Editor’s note: Major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War follow. If you have not yet seen the movie, you may want to turn away now.
Death is a natural part of human life, but the only aspect of life for which we have never totally adapted. It is quite aptly described, regardless of his fictional existence, by Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” In fiction, we try to describe real life almost as often as we try to escape certain unpleasant aspects of the world we live in. Perhaps, that is why the comic book universe, and thus superhero films as well, often side step the certainty of death even as much as it often plays into the fictional wars and experiences in which the characters partake.
In the newest Avengers film, Infinity War, quite a few characters bite the dust. In fact, with a snap of Thanos’ fingers, many of our favorite heroes quite literally turn to dust, or ash. We know this also means an incalculable number of other lives are simultaneously snuffed out throughout the universe, but we can’t comprehend the incalculable. We can only feel the pain of our favorite heroes, or gasp as they dissolve before our eyes.
Of course, when we leave the theatre and have a moment to think in the fresh air, we might begin to consider whether we have been duped. After all, we know characters such as Spider-Man and Black Panther cannot be gone for good. They both have budding new franchises. The Guardians of the Galaxy have a third movie on the way, and for heaven’s sake, who would be so heartless to kill a teenage Groot? The question arises, if these characters come back in the second half of Infinity War, will their deaths not then become meaningless?
I say, no. Even if everyone who died in the snap resurrects, those deaths were not without purpose, and this is because death in a narrative, specifically a long-running franchise narrative such as the MCU, serves more of a purpose than just telling us all what we already know: death in real life is terrible, unavoidable, and permanent.
If you have ever seen the Disney classic film, Lady and the Tramp, then you are familiar with a dog named Trusty. In order to save Tramp from being taken back to the pound and likely being put to sleep, Trusty throws himself in front of the dog catcher’s wagon. It doesn’t look good for Trusty as his seemingly lifeless body lies in the rain crushed under the cab and surrounded by mud. Walt Disney wanted Trusty to die because he thought it would endear audiences to the character. But, thankfully for the sake of all of our childhoods, Disney was dissuaded and Trusty lived. Did it take away from the narrative in the end, or make his sacrifice as a character cheap? No. Lady and the Tramp remains a classic not because Trusty did or did not die, but because it focuses on the shame surrounding a woman of a high social status who romantically entangled with a man of lower class and questionable reputation. The sacrifice Trusty made was to choose to stand with Lady and her love regardless of what society at the time might think of her or them. In the 1950s, that would have been quite the sacrifice to make whether dog or human.
Sometimes, characters die because their death serves as the push the hero needs. In the Harry Potter series it came as a shock for fans when Professor Snape, beloved anti-hero and suspected villain, killed Albus Dumbledore. It was sad, for certain. But, not particularly surprising if you look at it from a narrative perspective. Dumbledore had to die for Harry to become who he needed to be to defeat Voldemort. Dumbledore had served as Harry’s confidante, his teacher, father figure, and even his crutch during crucial moments. As long as Harry knew Dumbledore would be there, he had no reason to depend totally on himself because his hope and guidance came from elsewhere. Harry would be a child as long as Dumbledore was there to shepherd him. His death allowed Harry to become the man he needed to be.
In the Marvel universe, it is not uncommon for heroes to die, resurrect, reboot, and even come from alternate timelines. Death, unlike in real life, doesn’t always remain permanent. The times it does are shocking for certain. Infinity War might have given us that in the deaths of Loki and even Gamora, but the heroes that vanished in the snap who might very well come back alive and well serve more of a purpose than to pull at audience’s heart strings. Though, I must say they did a fantastic job with that. Watching Spider-Man holding on to Tony Stark, desperately pleading, “I don’t want to go,” is enough to make anyone cry, and a lot of people in the theatre with me did.
Infinity War is ultimately about relationships: the romantic relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch, the fatherly bond between Tony Stark and Spider-Man, and even the complicated connection between Bruce Banner and The Hulk. Seeing these characters witness the deaths of people we have seen them grow in relationship with, for years now in some cases, is what that scene was about. Not just us as an audience getting our feels on, but being in that moment with them as they go through something we could never imagine unless it has happened to us. Even if they return, that sacrifice remains, and the mark of that experience should remain on those relationships if the writers are worth their salt.
Most significantly, Infinity War is really about Thanos and the thorny relationship between him and Gamora. Even if Gamora returns, her death wasn’t without great purpose within the world of the film. The full repercussions of Gamora’s death have yet to be seen, particularly if she has become in some way strongly tied to the Soul Stone as the film seems to suggest. However, in the film, her death demonstrates Thanos giving up his last shot at redemption. Even though he has already shown his capacity for mass murder, the Soul Stone offered him a final test: if there is anything good within him, something as powerful and lasting as love, would he choose to follow that, or destroy it along with any good within him? We know what he obviously chose. That one awful moment exemplified how deep the darkness can go inside a heart fully capable of emotion and good intention when paired with a mind as mislead as Thanos’.
We see the word “War” in the title and expect death: real, lasting, permanent death. After all, that is the price of actual war, and only the bravest among us are willing to volunteer to take up that gauntlet. But, The Avengers serve both as an escape from the harsh realities of life, as much as they are meant to display its other truths. For the characters, the sacrifices mattered. From a narrative perspective, they opened up the story to show us some of the darker sides of human nature, along with some of our more heroic qualities. We know to what real war leads. But, Infinity War isn’t really about that. It is about relationships and love and the sacrifices, and sometimes tragedy, that comes along the way. It is about testing whether our best intentions are ultimately life giving, or destructive. We make such choices every day, and you don’t have to be a superhero to fight the good fight.