Death in Marvel

Martyna Szczepaniak

Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

[0.1] Abstract—A short overview of an informal survey conducted May 2–June 22, 2018, about fan reaction to character deaths in Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

[0.2] Keywords—Avengers: Infinity War; Fan reaction

Szczepaniak, Martyna. 2019. "Death in Marvel." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

1. Avengers: Infinity War: Only for fans

[1.1] Avengers: Infinity War was released on April 27, 2018. According to Marvel, it was the biggest box office opening weekend at that time, earning $640.9 million internationally (Goldman 2018). It was the movie created for fans who already knew the characters. "It's all been leading to this," announced one of Marvel's slogans ( Without knowledge of the previous movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it was impossible to fully understand what was going on and who was who. Twenty-two characters were deemed important (or popular) enough to have their own character poster promoting this movie (Dinh 2018a), and presenting them all would take a lot of screen time.

[1.2] The movie was also different because of its ending. With Hollywood movies in general, and superhero movies in particular, we expect them to have "a happy end—good guys win and bad guys lose, so the heroes can walk into sunshine and live happily ever after" (Rogalski 2016, 19). Not in this movie. Thanos, the villain, who like the heroes had already appeared in the MCU, has won, destroying half the universe—and half the heroes who were fighting against him. With a snap of Thanos's fingers, the characters literally turned into dust, including characters that fans were convinced would be spared this fate. It was shocking. It was unexpected. Was it believable? Not for me.

[1.3] I was curious whether my response was unique. I therefore prepared an informal Google survey and asked a few popular shipping blogs on Tumblr to post a link to it, asking their readers to participate. The survey's title suggested that it was for fans and that its purpose was to find out their reactions after seeing the movie. The only obligatory responses were age, gender, and country, but its design permitted participants to write their own responses, which made it possible to refuse giving an answer. Informed consent was provided implicitly by the respondents by their completing the survey, and participant data were anonymous. The participants could refuse to answer any of the questions, either explicitly or implicitly.

[1.4] I gathered 173 responses from all over the world, but mainly from Europe and the United States. The survey was written in English, but language wasn't a barrier; one of the respondents answered in German. Most of the respondents were women in their twenties. Most had seen the movie only once, but some fans had seen it multiple times—up to seven times. Respondents indicated the length of time since their last viewing of the film. This was usually between a week and a month ago, which, taking into account the date the questionnaire was released, indicated that they saw the film in May, within a month of its premiere.

[1.5] To survey participants about their favorite characters, I asked them to tick boxes with character names. On average, they chose seven characters. I also asked about their favorite pairing, for which they wrote their own responses. Most responses indicated a single romantic pairing, but answers also included BrOTPs (referring to pairings of best friends), teams, and families. Unexpectedly, favorite pairings didn't always include favorite characters. I also asked respondents their opinions about the movie, character deaths before Thanos collected all the Infinity Stones representing aspects of existence (note 1), and the collective death caused by Thanos's finger snap, wiping out half of life in the universe—and a number of Avengers. I also asked whether they thought it was possible for any of the characters to come back, which of them, and why.

[1.6] The question about the possibility of coming back had three possible answers: yes, maybe, and no. No one chose the last possibility, seventeen decided that perhaps someone might come back eventually, and the rest believed that some characters will come back in the next Avengers movie. The reason why participants thought characters would come back were similar for the "maybe" and "yes" groups, so I will not distinguish between them. Additionally, because the answers were similar, I will discuss together the answers as to why it is possible for the character to come back in general and the answers regarding the heroes chosen by the respondents.

2. Death in Marvel

[2.1] The main reason why fans did not believe in the permanence of character deaths is Marvel's film-release schedule. Fans mentioned planned sequels to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Black Panther (2018), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) (note 2), which clearly indicate that the deaths of title characters are only temporary. These answers were usually based on official information from Marvel and from the films' actors (note 3). Fans also created theories based on unofficial photos from the set of the still-untitled film known as Avengers 4 (planned release 2019), notably one suggesting reshoots, which for some signified that time travel will be a part of a plan to defeat Thanos.

[2.2] Some fans cited economic reasons for their belief that character deaths are temporary: it is not profitable, and it does not allow Marvel to build the MCU's future. Fans noted that some characters are too new to be killed off. Black Panther and Spider-Man had their first solo movies in, respectively, 2018 and 2017, and both appeared for the first time in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. One fan interpreted this as heralding the death of the original Avengers, who will sacrifice themselves in order to bring back the dead characters. For other fans, it meant that either Winter Soldier or Falcon might come back, as these characters have taken the role of Captain America in the comics. However, contracts with some of the actors are coming to an end, notably Chris Evans, who plays Captain America and who has repeatedly spoken about not prolonging his contract with Marvel (Ugwu 2018). These characters were perceived as unlikely to come back.

[2.3] In contrast to these practical reasons why character deaths might be permanent, some fans invoked their knowledge of genre, the comics on which the MCU is based, or just the fact that bringing characters back from death is a popular technique in this medium. They pointed out that characters returning from the dead has already happened in the MCU a few times: Loki appeared to die in both Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013), only for the trickster character to appear at the end of the movie, and Bucky Barnes died in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and came back as the Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Reversal of a character death also happened in a spin-off: Phil Coulson, whose death was an important plot point in The Avengers (2012), came back in the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–).

