When audiences next see the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Universe’s mightiest heroes will come together to battle Thanos (Josh Brolin), an alien bent on universal destruction.
With a plan put in motion way back in The Avengers coming to fruition in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos will make his move to possess the Infinity Stones — cosmically powered, concentrated ingots forged out of the birth of the universe itself. With almost all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroes uniting to oppose Thanos, Joe Russo, who directs Avengers: Infinity War alongside brother Anthony, warns fans to prepare for an “intense” experience:
“You know, with [Captain America: The Winter Soldier] and with [Captain America: Civil War], my brother and I like stakes,” Russo told io9. “We believe in stakes for these movies, we fight for stakes on these films, and I think people should be prepared for a very intense experience in both Avengers 3 and Avengers 4. And they should be prepared for some pretty big surprises.”
Because of the secrecy surrounding what has been described as the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception in 2008, we don’t have much information on Infinity War — a trailer was shown at D23 and San Diego Comic Con, but footage has yet to be widely released — but using past films as well as the comics as reference, we have some ideas on what those major stakes could be.
This article assumes you’ve seen every Marvel Studios production up through Spider-Man: Homecoming, so be warned of spoilers if you still have some catching up to do.
We know what you’re thinking: Marvel Studios often shies away from major deaths, usually reserving such finality for villains and supporting characters. When it comes to death, Marvel Studios has done everything from fake outs (Loki, Nick Fury) to “they died, but not really” (Phil Coulson, Groot). So far, the only hero to bite the dust and stay dead is Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson), who heroically sacrificed himself during Ultron’s attack on Sokovia.
But when Thanos comes to play, there are consequences: in the Marvel comics, Thanos has killed (literally) everyone. In the famous Infinity Gauntlet story, Thanos — having gotten his purple paws on the titular weapon of mass destruction — wiped out the universe with a simple snap of his fingers.
In the D23 and Comic Con footage (spoilers), Thanos is seen whupping on Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), crushing Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) head, and effortlessly launching what appears to be the debris of some kind of moon at our heroes. With so many characters in play — all of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and more — chances are high they won’t all make it out alive.
Marvel Studios has been building up Thanos since his first appearance in the end credits of The Avengers. After six years of groundwork and teasing, and with every hero banding together because of him, Thanos will prove himself the ultimate Marvel nemesis — and we figure he’ll lay to rest the belief that Marvel has a villain problem.
The Russo brothers have proved their commitment to stakes, with both of their Marvel installments — Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War — having big repercussions on the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Winter Soldier revealed Hydra had long ago infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., with the global police force done away with come the end credits. In Civil War, the Avengers were fractured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) and Team Cap — Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) — deemed criminals in the eyes of the government and the law.
Infinity War will shake up the universe, literally, meaning those big stakes will affect more than just the Avengers moving forward. Even if all our heroes make it out alive — unlikely, but not impossible — this isn’t another day at the office. Infinity War will be sure to be a turning point in the development of our core cast of characters:
Young hero Spider-Man (Tom Holland) successfully thwarted the Vulture’s (Michael Keaton) relatively small scale scheme in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now he’s throwing down with the Avengers against a universal threat. Queens will look a hell of a lot different after (probably) almost dying while protecting billions of lives.
Steve Rogers has been ousted from his country, on the run, and has abandoned the “Captain America” identity. It’s likely he’ll have to repair his damaged relationship with Iron Man to properly lead the way against Thanos, but what happens if Steve Rogers leads Earth’s mightiest heroes into their greatest battle yet and fails?
Tony Stark spent all of Iron Man 3 suffering from PTSD inflicted by his near-death experience saving New York from aliens (and then a nuclear bomb) in The Avengers. If the armored Avenger survives the battle against Thanos, what does Tony Stark look like coming out of Infinity War and Avengers 4? Does Tony Stark retire the armor and marry Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), living happily ever after? Or is our favorite rock n’ roll superhero K.I.A., gone out in a blaze of glory? As the longtime centerpiece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whatever happens to Iron Man, the waves will be felt somewhere.
