The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a major problem, and that problem is the problem of all humanity: death. A cinematic universe built upon a treasure chest of intellectual property just simply cannot afford to not have death, but it also cannot afford the killing off of characters either. Balancing the needs for drama in each film with the need to perpetuate the brand leaves the MCU in a difficult place. Fortunately for Kevin Feige and company, the comics provide a convenient way out, at least for the culminating films of the franchise, Avengers: Infinity War and whatever Avengers 4 will be called.
Let’s begin by looking deeper at the death conundrum. On the one hand, deaths raise the stakes for the world of Marvel’s heroes. Fans have a hard time feeling true danger in the Marvel films and TV shows if no one ever dies. How are these heroes fighting galactic threats and no one ever goes down for good? Joss Whedon, in his building of the Avengers franchise, understood this need for tombstones well. As such, the death of Phil Coulson in the first Avengers film provided the impetus for squabbling heroes to unite into a team. Then, Age of Ultron teased the death of Hawkeye over and over, before doing a last minute switcheroo and killing Quicksilver (who caused some cross-franchise legal and branding challenges anyway with Fox’s X-Men series). Whedon knew that to make Avengers films true cinematic events the audience must believe that someone they love could and would die. When Captain America: Civil War came out to nearly universal high praise, one criticism lingered. No one died, undercutting the seriousness of the conflict.
The other side of the coin is that Marvel wants to perpetuate its MCU for dozens and dozens of films. A cinematic universe, a novel idea ten years ago, is custom built to keep the story going for a long, long time. When characters die, potential spin-offs and sequels die with them. This concern is particularly strong because sequels historically perform well for Marvel. Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron are the only sequels which underperformed their predecessor thus far. Another, often unnoticed, phenomenon is that every MCU sequel has managed to garner a higher percentage of its worldwide gross via the international market than the film before it in that series (i.e. within the Captain America films, or within the Iron Man films). In other words, international audiences tend to grow at a faster rate for sequels than North American audiences. Chasing the foreign dollar, or yuan as it might be, is an increasingly larger part of the way Hollywood execs make decisions. So the powers that be over at Marvel Studios and Disney are obviously not falling over themselves to cast off international revenue growing characters for new properties that are less appealing abroad.
Attempts to find middle ground on death are possible but problematic for comic book properties. One option is the death fake out. A character apparently dies, but then turns out to be ok. This happened in some way or the other in Thor (Odin, Thor, and Loki), Captain America: The First Avenger (Bucky and Cap), Avengers (Iron Man), Iron Man 3 (Pepper), Thor: The Dark World (Loki again!), Captain America: Winter Soldier (Nick Fury), and Guardians of the Galaxy (Groot). The feature is so common that youtube users have created compilations of all the fake dying! At this point, that trick seems to test fans’ patience. Resurrections are also possible, but those don’t go over well either. Most notably, Phil Coulson was brought back from death via some combination of technology, Kree blood, and Nick-Fury-can-do-anything logic. But his resurrection is so bothersome to the movie side of things that the films have yet to acknowledge it. Neither the fake death nor the nonsensical comic resurrection is really an option.
This death problem comes to a head when fans look ahead to Avengers: Infinity War and whatever film follows it up in the two-part series. Fans seem to be confident that they want characters to die. Like a lot of characters. Thanos can’t be Thanos if there isn’t collateral damage. And most likely there will be some sort of deaths, particularly now that many actors are coming to the close of contracts. While most everyone seems onboard with the Marvel train, it seems inevitable that some actress or actor will want to take Phase Three’s two-part conclusion as the stop to get off. So death should come. This could lead to an interesting morning after scenario, where fans and executives alike wake up after the premiere of Avengers 4 and think, “What have we done?! We killed (fill in beloved character with hundreds of millions in box office here)!”
A comic storyline in the mid-1990’s may provide Marvel with an option of how to balance these needs. The event is the “Onslaught” and “Heroes Reborn” mega shake-up of the Marvel Universe. (Much of what follows in this piece entails some comic logic that is exceedingly lacking in, well, logic. I’m sure that I’ll mess some of it up, but the details aren’t all that important.) Onslaught is the creation of the worse parts of the psyches of Professor X and Magneto. He’s like the psychic energy love child of Xavier’s repressed anger and Magneto’s hate. By the end of the conflict, Onslaught has grown so powerful that the X-Universe cannot handle the problem by themselves, and the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and more come to the rescue. At some point, the heroes discover that Onslaught is susceptible to defeat if the energy which makes up his essence if filled with physical matter. So, the non-mutant heroes (who are somehow immune from helping) throw themselves at Onslaught as the X-people throw all their powers at the monster. The result is Onslaught’s defeat, and a total disappearance or “death” of the heroes.
