It’s easy to forget, almost a decade into the phenomenally successful MarvelCinematic Universe (MCU), that there was a time when studio bigwigs worried about audience recognition. Next year’s Avengers: Infinity War will have a roster of superheroes so populous that it’s easy to imagine lesser-known costumed crime fighters (we’re talking about you, Hawkeye and Falcon) struggling to squeeze into even the widest of widescreen shots. It’s going to be crowded.
And yet it’s unlikely the studio will bother to enlighten those viewers who have watched only a handful of the saga’s 18 (so far) episodes. And, while it’s possible to pity the fool who goes into Avengers: Infinity War cold (“Why is a talking space badger bantering with a moody teenage tree monster?”), it’s not as if the other movies aren’t out there for the uninitiated to dive into at their leisure.
However, the overpopulated nature of this pioneering cinematic universe suggests that, to retain the natural ebb and flow of the macro-saga that has made Marvel such a surprisingly organic experience, some of these characters will have to be put out to pasture in order for new heroes to get more screen time.
The emergence of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange means we now have three potential rivals for the mantle of Avengers alpha, along with Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. And that’s before even newer figures such as Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther or Brie Larson’s soon-to-arrive Captain Marvel are taken into consideration. All in all, it might be a good thing that the Earth is about to come under attack from a demigod who in the comics is obsessed with death. For Josh Brolin’s Thanos might be just the alien despot to help reduce an ever-expanding list of superheroes to more manageable numbers.
There are even clues in last week’s debut trailer for Infinity War that some of the Avengers are about to get popped. Can Paul Bettany’s Vision survive having the Mind Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that Thanos needs to gain ultimate power over reality itself, pulled from his bonce? What brutal horrors are Tony Stark and Tom Hiddleson’s Loki crying over?
After the events of Thor: Ragnarok, many fans were left wondering if Bruce Banner’s personality had become fully submerged into that of the Hulk, though the trailer suggests we’ll get to see at least one more turn for Mark Ruffalo in human form. Still, the line from Ragnarok in which Banner worried about being lost for ever if he transformed into the great green meanie again must surely have been flung in for a reason. Might Infinity War see the Hulk’s human alter ego finally meeting his own demise?
It’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before. Captain America: Civil War was widely predicted to see at least one Marvel big beast cop it, but all Tony Stark and Steve Rogers managed to do was beat each other to bloody pulps. Avengers: Age of Ultron featured a trailer in which Stark predicted there was “no way we all get through this” – yet they all did.
The MCU has been remarkably averse to killing off or phasing out any of its major players, in contrast to the comics, where Captain America has been killed off (though he was later revealed to have been phasing in and out of time) and Jean Grey of the X-Men has copped it at least twice. The death of Phil Coulson in The Avengers may have been built up into a major event, but we should probably bear in mind that Stark once bore so little regard for the SHIELD deputy that he insisted his first name must be “Agent”. In any case, Coulson was subsequently revived for the Agents of SHIELD TV show.
There is an argument that Marvel’s refusal to get rid of its best-known heroes is inevitable in the cinematic universe format. The oldest trick in Hollywood is to shoot down a major character to deliver dramatic tension, but it’s hard to do it when your big hitters will be needed in three movies a year for the next decade.
Moreover, these are decisions that studios and audiences usually come to regret. This year’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle was ruined before a single frame had been shot by the preposterous call to bring Colin Firth’s Harry Hart back from the dead, and all the silly technical gimmickry required to make any sense of that development. Superman’s self-sacrifice in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justicewas wasted because no one believed for a moment that Kal-El was likely to remain dead when Warner Bros had only just embarked on its own superhero universe. So perhaps Marvel should be praised for refusing to cater to its audience’s blood lust.
And yet, returning to the trailer, it is tempting to wonder how Iron Man is going to react to being smashed in the face by the god-like Thanos while he’s wearing the Infinity Gauntlet (albeit on the other fist). And more tempting still to wonder if there is a morality to these ornate comic-book tales. If anyone deserves to meet their demise in the MCU it is surely Tony Stark, a figure who created Ultron through his own egomania, then broke up the Avengers (Earth’s best defence mechanism against future aggressors) as he tried to right his own wrongs. Even as recently as this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Stark came across as a terrible mentor to the young Peter Parker, the ultimate absentee father figure.
Would Marvel have the nerve, especially as Downey Jr is easily the MCU’s most recognisable figure? That would be the ultimate test of audience recognition, not to mention proof that this cinematic universe has become bigger than any of its stars.
Written by Ben Child/ The Guardian