Death in the MCU

It would hardly be considered a spoiler at this point given the scale and cultural impact, but if you aren’t caught up on the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, consider this your only warning.

Avengers: Infinity War ended on a rather enormous cliffhanger, with half the Marvel heroes (along with half of all sentient life) dissipating into dust. The most impactful instance of an Avenger kicking it at Thanos’ hand was Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, whose death was drawn-out compared to his compatriots owing to Holland’s performance. “I don’t feel so good,” he winced, before collapsing into Iron Man’s arms; a memorable scene to be sure, but it’s also the perfect jumping-off point for this two-fold discussion.

On one hand, Holland is currently filming Spidey sequel Spider-Man: Far from Home, set to release just weeks after the next Avengers, so his death won’t really stick. On the other, Spider-Man is one of only two Marvel heroes (along with Evangeline Lily’s The Wasp) who hasn’t killed anyone. 20 entries in to the world’s preeminent movie franchise, these seem like points worth discussing.

Avengers Infinity War

Most Avengers Kill

Wasp and Spidey being the only main characters who don’t kill was brought up on Reddit, followed by the creation of this handy chart listing every MCU death and resurrection not including “disposable” aliens. While the finer details can be argued — Does Wong count as a “main character”? To what degree does Spidey coming up with the plan that kills Ebony Maw in Infinty War make him responsible? — death being the driving force behind Marvel’s new big-bad casts an uncomfortable spotlight on the heroes. While they’re separated from Thanos in theory, refusing to trade each other’s lives while the Mad Titan kills his own daughter, a step back from the Soul Stone specifics paints a vastly different picture.

Sure, the “Outrider” alien troops are inherently disposable (suicidal, even) but they’re disposable to Thanos, a villain to whom life itself is a mathematical equation. To the Avengers, who have spent many-a-film weighing one life against thousands, or thousands against billions (our Road to Infinity War series expands on this through-line), the very sentience of these Outriders, or Thanos’ Chitauri in the first Avengers, reveals a nagging hypocrisy, to say nothing of the disposability of human villains and their henchmen.

Each film’s fiction can certainly be used to justify these killings; Captain America: The First Avenger is a World War II film, and every second entry can be boiled down to “but the world was at stake!”, which feels like part of the problem. Apocalyptic odds become a built-in excuse to avoid difficult conversations, but the Marvel Universe has, in fact, paid lip service to this debate before. Avengers: Age of Ultron introduces a villain who calls the heroes out on their bloodshed, though Ultron being a network of A.I. shifts the question of “Who deserves to die?” away from living villains and toward civilians, making the heroes choose between a single city and the entire planet; where The Vision’s outlook on the sanctity of life could’ve been a moral foil to the Avengers, it ceases to be relevant once Ultron is destroyed.

More recent entries like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming at least see the heroes attempt to save their villains (per Holland, Spidey should never throw a punch as his strength could be lethal, and the character instantly turns off his suit’s kill functions) but these, along with Ant-Man and the Wasp’s tragic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), are standout instances. Generally speaking, Marvel villains “deserve” to die; beacon-of-morality Captain America may not kill anyone in The Winter Soldier, but he’s comfortable letting his compatriots be executioners.

Avengers Infinity War Scene Breakdown

Capital Punishment

In 2013, Man of Steel ignited a never-ending debate about whether Superman should kill. Without rehashing the specifics, it’s worth mentioning that, thematically muddled though it may be, the film’s last-minute introduction of this debate as an afterthought rather than a central through-line still feels more substantial than anything in the MCU. No Avenger has ever stopped to question what is essentially the group’s status quo; in Captain America: Civil War, the question of acting with impunity only surrounds civilian casualties, as opposed to the Avengers’ lethal M.O.

While the logic of being killed because you put someone in danger ought to track, it isn’t logic that drives a genre as fantastical as the superhero; rather, it’s the placement of complex ideas in a digestible context featuring characters more capable than us. In the world of these films, extrajudicial execution is an accepted norm, understood to be justifiable and rarely given second thought.

And yet, these heroes combat fascist forces with fascism of their own — the longstanding “superheroes are inherently fascist” debate made mainstream — adjudicating capital punishment without question. Even if one follows the fiction of these films as an absolute (rather than a product of intentional construction with possible tweaks to ask the right questions), few of these deaths are cause for any sort of remorse on behalf of the heroes. Mantis of the Guardians regrets her complicity in the deaths of innocents, but Doctor Strange is the only Avenger who seems to regret having killed a “bad guy,” even by accident. In Civil War, Black Panther only saves Zemo from suicide because he’s deserving of punishment, rather than redemption or reform — or simply, deserving of life.

avengers 4 title

Cycles of Violence

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, villains Nebula an Yondu do, in fact, see themselves redeemed, but they were never initially placed in a context where heroes had to choose between death and redemptive mercy. Is it a question of wanting a specific kind of story told? Perhaps; no one fan or critic is in a position to make demands of storytellers, but the central problem of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (barring Black Panther to a minor degree) is that the heroes seek to protect the status quo, rather than improve it. This narrative works for someone like Tony Stark, who merely changed what kinds of weapons he creates, though for most other heroes, none of them explicitly challenge any established order.

In part, this is owed to Marvel being four-quadrant entertainment, acceptable to nearly everyone without rustling feathers; its villains, while using the tactics of American government (drone strikes, weapon sales, mass surveillance) are often positioned as fictional opposites to American establishment, rather than existing problems. In the process, endangerment of status quo is rightly seen as a threat, but the response to it is akin to arms of the state executing citizens with impunity, implicitly citing endangerment (or what have you) and waving off all consequence.

Which is by no means to suggest that killing violent henchmen or murderous supervillains is  directly comparable to innocent people (often, of colour) being shot by police in America. Structural racism is something even Black Panther only touched upon tangentially, but in the language of our most popular stories right now, lethal violence is undoubtedly fetishized. That is, of course, the root of most action movies; John Wick is a violent masterpiece where the punishment far outweighs the crime, but in the world of mainstream cinema, the superhero by and large exists at odds with itself. It doesn’t have to — recent episodes of The CW’s Supergirl saw the show’s CIA parallel give up all lethal weapons as its leader realizes they’re contributing to cycles of violence, and the likes of The Flash and Arrow eventually have their heroes questions their methods — though for something like that to happen in the MCU, violence and especially death need to hold more weight than they currently do.

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