[2.4] However, the most interesting answers included explanations within the story arc of how character death reversals will be accomplished. One main theory was time travel, which would erase the deaths presented in Infinity War, and which has already been established as a possible solution in the MCU; it was used as a means to repair the world destroyed by the villain in Doctor Strange (2016) and was also used by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Another popular theory included the power of one of the Infinity Stones, the Soul Stone. Some fans decided that the characters who were turned into dust are actually being held within the Soul Stone, so it is possible to bring them back.

[2.5] Respondents also pointed out the identity of characters who would be the most important in a future fight with Thanos. This included Doctor Strange (for fourteen participants, it is all part of his plan; one fan proposed that it all happened in the mirror dimension and therefore isn't real), Iron Man (mentioned ten times), Thor, Captain Marvel, and Loki with Valkyrie, who did not appear in Avengers: Infinity War at all (each mentioned once).

3. Death and emotion

[3.1] Fan opinions regarding character deaths were interesting. Most of the answers for the characters—Loki, Vision, Gamora, and Heimdall—who died before Thanos's destructive finger snap were the same. Fans rated characters' deaths in various ways: unexpected versus predictable, well done versus badly done, true to the character versus poor characterization, highly emotional death versus indifferent. However, the responses had a few telling differences.

[3.2] Loki was the only character whose death was for some (as one participant termed it) "fake news," as this was his third on-screen death. Despite Thanos's assurance that this time it was final, fans remained skeptical. What for some was bad writing (different variations of "How could Loki have been stupid enough to attack Thanos with only a knife when he knew the extent of his powers?" appeared a few times) was for others proof that it was just another of Loki's elaborate schemes. Other fans, remembering Loki's Jotun heritage (which appeared on screen only in Thor), pointed out that he should revert to that form when dying. This did not happen, so his death was considered fake. For unpopular character Vision, however, fans thought that his death should have happened sooner to make sure that Thanos would not be able to collect all the Infinity Stones.

[3.3] While the answers and reactions to character deaths were very different, one commonality was the emotional reaction fans felt. After all, "superhero texts rely on narratives of emotion" (Yockey 2012, ¶ 2.11), and indeed that was the main way they were received by my survey respondents. It is also worth noting that emotions were an important factor in fans' overall opinions about the movie. One survey question asked about which death was the most important, along with the reason for choosing it. Emotional reasoning was the most common, but it wasn't always an emotional response experienced by a fan related to a favorite character dying. For some, it was instead the anticipation of an emotional reaction (including a future one) of a favorite character who was close to the character who died. For example, Spider-Man's death, which was indicated as the most important for the majority of participants, was significant because of Iron Man's anticipated reaction.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Responses to my survey indicated that although everyone thinks some characters will return in the next Avengers movie, this did not lessen their emotional response to the deaths in Avengers: Infinity War. Although a few fans noted that the fact they know that some deaths are not permanent lessened the pain, for others it did not influence it at all—and no wonder, because most of the respondents saw the movie for the characters. They were mainly interested to see how the characters would interact with each other, and how they would join together to deal with the villain.

5. Notes

1. While I did not include Heimdall, his death was chosen as the most important by three participants.

2. When I wrote the survey, the conflict between James Gunn, director of the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and the studio that resulted in postponing the third movie's production (Kroll 2018) was not known, so it was not mentioned by any of the respondents.

3. Marvel is deliberately vague regarding future films and timelines, although their site published information about lead actor Tom Holland accidentally revealing the possible title to Spider-Man: Homecoming's sequel (Dinh 2018b). However, fans have enough information from other equally credible sources to be certain about some of these movies, like Marvel producer Kevin Feige noting of a Black Panther sequel that Marvel "will absolutely do that" (Breznican 2018).

6. References

Breznican, Anthony. 2018. "Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige on the Future of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, X-Men—And Beyond." Entertainment Weekly, March 9, 2018.

Dinh, Christine. 2018a. "New Avengers: Infinity War Character Posters Spotlight Earth's Mightiest Heroes." Marvel, April 4, 2018.

Dinh, Christine. 2018b. "Tom Holland Accidentally Reveals Possible Spider-Man: Homecoming Sequel Film Title—Spider-Man: Far from Home." Marvel, July 5, 2018.

Goldman, Eric. 2018. "Avengers: Infinity War Breaks Domestic and International Records for Opening Weekend Box Office." Marvel, April 30, 2018.

Kroll, Justin. 2018. "Disney Stands Firm on James Gunn Not Returning to Guardians of the Galaxy." Variety, August 15, 2018.

Rogalski, Michał. 2016. Bohaterowie popkultury: Od Robin Hooda do Rambo [Heroes of pop culture: From Robin Hood to Rambo]. Warsaw: Histmag.

Ugwu, Reggie. 2018. "Chris Evans, a.k.a. Captain America, Comes Back Down to Earth." New York Times, March 22, 2018.

Yockey, Matt. 2012. "Wonder Woman for a Day: Affect, Agency, and Amazons." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.