Much of this story was really just an excuse to kick off a new reboot project at Marvel. The House of Ideas had lured back some big time artists and writers from the late 80’s and early 90’s era of the company to relaunch classic heroes. The heroes they had access to were largely the same group of characters that a decade later Marvel would build Phase 1 of their MCU around. So Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man were totally recreated for a separate pocket universe to try to boost sales. The experiment lasted a short time, and then the heroes returned to the main universe. The whole experiment lasted a year or so. (Note: the big sellers of the day, like Spider-Man, somehow all managed to avoid killing themselves heroically when the universe was near extinction so their popular titles continued uninterrupted.)
So what is the point of this little history lesson on a somewhat forgettable era of Marvel comics? Quite simply, the idea has some value for how the end game of the Avengers and Thanos goes down. The plot would be simple enough. The Infinity Gauntlet creates some sort of cosmic riptide that Thanos is susceptible of entering. Or maybe there is a nearby black hole that is the heroes’ only hope of containing Thanos’ power. The Avengers make a plan where some of the heroes are going to ambush Thanos and try to push him into this cosmic disturbance, while others use their powers to augment the bum rush from a safer distance. Ultimately they successfully send Thanos flying into an unknown corner of a galaxy far away, but only at the cost of the heroes who attack him. At some point someone says, “Surely they’ll die in there!” and someone else says, “Frankly, we don’t know what will happen to them.”
At this point, Marvel can treat the characters as dead. The MCU will move on without them. Phase 4 films can include some sort of tender moments where those left behind look to the stars and wonder what happened to their fallen compatriots. We don’t know if they are dead or not, but we know that they sure aren’t around anymore.
Eventually, Marvel may have a desire to bring these characters back. So they find a way to reopen the cosmic portal/hole/whatever and bring them to earth once more. More importantly, the writers can make up new rules for what happens inside the black hole. Maybe everyone who comes back comes back younger. Or it alters their physical appearance. So the new, cheaper actress or actor now on the big screen has a built in excuse for why they don’t look exactly like that original Avenger did last time we saw them. It smooths out the whole process of recasting the team.
Now some people will suggest this is just another version of the fake death scenario. And it is to a degree. But this is where the tale of Phil Coulson comes into play. For all that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t get right, they did make sure that there was some cost to Coulson’s return. His resurrection was painful and he wished it never happened. Also, he went through a season of suffering from the effect of a compulsion to carve a strange map over and over. Most of his fellow recipients of the treatment died or went mad. If writers are going to attempt the fake death, it still has to have consequences, and this hypothetical scenario is no different. When and if the fallen heroes return they should be markedly different than when they left. The formulation of the master plan to defeat Thanos also needs to make clear that they are totally unaware of the ultimate effect of entering this cosmic hole. The film can even end with a character saying they hope the others will return one day.
A final side effect of this kind of plot line would be the potential to do an awesome one-off, alternate universe story. The problem with the MCU’s interconnected story is that it does not favor simpler stories or stories that are separated from general continuity. What if fans could get a movie that was a “what happened while they were gone” story, sort of like the Christmas special recently released by BBC between Sherlock’s Seasons 3 and 4. Something like Neil Gaiman’s “1602” could be a lot of fun. Or maybe a 2099 film. More conventional or marketable might be something like Marvel Zombies or an Ultimates film. These are projects that would be hard to do if they were part of the main continuity, but creating a pocket world for it via the scenario described above might work. Such a product also wouldn’t bear the weight of setting up a sequel or two or 20. It could be a fun last hurrah for the old cast, or it could be the way to introduce new versions.
This proposal may not be the most likely option. Certainly,the plot is less than the creative brilliance many are hoping from Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely after their incredible work on the Cap movies. They probably have a much better option already in the script. The competing forces for the pro-death and anti-death sides of this issue also mean that most likely, one day, ridiculous comic resurrections are coming to the MCU. If they kill off Iron Man and then RDJ decides he wants another crack in 2025, it’ll be hard to say no to the money that would likely come. But the Onslaught, cosmic hole, side universe idea at least provides a way to balance all the challenges before Feige and co. as the end of Phase 3 comes.