Does Death Even Matter In The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Marvel has no idea how to make death matter in its movies.)

We've come a long way since 2008's Iron Man introduced Marvel Studios' ambitious Phase One initiative. Ten years, nineteen movies, one sacrificial offering of Kevin Feige's soul to ward off genre fatigue – but despite critical, monetary, and filmmaking successes that continue to redefine the increasingly iconic Marvel Cinematic Universe, the elemental truth of insufficient stakes remains the franchise's greatest foe.

Marvel stresses event-level entertainment and exhibits the ability to spectacularly deliver on that promise, proven by my continued desire to witness the Avengers pound tyrant after tyrant into submission. Plucky do-gooder confidence plays into ultimate showmanship, yet it cannot be denied that hero sendoffs are scarce and oddly unaffecting when implemented.

Does death even matter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? At this franchise milestone, I submit that it does not. Warning: spoilers ahead.

Obvious Targets

It's not a hard deficiency to spot, really. Heroes might as well strut around with "untouchable" branded across their foreheads. Villains are rarely allowed to experience personal development beyond punching-bag-like representation or intricate yet second-fiddle masterplans (until the likes of Ego, Killmonger, and Thanos crashed multiple parties). Marvel's collective showrunners protect their prized ponies as any gazillion-dollar corporation would, which has lead to squeals of pleasure and formulaic mechanics alike. Sadly, and most frustratingly, this includes Thanos' boot-stompin' warpath in Avengers: Infinity War.

Anyone surfing their social media channels pre-April 27 surely glimpsed "death pool" chatter as users buzzed about who might not survive Marvel's 2018 roster shakedown. Studio contracts were researched, importance was weighed and obvious contenders (Loki, Vision, etc.) were put forward. But would the Russo brothers settle for easy targets? What about Captain America, since Chris Evans seemingly waffles on his superhero commitment by the hour? What about Tony Stark, since Robert Downey Jr. is the longest tenured and reportedly most expensive Avenger? With so many options, it seemed too unlikely that every household name would survive Thanos' genocide...until the credits rolled and Marvel whiffed on its grandest opportunity to demonstrate some resemblance of a hidden backbone.

The film's Act I Asgardian slaughter sees Heimdall stabbed and Loki asphyxiated rather quickly, but fulfilled expectations like these carry little mileage. Next to go is Gamora, sacrificed in such calculated fashion I had to muffle sighs and grumbles. Finally, Vision's ticket is punched as Thanos plucks the Mind Stone from his synthetic cranium, paying out surefire 2:1 Vegas odds. More deaths that underwhelm, more deaths that frustrate...and then Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet erases half of the universe's population, including multiple key Avengers. Talk about an Olympic-length long jump backward that devalues even the expected deaths of Vision and Loki. It's a gullible ruse of the weakest variety.

A Failure on Three Fronts

Before we trek any further, understand that I realize your sanest counterargument is an easy one: "Marvel followed the comics exactly, what are you complaining about?" Simple. I'm approaching this by surgically dissecting Avengers: Infinity War and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. What worked on paper doesn't always translate to screen, especially when Marvel has shown such a gun-shy mentality about death and even less comprehension of how those deaths can boost dramatic developments.

In that context, Marvel shot itself in the foot three times: once for obviousness (Vision/Loki), again for disservice (Gamora), then a fleeting finale whose many "deaths" can't even be taken seriously. Are we truly supposed to believe everyone who turned into ash will stay disintegrated (Star-Lord, Black Panther, Winter Soldier, etc.)? It's not a question of how smarts and magic will reverse what's been done, but an inevitable when, which has become Marvel Studios' signature over time.

Crumbled to Ash

To understand what makes Thanos' "victory" such a false, reductive ploy that most certainly will bear no equal consequence come Avengers: [Insert Title That Isn't Part II]'s climax, first start with common sense as displayed above. Thor slices into Thanos' pectoral bulge with his newly-forged Stormbreaker axe, but even such a seemingly mortal wound is not enough to bury the Mad Titan six feet under. With a pulse of energy from his now fully-stoned Infinity Gauntlet, half of the universe's population blows away like newspaper shreds in a hurricane. We watch as Drax, Peter Parker, Groot, T'Challa, Doctor Strange, and many, many more are "killed" by the snapped fingers of Thanos.

What should be an earthshaking recognition of Thanos' power is instead reaffirmation that anything in the MCU can be reversed. "Dead" superheroes have announced sequels and the living ones are your stalwarts (also with announced solo projects, e.g. Black Widow). Steve Rogers? Possible concussion. Tony Stark? Cauterized and standing. Any good faith and heartbreak that Gamora's assassination claimed is immediately erased, all signs pointing towards the Time Stone somehow being used to reanimate those who were lost.

Marvel takes so many opportunities throughout Avengers: Infinity War to ensure audiences know the mass disintegration is a reversible speed bump. Be it the constant exposition about what Doctor Strange's stone can accomplish, the eradication of many "safe" characters, Strange's own calm demeanor while watching everyone die, Strange's Star-Lord comment – it's hard to muster an inkling of desperation here. There's no "ALL MY FAVORITES ARE GONE" scream because of how the MCU has already approached and avoided death, with examples like War Machine in Captain America: Civil War. Imagine the atom bomb that would have exploded inside Tony Stark if Rhodey died because of inter-Avengers fighting? Alas, even second-tier heroes are given cheat codes for extra lives.

"But Matt, what about Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron?" Ah, another splendid point that I'll use against your argument! Pietro Maximoff was written to die from the beginning – and that's how Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays him. He is largely forgettable, used as a mere token to unlock Hawkeye's somber face and Wanda's higher purpose. It's not like the Avengers intermittently honor his martyrdom. Dollars to doughnuts Kevin Feige feels the same way and that's in the back of his own mind when deliberating on the finality of franchise tentpoles.

