[Warning: The rest of this post contains major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.]
Things in Infinity War didn’t exactly go well for our heroes and, by all accounts, the population of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next phase is looking a little… dusty. To make things worse, some of the big names on Infinity War’s high casualty list are already confirmed for new solo outings in the coming year, making the speculation of what might come next for the Avengers less a question of “when” than “how?”
Luckily, Marvel comics have a history of playing fast and loose with the rules of mortality all the time, and if you know where to look, the answers to the MCU’s biggest question may have already been printed. Here are the ways our faves could come back from the great beyond in time for their next major box office outings.
Let’s Talk about Death, Baby
It’s important to note that Infinity War showcased two different types of death. There’s the traditional kind — people getting vacuumed out into space, strangled, thrown off cliffs — and then there’s the slightly less traditional kind: the kind that comes from the snap of a crazy despot’s cosmically powered fingers.
Then there’s the type that might not actually be a “death” at all. There’s a very real chance that, rather than crumbling into the dust and floating off into the ether, Thanos’s victims were actually sucked up into the Soul Stone.
In the comics, the Soul Stone differs from the other five Infinity Stones in that it’s actually sentient and able to manifest a will of its own. That will is, unsurprisingly, the need to harvest souls. The stone doesn’t “eat” the souls or even destroy them, but rather siphons them into a special pocket dimension called the “Soul World” where they live out a relatively idyllic, surreal life as its prisoners. We actually saw a glimpse of the MCU’s incarnation of the Soul World in Infinity War, when Thanos is temporarily teleported to a strange orange-skyed oasis where he sees the baby version of Gamora. This not only mean the Soul World exists in the MCU, but that a person who was killed in proximity to the Stone (rather than by the Stone itself) could end up there.
All of which is to say it would really be a shame if half the perfectly good, serviceable souls of the galaxy were to just stop existing all together at Thanos’s behest. Not when the Soul Stone could so quickly expand the size of it’s collection.
But of course, if half the universe’s population is suddenly taking up residence inside Soul World, there’s still the important matter of how they could actually get out. Luckily, there’s some comics precedent for that, too.
Dealing with Pocket Dimensions
Technically, by the Marvel comic canon, a soul stored away in Soul World isn’t actually dead because the soul hasn’t been claimed by Mistress Death. This was an important distinction to make, or at least it was when Thanos was doing his level best to impress Death to be his ultimate goth girlfriend in the original Infinity Gauntlet story by Jim Starlin and George Perez. Of course, with the recontextualized motivation (and the general lack of personified Death) in the MCU, Avengers: Endgame’s context will be a bit different — but the idea could still hold. In a strange way, living in the MCU’s Soul World would actually protect you from properly dying.
One of the best case studies for this particular brand of not-death is Adam Warlock, who hasn’t officially made his MCU debut, but was winked at in the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post-credits stinger. Adam played a huge role in Infinity Gauntlet with a direct relationship to the Soul Stone, something he fostered over the years. Adam Warlock’s life is... a lot, even by superhero comic standards, but the long and the short of it is that it established a way that people trapped within Soul World could absolutely be brought back with new bodies and go on to live the rest of their happy go lucky lives.
The general rule of thumb as established by both Adam’s myriad of cosmic plot craziness and Infinity Gauntlet itself is that if a person is “killed” by an Infinity Stone, the best way to bring them back is with an Infinity Stone — or at the very least, with someone “attuned” to their power like Adam himself.
The MCU has a few people who fit that bill, with Wanda Maximoff being the obvious frontrunner. Her disappearance in Infinity War is bleak on one hand, but potentially hopeful on the other. If the disintegrated victims actually are taking up residence in the Soul World, her innate abilities and connection to the Reality Stone might be the key to bringing everyone out. It’s unlikely that she’ll be able to do it all on her own, however, considering that half the galaxy is at stake here — so the key will be figuring out a way to have Wanda amplify her abilities while trapped in the pocket dimension. Maybe she’ll find someone who can help...
