Avengers: Infinity War knows what it’s doing.
Superheroes come back from the dead. Comic-book stories — no matter how wild — return to the status quo. But permanence, or even longevity, has nothing to do with the dramatic power of a single twist in a story. The fans who blow off the importance of these moments, due to their confidence that whatever huge changed just occurred will be reversed, are missing the point. This ability to deliver huge moments while keeping the overall arc running along by expected rules is a feature of superhero stories, not a bug.
A huge event can have meaning even if you know it would be unfeasible for the creators to make it permanent. It’s not silly to gasp at Spider-Man’s final words or Bucky’s plaintive “Steve?” In fact, The most impressive thing that Avengers: Infinity War has done is to bring this discussion to the mainstream.
Comics have distilled this process down to a narrative science — an observable pattern in the narrative ecosystem. Long-standing comic-book universes can have their cake (meaningful character deaths) and eat it (the expected return to status quo), too. Infinity War and its unnamed sequel are likely to do it as well, and despite those questioning the movies stakes, it won’t be the first time movie audiences this large have seen comics’ resurrection logic in action.
Fly, you fools
The Lord of the Rings series was nearly 50 years old when The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters in 2001. For five decades, readers knew that Gandalf died during the course of Fellowship, then returned to life in The Two Towers. But I’m betting that even if you knew that going in, or even if you’ve seen the movie a million times, this scene still gets you right in the gut:
Why? Because this scene is five percent about Gandalf dying and 95 percent about all the other characters reacting to his death — who weeps, who is enraged, who is embraced/does the embracing, who pushes their emotions down out of the necessity of their dire situation and who is so overcome by grief and sympathy that they have to be reminded of their responsibilities. None of that is lessened by the fact that he’ll be back in a shiny new costume an hour or two later in the Lord of the Rings marathon.
You don’t get an audience to feel sad by showing them something sad: You get an an audience to feel sad by showing them someone being sad. Infinity War had that in spades, or at least as much as it could throw at us in its final few minutes, pairing characters up with their closest partners so we could watch Tony Stark realize that he’d killed another kid again, watch Okoye see her king die again and watch Steve Rogers watch his best friend die again. We weren’t mourning the dead, we were empathizing with the people who were left. And that happens whether or not we know they’re coming back, because the characters whose emotions we’re channeling don’t know. That’s the important part.
Superhero death rests on that emotional resonance in the comics, built on decades of character interaction. I despised the whole orchestration of Batman’s in-comics death in 2009, from how he died, to who became Batman and Robin in the aftermath and how he was eventually resurrected.
But when Dick Grayson, on finding himself orphaned for a second time, said (and I paraphrase) “You know, I was never under any illusions that Bruce would ever live long enough to have grey hair. But I still didn’t think it would happen this soon,” I felt that punch in the gut. I relished it, even!
A character coming back to life (or returning from being lost in time as a living chrono-weapon aimed at the heart of space time, as Bruce Wayne turned out to be) doesn’t invalidate the story in which characters reacted to their deaths. Provided, of course, that those reactions were compelling and rich.
But you don’t have to stop there.
The story moves on
There are virtually no A-list superheroes who haven’t spent some time dead or out of their own costume in continuity. A big death in a superhero universe is like a forest fire. The world can heal, and will, but for now we get to see what scorched earth looks like, and how the undergrowth can flourish — old characters in new roles, new characters in new roles and new characters in old roles.
That’s an approach that has created some of the greatest deaths (and “deaths”) in superhero comics. 1992’s The Death of Superman gave the Man of Steel a legendary demise, and spent as much time on the supporting cast mourning as it did on how he met his end. The aftermath of The Death of Superman was given enough time and space to leave a gigantic mark on the DC Universe.
These “temporary” moments can forge long-lasting changes. The Death of Superman allowed writers to invent characters like Steel and Kon-El/Superboy and to turn Hal Jordan, the greatest Green Lantern, into one of the DCU’s most terrifying villains. Batman’s 2009 death allowed the team-up of his oldest surrogate child and his only biological one as Dick Grayson/Batman and Damian Wayne/Robin to become a now-classic partnership to the readership. Steve Rogers’ death (and temporary removal of his powers) left room for Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson to make their own marks on Captain America and the Avengers.
In the aftermath of Infinity War, no one is asking if our dead heroes will come back to life in Avengers 4, but how. How many are returning? How will our living heroes continue to react to their circumstances? What sacrifices will be needed to bring our dead heroes back? Have all the dead heroes really just been in a pocket universe inside one of the Infinity Gems this whole time? Which just goes to show that there’s plenty of compelling aspects of a resurrection story even when you know it’s coming.
And there’s every indication that Avengers 4, like the biggest and best superhero deaths and resurrections before it, will have long-lasting consequences for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just as the logistics of Hollywood contracts tell us that that Black Panther and Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy will return, they also tell us that the core lineup of 2012’s Avengers has never been in a better position to sacrifice themselves for the future of the universe.
If you’re still feeling lukewarm on the end of Infinity War, that’s fine. It’s entirely fair to say that Infinity War’s use of the formula isn’t as well constructed as, say, The Fellowship of the Rings’ or other examples, and that it didn’t work for you. But the formula does work. If we really want to go there, the formula is part of an ancient pattern of human beings telling and retelling stories about resurrection.
You can’t blame folks for trying to use it, or for buying into it even when they know how it ends. The deaths of these characters are real to those who are left behind, and that’s who we’re crying for.