galaxy, but managed to survive as Baby Groot, with a little help from his pal Rocket. Even Janet van Dyne, who appears only briefly in a flashback in Ant-Man, is not so much dead as simply lost somewhere in the microverse.
While all of these near-death experiences are consistent with comic storytelling tropes, in the aggregate they contribute to a sense that death is not something that will directly affect the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are signs, though, that this is beginning to change.
This summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 brought one of the MCU’s most prominent non-villain deaths yet: Yondu. Initially portrayed more as Peter Quill’s competition, Yondu’s role was greatly expanded in Vol. 2, where he was shown more as a father figure who gave his life to save his son. Director James Gunn said he was initially reluctant to kill Yondu, but that the death ultimately served the broader narrative and gave the character a heroic sendoff. “The hero of the movie ends up being remembered,” he said. “And the hero of the movie ends up being, well – you’re the hero of the movie! You know, they’ve done something! They’ve given up something that most of us would not even come close to having the balls to give up in real life, and in the movies as well.”
But, as emotionally compelling as Yondu’s death is in the context of the film, he was still ultimately a supporting character in an ensemble cast. For death to feel real within the broader cinematic universe, a headlining character will need to die. That day might be coming soon.
With hints that some major characters might not be coming back from Infinity War, speculation is high as to who that might be. But if Marvel wants to take the MCU in a bold new direction after the still-untitled Avengers 4, there’s one obvious choice: Tony Stark.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has been at the center of the MCU since its beginning, in 2008’s Iron Man. Infinity War will be his ninth appearance in 19 films, more than anyone else. For many people, Iron Man equals the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, after a decade of playing Stark, Downey recently suggested it may be time to put the Iron Man suit on mothballs, “before it’s embarrassing.”
If Downey is indeed ready to move on, letting Iron Man die in Infinity War could be the best way to see him off. In addition to giving Stark one last chance to make a heroic sacrifice —and possibly make up for some of his worst errors of judgment, like Ultron — his death would also create a vacuum in the Avengers that makes room for the next generation of heroes to take over.
Or, Marvel could go even bigger. If multiple heroes don’t make it past Infinity War, the remainder might find disbanding the group altogether. At least, that is, until some new threat forces the MCU’s greatest heroes to come together as the New Avengers. There is nothing Marvel could do to shake up the MCU more than unite its TV and film franchises under the Avengers brand, and disassembling the original team with a major death or two could make that happen.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Avengers: Infinity War boasts a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Benedict Wong, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Holland and Anthony Mackie. The film arrives in theaters May 4, 2018, with the untitled sequel opening May 3, 2019.
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