I’m not good enough at math to calculate whether the percentage of the world’s population who saw “Avengers: Infinity War” over the weekend corresponds to the proportion of Marvel superheroes — spoiler alert! — killed at the end of the movie. I suspect, though, that many people who haven’t seen it yet are already aware of what happens. A lot of superheroes die, perhaps including some of your favorites. T’Challa, we hardly knew you!
It’s remarkable how quickly that lethal denouement went from top secret to common knowledge. Those of us who were invited to last Monday’s press screenings received a finger-wagging email asking us to “please let everyone else discover the surprises, the jokes, and the twists for themselves” and not say too much about what happened. We were accordingly circumspect in the reviews published in the following days, though not enough for some readers. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune was scolded on social media because of a headline referring to the ending as “bleak.” He responded with a characteristically reasonable and scholarly essay on the history of movie spoilers, going back to “The Crying Game” and “Terms of Endearment.”
By which time the point was moot. Before “Avengers: Infinity War” had been in theaters even a full day, a barrage of post-review think pieces appeared discussing and dissecting the bleakness, most of them dutifully adorned with warnings not to read any further if you wanted to preserve your innocence. And no wonder. The last moments of the film are by far the most interesting. They bring intimations of darkness and grief that feel like something new in the Marvel Universe. The bad guy (his name is Thanos and his chin is remarkable) not only wins, but triumphs in a way that brings despair rather than sequel-setting rage or defiance. His victims don’t go down fighting; they turn to dust and drift away in the breeze, watching as their friends and their own limbs decompose. It’s a reverse rapture, with a somber emotional payoff.
How seriously are we supposed to take it? There is another “Avengers” movie coming next year, which along with this one is meant to represent a finale of sorts. But of course it’s not really the end. The Marvel Cinematic Universe will keep expanding: release dates are already in place into the next decade, and if Disney’s acquisition of Fox goes through there will be fresh crossover opportunities.
Thanos, when he kills Loki early in “Infinity War,” promises “no resurrections” this time. The intricate logic of the plot, however — there are these magic stones that give their possessor the ability, among other things, to reorder time — suggests a route back to life for Black Panther, Spider-Man and the other dead heroes. Dr. Strange, who can see into the future, might have offered a cryptic prediction to that effect. And here in the real world, plenty of fans and critics have assumed that the next Avengers movie will cook up an escape clause. Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, has insisted otherwise. Why would he lie?
Would reversing the movie’s ending constitute its own kind of spoiler, cheapening the shock and grief that make “Infinity War” distinctive? Movies play with death all the time, turning horror into joy as a way of asserting both their power over our emotions and their marvelous unreality. E.T.'s death is shattering, and also temporary. Vincent Vega, John Travolta’s “Pulp Fiction” hit man, is gunned down in a bathroom in the middle, only to walk out of the diner into the sunshine at the end, revived by the simple secular magic of chronological reordering.
Comic books have thrived by granting their characters multiple lives and storylines, allowing them to be both mortal and immortal. Life may be short, but intellectual property is eternal, and that may be the real spoiler. Marvel and Disney have gone to great trouble and expense to make us care and keep us interested, pouring money and talent into a series of movies whose commercial success is one of the unarguable achievements of our time.
Which may be the problem. There will always be more, which limits both the possibility of surprise and the intensity of feeling that any single episode can deliver. At the end of “Infinity War” you don’t need to tell yourself that it’s only a movie, because it isn’t a movie. It’s a piece of matter in a post-cinematic universe.
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