(Ed: No, but seriously, spoilers.)
There is dead silence more than two hours into my screening of Avengers: Infinity War. Nobody moves a muscle. Nobody eats. Nobody whispers or gets up or adjusts themselves in their seats. It is a still as it should have been when I saw The Quite Place — stupid nacho-eating bastard behind me — when Thanos reassembles the final Infinity Stone. The unthinkable has happened. 10 years of films, good and bad, has led up to this. I don’t want to look away from the screen, but I’m panicking wondering how long I’ve been watching this film, frightful we’re nearing the end. I want to check my phone to see if there is enough time for one final, massive battle.
There isn’t. With a snap of a finger, it’s over, and those of us who have been there since the beginning are left in an unfamiliar situation: one where we lose. A decade of world-building ends with half of it wiped out. As I sit there watching so many of my favorite heroes fade from existence, I don’t feel sad or shocked or any emotion I’m sure the Russo brothers are hoping I feel. Instead, the sight of Black Panther turning the dirt brings just one thought to my mind…
None of this matters.
Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched, Marvel and Kevin Feige have been quite forward with their plans for the franchise. Nothing was to be a surprise. Though Iron Man first released a decade ago, plans for this connected universe sprouted up as early as 2005.
We knew what was coming. There would be Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, a Nick Fury film that never happened, and an Ant-Man film that got delayed to another phase of the project. These films would introduce the characters, each already with some level of public awareness behind them, who would team up for Marvel’s The Avengers. If successful, it would achieve an unprecedented transition from comics to screen, raising the benchmark for what it means to be a blockbuster franchise. More important, it would turn filmgoers who may have never picked up a comic book in their life into Marvel faithful.
And it worked. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now, and probably always will be, the highest grossing film franchise in history. Five of its films have pulled in more than a billion dollars worldwide with Infinity War sure to be the sixth. It’s become a part of our culture the same way Star Wars did more than 40 years ago. And just like Star Wars, this universe grew from that first set of films. As it did, the audience was kept abreast of every step along the way.
The reveal of the Marvel Phases became media events. We knew about a sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger before the first film had even released. We knew about Thor: The Dark World before he helped save Earth in The Avengers. Phase 3 was detailed in October of 2014, months before Age of Ultron released. It was awesome to see Marvel would finally make a Captain Marvel film — five years later — but it also confirmed fans shouldn’t expect much in the way of big changes. The heroes we love weren’t going anywhere.
Knowing what’s ahead takes a bit of fun out of the whole experience and can absolutely crush any attempts at earth-shattering revelations or twists. How righteous would it have been for Tony Stark to die at the hands of Ultron? A man struck down by his own hubris; a dramatic end for a war profiteer who found redemption but couldn’t defeat the demons that drove him. That would be some bold, Transformers: The Movie shit right there.
But that was never going to happen. Marvel Films has always had a pussyfooted approach to killing characters and because of industry buzz and entertainment websites, we knew Robert Downey Jr. was going to appear in Captain America: Civil War and what was then known as Infinity War: Part I and II. Maybe that’s why Feige has been so coy with Phase 4.
Based on how Marvel has acted in the past, it should be clear by now which four to five films will make up the next slate of releases. But that’s not the case. There’s been no big Phase 4 showcase, no massive Comic-Con panel detailing the new heroes and returning favorites. And yet, despite that, we already know.
The entertainment industry can’t stop talking about the future, and in doing so, it dismisses the possibilities of the present. James Gunn, prior to the release of Guardians Vol. 2, announced he would return for a third film in the series because he knew that would be the number one question he’d be asked on the press junket. The media is obsessed with what’s next, feeding an audience that shares in that obsession as many insignificant bits of information it can. Our desire to know everything before we’re supposed to is why there are dozens of articles analyzing the contracts of principle actors or deducing why a certain character is missing from the theatrical poster. We’re a society that just can’t let films be, and even when it tries to keep things hush-hush, Marvel can’t help tripping over itself.