Drax’s (Dave Bautista) family was murdered by Thanos. When finally faced with the Mad Titan, will the impulsive Drax let emotion get the better of him? Killing Thanos is his self-admitted mission: he’ll do it, or die trying. What happens to the tight knit Guardians of the Galaxy if they lose one of their own? How does that adoptive family move forward?
Whatever happens, Infinity War won’t end nice and neatly, tied up with a bow: the pair of upcoming Avengers being shot back-to-back is proof enough Infinity War will carry over into Avengers 4, and we can expect our surviving heroes to be irrevocably changed from Avengers 4 and beyond...
There would be no bigger surprise than the Avengers’ big three — Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor — meeting their end come Infinity War. The heroes will have all had completed trilogies, and while the Marvel Cinematic Universe never limits characters to just a trio of films, Infinity War could off three of Marvel’s biggest franchise stars. It would be shocking, to be sure. And it would cement Thanos' place as the ultimate big bad of the whole, entire universe...
But we don’t mean death. Not an actual death, anyway; more like a spiritual passing of the torch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newer heroes, of which there are more than a few: there’s Spider-Man, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ant-Man, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Wasp (Evangeline Lilly).
The latter two won’t be involved in Infinity War, but this fresh crop of heroes have been poised to take the lead of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the double punch of Infinity War and Avengers 4 could serve as finales for some of the old guard, including Marvel Cinematic Universe veterans Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye.
“Things always get deconstructed, right? You build things up and people enjoy the experiences you’ve built up,” Joe Russo said around the release of Civil War. “But then you kind of reach an apex or you reach a climax, a moment where you go, ‘This structure is really going to start to be repetitious if we do this again, so what do we do now?’ So now, you deconstruct it. We’re in the deconstruction phase with Civil War and leading into Infinity War, which are the culmination films.”
Added Marvel Studios president and producer Kevin Feige, “I think there will be finality to moments of Phase Three, as well as new beginnings that will mark a different, a very different, a distinctively different chapter in what will someday be a complete first saga made up of three phases.”
Marvel Studios has spent nine years — an even ten when Infinity War hits theaters May 2018 — building a shared universe where “it’s all connected.” That universe will continue past Infinity War — there’s Avengers 4, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, at least two more solo Spider-Man adventures, a Doctor Strange sequel, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, to name a few movies on the way — but Infinity War will likely end the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it.
We don’t know what that will look like, but Marvel does, and they’ve been cultivating the soil and planting the seeds of the future for years. Marvel Studios is famously on the record for having mapped out films through 2028, and while they know where they’re going, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in a constant state of flux. Things change. Spider-Man used to be off the table. Now he’s a flagship face of Marvel’s plans moving forward.
The stakes in Infinity War are high: not only for the heroes and every innocent soul inhabiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they’re high for Marvel Studios, too. This is the culmination of a decade’s worth of work — the ultimate payoff for a series of films that began with a massive bank loan and Marvel’s decision to venture out on their own and adapt their own comics and properties into blockbusters.
While Marvel is clearly building the foundation of the future, they’re concurrently deconstructing it. Those are big stakes: taking something proven, something successful, something that rakes in a lot of dough, and actively aiming to change things up and not fall into the trap of monotony birthed out of a desire to keep doing what’s proven to make money. Marvel has their eyes set on something greater. The Marvel Cinematic Universe will still be there, following Infinity War and Avengers 4, but Infinity War will likely be, in some way, a “goodbye” — even if its just a goodbye to the MCU that we’ve been with since 2008. The MCU that truly began when Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows, informing Tony Stark that he’d become part of a bigger universe — he just didn’t know it yet.
And neither did we. Who, outside of Marvel, could have seen any of this coming? The stakes are huge. The only thing left is to prepare for what’s coming.