How the Time Stone could fit in
Entering and exiting the Soul World is far from Marvel’s only recourse when it comes to bringing people back from the dead. There’s also the old reliable standby of time travel, and at the very least the Time Stone’s abilities are slightly less esoteric than the concept souls without bodies.
Infinity War puts the idea of using the Time Stone in an interesting position, however, considering that it’s currently in Thanos’ hands and Doctor Strange, its keeper, has been disintegrated. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely off the table.
Though the Time Stone may not be sentient like the Soul Stone, its unique ability to become completely untethered in time means that it’s possible for it manifest somewhere in the past or future that isn’t in Thanos’ control, which it did in Marvel Comics’ Original Sin event by Jonathan Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu. Prior to Original Sin, the Time Stone had been “lost” (i.e. went missing) in Steve Rogers’s botched attempt to use the Infinity Gauntlet. Later, it spontaneously manifested in Steve’s hand, taking him (at maybe the least opportune moment) on a timestream-slipping journey into the future where he was forced to experience a sort of superheroic It’s A Wonderful Life at the end of all things.
...Okay, so maybe it wasn’t really that much like It’s A Wonderful Life, it wasn’t Christmas and there certainly weren’t any angels, but it did involve a lot of abrupt hopscotching around the future until Steve was forced to come to terms with some things about both himself and the Avengers. Also, Kang the Conqueror was there several times over. You know how these things go.
The point is: the Time Stone isn’t really bound by the sort of laws we think tether concepts like “possession” to any one given person. It can essentially pick and choose (or, at least have someone pick and choose for it) when it wants to be as much as where.
We know in Infinity War that Doctor Strange saw, out of millions of possibilities, exactly one outcome where the Avengers were successful in defeating Thanos. We also know that he is more than capable of putting spells on the Time Stone that affect people’s ability to touch and interact with it. Furthermore, we watched as Strange seemingly willingly gave the Stone — the one thing he swore to protect above all else — over to Thanos in exchange for Tony’s life.
It wouldn’t be all that far of a stretch to assume that Thanos possessing the Time Stone is actually part of the winning scenario he saw, and that he may or may not have worked some sort of magic on the Stone itself before he handed it over.
Things probably won’t be quite as simple as the Time Stone suddenly manifesting in Steve Rogers’ hand at the start of Avengers: Endgame, but the idea that finding the Stone somewhere in the past or the future might be the lynchpin in their plan is certainly far from off the table. Especially considering the tried and tested rule of the Stones being needed to counteract the effect of the Stones — if any one piece of the Gauntlet that isn’t the Soul Stone is about to come into play, the TIme Stone is probably the most likely (and most useful) candidate.
If the Soul World doesn’t wind up being half the universe’s final resting place, being lost in time is another potential answer to the “where do people go when they stop existing?” question. There’s precedent here, too, specifically with the “death” of Steve Rogers at the end of the comic-version of Civil War. Steve, after having been shot with what can only be described as a cosmically powered “time bullet” (no, really) was forced to drift aimlessly between moments in his life before his allies found a way to retether him to the present, “resurrecting” him.
This is admittedly less likely than the Soul World, especially for trillions of people, but something that may be used in specific instances — perhaps to retrieve Strange in one way or another. As the wielder of the Time Stone, unsticking himself from the laws of spacetime certainly seems like a pretty good fail safe to build.
At the end of the day, it’s tricky to wager too much on any one theory for Avengers: Endgame, but no matter how much of a crapshoot the potential outcomes may feel, at least we do know one thing for certain: Death and superheroes don’t tend to mix in any permanent fashion. The ways they circumvent it might be a little goofy, a little hard to track, and a lot convoluted, but there’s almost always a way for things to end up back on track in the long run. And, hey even if things really are totally broken forever, it’s like Tony Stark famously said in the very first Avengers movie:
If they can’t save the Earth, you can be damn sure they’ll avenge it.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles, California who specializes in comics history and superheroes. You can find her on twitter @rustypolished, where’s she’s probably having a very public meltdown about something extremely embarrassing.