Two films are officially confirmed for the post-2019 Avengers era: Guardians Vol. 3 and a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sequels generally mean characters tend to live through catastrophic events, so with those films coming, we have a good idea of who’s going to escape the wrath of the Infinity Gauntlet. It’s fine if not everyone comes out unscathed. Thanos throwing Gamora to her death is an absolute jaw-dropper of a moment, one that shows Marvel can be as daring as Lucasfilm was when it let Rain Johnson tear the Star Wars universe asunder.
But you’re not going to make a Spider-Man film without Peter Parker or a Guardians film without Star-Lord. You’re also not going to make a Black Panther movie without T’Challa. We know there is a sequel on the way, Feige confirmed as much in an interview earlier this year with Entertainment Weekly. It hasn’t officially been announced, but it’s coming. There is also talk of another Dr. Strange film, but it seems future plans for that character have been kept under tighter wraps than his Phase 2 and Phase 3 cohorts.
The element of the unexpected is crucial for a film like this. Massive crossovers in Marvel Comics have a history of packing themselves with meaningful character deaths. For much of the movie, from Loki and Heimdall’s demise to the tragic end of Gamora, Infinity War has me right where it wants me. I’m hooked. I tell myself consequential death is finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And at the end of the film, as I watch Bucky Barnes turn into dust, I think, “Oh my god, they’re actually going to do it.”
Then the weight of reality crushes that notion as a majority of the Guardians of the Galaxy are wiped from existence.
Killing Gamora is one thing. Her death is important and if she’s brought back this whole franchise can go fuck itself. Wiping out the rest of the Guardians when many in the audience are fully aware a sequel is on the way dilutes the impact of what should be a highly emotional scene. T’Challa fades from existence like he’s nothing, but it doesn’t matter because Feige has already pledged to give him a sequel. Peter Parker’s heart-wrenching exit from this world is undercut by the knowledge his stand-alone sequel starts shooting in London this year.
In a vacuum, the ending to Infinity War is monumental. It’s exactly what the MCU needs after playing it safe for so long. But the audience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. On social media, on YouTube, and on television, we’re bombarded by entertainment news and snippets meant only to spoil the storytelling of film. And if it’s not the news, it’s the trailers for the movies that give away every goddamn plot point (looking at you, final trailer for Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom). We’re so obsessed with learning if a movie will get a sequel, and if that sequel will become a trilogy, that the focus of the story being told right here, right now is lost.
Films are simply better when they’re not beholden to upcoming projects because anything and everything can be on the line if there is no guarantee of a future. Galahad’s death in Kingsman: The Secret Service carries significant weight because, as far as we knew, that was the only film we’d see him in. It’s not the same watching Tom Holland or Chris Pratt or Chadwick Boseman die because we all know they have projects in the works. Marvel just can’t stop itself from spoiling its films and the press can’t stop asking those questions that take away a filmmaker’s right to surprise their audience.
Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe this is really happening and Feige will reveal the Guardians Vol. 3 announcement was just a ruse to catch people off guard. Maybe Marvel somehow talked Sony out of making another Spider-Man film — because that seems like a totally real possibility. Maybe everyone was just joking when they said Ryan Coogler can make another Black Panther when he’s ready. I would love for all that to be true. Seriously, do you know what a fucking boss move it would be to have Marvel kill off Spider-Man and Black Panther? I would have such mad respect for a company willing to display that large of cojones.
But Marvel is not that company. It couldn’t even bother to kill War Machine when it had the perfect opportunity, eliminating the already low-level stakes of Captain America: Civil War. Avengers: Infinity War is a good movie, perhaps the perfect film adaptation of a massive, comic book crossover. Nowhere is that more evident than its post-credit scene. But its significance is undercut by the business of making movies and the internet’s unquenchable thirst to know everything there is about a film long before the opening credits first roll.