Avengers Infnity War - Doctor Strange - Time Stone

When Death Becomes Meaningless

When a punch is normally CGI-on-CGI and created in pre-viz, often independent of character, it becomes harder to ground the idea of violence in something tangible. Even when this isn’t the case, when Iron Man punches a militant, when Captain America hits a pirate with his shield, when Black Widow shoots a henchman, they flop around bloodlessly and often comically. There are exceptions to death lacking weight in the Marvel Universe — Ho Yinsen’s death in Iron Man drives Tony Stark to question his legacy, Coulson’s in The Avengers catalyzes their team (though he too was resurrected for television) and Doctor Strange confronts idea of one’s own mortality — but this treatment is selective without ever being conflicted, even in retrospect. Regardless of the conclusion they might come to, few Avengers look back and ask whether or not they should’ve killed someone, and none of them ask it of each other, which makes our heroes far more like Thanos than they ought to be.

When death itself is treated as an abstract, or an easily reversible plot-point, it ceases to feel like something with consequence (see also: superhero comics). Loki will keep coming back until he doesn’t, and the scores of recognizable characters killed in Infinity War are sure to be resurrected in April, robbing other characters the opportunity to mourn and reflect on death. The closest we’ve come thus far is Steve Rogers trying (and failing) to get drunk after Bucky’s apparent demise in The First Avenger before the film zips forward to its climax. One could argue there’s no need to harp on death in a four quadrant Disney product, but the last big one ended with superheroes dying off one by one (albeit temporarily, though how many kids watching knew this?), so the folks in charge certainly aren’t shy of moroseness. In contrast, the aforementioned Supergirl show spent a half-season arc preparing Martian Manhunter for his father’s slow descent into dementia and his eventual passing, so it’s not like these stories can’t mean more.

When death is relatively meaningless and just another part of the spectacle, contextualizing it in any realistic way would likely colour future installments where a big ol’ beat-em-up needed to feature heavily in the trailer. The “badass” moments couldn’t feature nameless villains being blown up or punched to bits, so what would get butts in seats? Heroes deciding not to be violent, in a genre built entirely on violence? Surely not! Then again, The Last Jedi had no trouble surpassing a billion dollars despite challenging the expectations of noble martyrdom and violent confrontation, and John Wick works precisely because it’s a violent tale where grief and death have meaning, so even market forces seem like lame excuses.

Avengers Infinity War Blu-Ray - Thanos

Can the MCU Give Death Meaning?

The question therein becomes how, some 20 movies in to this universe, can these heroes be made to reflect on actions that have come to define them? In stories where superheroes have secret identities, they’re often vigilantes working in opposition to the law (or perhaps trying to hold the law itself accountable) but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these celebrated figures work parallel to institutions, challenged only by senate hearings and paperwork with deadlines when they grow too dangerous, never investigating their own nature. It’s a failure of the films’ own internal moral compasses (and, quite simply, a failure to capitalize on interesting conflict), though it’s not a failure that can’t be unwritten. First, however, it needs to be recognized.

No Avenger can ask whether superheroes should be allowed to kill with impunity, even in difficult situations, when almost none of them seem to have difficulty killing in the first place. Spider-Man seems to be the only exception (The Wasp could kill tomorrow and it wouldn’t necessarily contradict her established character) but if Spider-Man’s own death isn’t going to matter, and he’s no longer driven by the death of his uncle, how can he be expected to substantially challenge anyone else on the idea of death as something that ought to be taken more seriously? After all, he was promoted to “Avenger” status only after coming up with a rescue mission involving killing another character, despite his previous reluctance to kill. 

These problems wouldn’t be difficult to solve, and for all we know, future entries are already en route to doing so. Perhaps seeing their teammates die will change the outlook of those forced to witness it, but until we’re out of this Infinity War—Avengers 4 limbo period, it’s hard to say what, if anything, death means to the Marvel heroes.

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