So you crack the sky and suck half the Avengers into nothingness, but we know they're coming back. Not only that, but Marvel has just overplayed its hand so aggressively that now every death is pulled into question. Tease after tease, wound after wound, all cured by either "magic" or "technology"...what a letdown. This was Marvel's biggest opportunity to strike a tonally-seismically shift that would ripple until Avengers: The Next One, and the entire creative team chickened out. It's a case of some damn fine entertainment not interested in being much more than a Part I cliffhanger.

With that in mind, let's return to Gamora.

The Lonesome Death of Gamora

The slaying of Loki and Vision check predictable boxes, and Heimdall's not even remembered when credits roll. But Gamora? Admittedly, her sacrificial rock plunge came as a complete surprise. Thanos was forced to surrender what he loves most to obtain the Soul Stone. Congrats to Marvel for finally growing a pair, but here's why "killing" Gamora at this moment made me downright furious – and why quotes are necessary.

Glance around the MCU and its female representation. Until this year, only one female superhero managed to carve out a noticeable enough role in the Avengers' boys club thanks to gender representation shortcomings: Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch entered Avengers: Age Of Ultron in a supporting capacity,  and Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill never rose above being Nick Fury's right-hand-woman on paper, but Gamora provided a spark in Marvel Studios' cosmic universe. Now you have Black Panther's pack of female warrior idols who should be their own damn super squad, but the landscape for prolific female heroes is still pretty sparse. Why eliminate one of an already chosen few?

Here's a different angle. In Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, James Gunn crafted a complex, conflicted character in Gamora who proved to be a worthy sparring partner for Star-Lord, both mentally and physically. Their relationship arc does exist – what's a group dynamic without romantic tension? – but Gunn's treatment of Gamora filled a massive void left by neglected female archetypes in the MCU. She's superior to the man-child maverick known as Star-Lord, with more than her green skin making her a standout in this comic book galaxy.

But what does Avengers: Infinity War do? Kill her off in a moment of stammering ignorance.

It's not even just the death, though. It's how unceremonious and unrepresentative Gamora's short-lived reuniting with Papa Thanos is. She's a true-blue (lean-green?) badass in both previous Guardians standalones, yet Avengers: Infinity War not only makes her a "girlfriend pawn" sacrifice to motivate Star-Lord, but she dies at the gargantuan hand of her fatherly abuser. For the love of Lee, talk about reading the proverbial room. Infinity War's only shocking death couldn't be one of your countless interchangeable white bro egomaniacs who all share the same chiseled traits? Gamora's final scene is such a betrayal to fans. She's a tiny puzzle piece smashed into place with hasty regard, furthering conclusive evidence of Marvel's worst thematic dysfunction.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely recently teased that any and all deaths in Infinity War will be "justified," but I beg to differ. If Gamora is truly d-e-a-d, her exit will remain Marvel's most unforgivable blunder. Nothing accomplished by the studio's previous lead-up films indicate that the MCU is ballsy enough to part with bread and butter characters, and if they finally did grow a pair, they picked the worst way to do so. After a kiss with Peter Quill and a cheap attempt to humanize Thanos, it's all about the men around her and how they face consequential demons. Everything Gunn strove to empower in Gamora is seemingly unraveled as she becomes a shell of the former Guardian.

The Reset Button

The minute Avengers: Infinity War eliminated so many namesake figures, my first reaction was "Oh, so Gamora's coming back." They've taken the film's familial gut-punch, this 300-esque toss, and deflated its inherent tragedy. It felt as if the safety net was finally removed, only to be negated, overshadowed, and rendered inconsequential given how everyone can be brought back to life. That's the game here, folks. And it's becoming a little tiresome.

All I wanted was another "Ravager funeral" moment (the franchise's one positive example for how it's handled death). James Gunn and Michael Rooker massage the richest emotional crescendo of the entire MCU into Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – Yondu's demise. Fans loved him, his redemption arc could have spanned future films, but a collective understanding of what such an exit meant in its moment of fatherly fulfillment broke me down...and that was before the fireworks and space-dust cremation arrow. Avengers: Infinity War should have packed a similar moment, but neglects diving beyond the most expected outcome imaginable in that the MCU will always take care of its major players. I don't understand headlines asking, "What does the ending of Infinity War mean for the future MCU?" Nothing, really. Someone has to find a reset button, which they'll do (please be Hawkeye), and everything will switch back to normal.

Maybe that's when we'll finally bid farewell to Tony or Cap in fitting, devastating fashion? Give one life for all others? Alas, I'm even skeptical of that now.

I'm not here to write Marvel off as a sinking ship – far from it. Feige's team faces the consumer-driven challenge of appeasing fan obsessions, delivering extravaganza-sized adventures and mining Marvel comics for their richest panels. We've had it all (Guardians of the Galaxy), we've had small chunks (Avengers: Age of Ultron), but ultimately the one thematic element that Marvel movies continue to fumble is that MCU overlords have yet to figure out how death works in their fantasy world.

Avengers: Infinity War is the most glaring example of why – but maybe I'm just an over-analytical journalist. Maybe I've watched too many horror movies and witnessed numerous other filmmakers kill their darlings like the Black Plague. Bless everyone who walked out of Thanos' first monumental win with a pit in their stomachs, but unfortunately I just see a cop-out finale that continues one franchise-defining narrative with no sign of being righted. There's no triumphant Logan-style bravery on the foreseeable horizon.