Warning: While this article is based only on on educated speculation, if the theories it poses turn out to be correct, it might act as an eventual spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4.
For all we know about Avengers: Infinity War, we still don’t understand a great deal. You see, at this point, it’s becoming pretty clear that Infinity War is part of something bigger than Marvel is letting on. We’re now running into what Marvel has long touted as ‘the end of the first chapter’ of the MCU, and it increasingly feels like that’s going to be marked by a much bigger event – and more drastic evolution - than we’ve ever seen before. The sheer amount of mixed messaging around Infinity War alone implies that very big things are afoot. Things that only the power of a villain like Thanos can instigate. Things, we suspect, too big for even the Avengers to handle.
First, we were getting Infinity War: Part 1 and 2, a double-length movie split over two separate release dates. Then it was just Infinity War, with the second part implied to be a separate sequel. Then, Marvel and Disney became very secretive indeed in regard to the name of that second movie, claiming that revealing it would drop spoilers for its predecessor before the first film was even out. Something, friends, is clearly up.
We had a good, early, not entirely serious stab at guessing the Avengers 4 title, based upon its supposed significance, but parody aside, GR’s most potent comic heads couldn’t resist a bout of serious theorising at the same time. And, between collective Marvel knowledge, several lifetimes’ experience with sci-fi story tropes, and more than a few clues from the Avengers 4 production, something wonderful and terrible happened. We very quickly became near-certain that we know exactly how Infinity War is going to end, exactly what Avengers 4 is going to be about, and what that second film’s name is going to be. And right now, we’ll put serious money down on Avengers: Secret Wars landing in May 2019.
If you think you’ve heard the title before, that’s because Secret Wars is the name of two separate Marvel comics ‘event’ stories, which occurred in 1984-85, and 2015. Both Secret Wars stories are big, complex affairs – because comics – but the general gist of the more recent, more relevant iteration concerns the cross-dimensional repair and reconciliation of multiple, damaged versions of the Marvel universe involving no small amount of Infinity Stone malarkey.
Now, we don’t expect an exact retread of that story in Avengers 4. Secret Wars 2015 involves all kinds of characters and scenarios not yet remotely featured in the MCU. But an exact retread isn’t necessary. Literal adaptations aren’t really how the MCU – itself a canon, alternative world of the Marvel multiverse - rolls. As a world that exists parallel to all of the various comic book continuities, the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends toward thematic reinterpretations of major comics storylines, using the original titles as touchstones rather than signs of entirely faithful reproduction.
A loose interpretation
The MCU version of Civil War, for instance, plays out very differently to the comic book version, but maintains a lot of the same spirit and ideas. ‘Homecoming’ is the title of a pretty obscure, ‘80s Spider-Man story, but was picked up for last year’s movie due to its resonance with the character’s return to Marvel after years of Sony-produced movies. And while the current MCU isn’t at all set up for a straight adaptation of Secret Wars, there’s increasing evidence – and, in fact, narrative necessity – for something of its ilk. Everything points toward a very bad end for Infinity War, demanding a serious paradigm shift to turn things around in the follow-up.
For starters, the story of Thanos’ arrival on, and conquest of, Earth already feels too big to wrap up in one movie. And, indeed, the next two films’ initial titles strongly implied that to be the case. It’s implausible that the story has since been halved in length to make two entirely distinct films, and if Avengers 3 and 4 are still two elements of a continuous tale – which they almost definitely are – then basic narrative law dictates that the mid-point must hit with a major dramatic downer, spurring the heroes to fight back double-hard.
Plus, we’re going to need a longer, bigger story in order for Thanos himself to really make the impact he needs to. Having hidden in the shadows of the MCU for the best part of a decade, lurking away as bogeyman, inevitable endgame, and future instigator of dramatic, climatic change, his arrival cannot simply be that of ‘just another Marvel villain’. The MCU has faced planet-crushing, omnipotent conquerors before. It has already stared down multiple alien armies and lived to tell the tale. Thanos needs to be much more than that. He needs to matter, and leave a lasting impression. We know that much of Infinity War will be told from the villain’s perspective, and that’s a very exciting thought indeed. But at this point, Thanos requires more than some clever PoV storytelling and a lot of screen time. After a decade of build-up, he needs to make a profound difference.
Really, he needs to win.
With the Avengers having already passed test after test with flying colours – as a group, and individually – nothing less than a desperate, clawed-back return from categorical, full-scale defeat could really bring the dramatic weight that Infinity War needs at this stage. But moreover, Thanos is arriving at just the time that the MCU needs to be smashed. In 2018, things have become too big, too complex, and too unwieldy, the franchise’s necessity for ever-larger event movies putting it in an unwinnable arms-race with itself. Something has to give, and it has to give soon. Things need to deflate and dissipate. The tension needs to be let out of the elastic band. Hey, don’t take my word for it, listen to Benedict Cumberbatch:
“What we’ve seen happen within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is this ever-expanding couture of superheroes. And I think now we’re at the stage where this universe, even within our world, has gotten quite crowded and it’s just about to explode into other dimensions.”
Cumberbatch was talking about how the MCU might rationalise the sudden appearance of the X-Men, now that Disney is in the process of buying 20th Century Fox, but his comments hold true - and hold a great deal of wisdom - in regard to the franchise’s future beyond the entrance of Wolverine. Because with the Fox buy-out, the MCU is only going to get more crowded going forward. And to facilitate the arrival of so many new characters and stories, the current decks must surely be cleared. And while planetary devastation by Thanos feels the most obvious, and well-timed, way of achieving the required tear-down, a dash of cross-dimensional, reality-bending, timeline-rewriting action would easily be the neatest (and coolest) way to go about rebuilding.
A series of implausible events
Not to being mention the most in-step with the MCU’s values. Marvel’s movie project was, after all, always a concerted effort to translate the persistent, multi-threaded storytelling of comic books to a cinematic format. And what’s a more quintessential comic book storytelling trope than a huge, universe-reshaping, narrative reset event whenever things get out of hand? Which brings us back to Secret Wars. Because Secret Wars 2015 was, in its own way, exactly that.
As for the concrete, in-universe clues to where we’re heading? There are already a ton. The fact that the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is set in the ‘90s, despite the character never being previously mentioned in an MCU set decades afterward, sets off some major alarm bells regarding tampered timelines. More potently, the raft of leaked images from the filming of Avengers 4, showing the cast dressed as iterations of their characters from earlier films, makes a near undeniable case for time-travel. And then there are the strange, watch-like devices worn by several heroes in Avengers 4. We’ve never seen those before, and they must be a major part of the plot.
And then there’s the ordering of the next two movies set for release between Infinity War and Avengers 4. Captain Marvel, as stated, causes all sorts of problems for the timeline, unless that timeline changes. And Ant-Man and the Wasp is surely going to heavily re-establish the existence of the Quantum Realm, the impossibly shrunken plane of existence operating outside of space and time that the movie’s titular heroes have access to. There’s a very good chance the Realm will be a central MacGuffin in Avengers 4, allowing the good guys to travel back to before their loss to Thanos, and attempt a win before the war ever started.
None of this timing feels like a coincidence. The MCU is getting bloated, and needs a reset. Thanos has the power to provide that reset, by delivering a threat far in excess of anything the MCU has seen before. And to achieve the dramatic impact he’s long been touted as having, he needs to do something severe. He’s going to win. He’s going to beat the Avengers, and leave them with no way back. All those questions we’re asking ourselves, trying to narrow down ‘Who’s going to die in Infinity War?’ Those questions are coming from the wrong angle. By trying to pick out the one or two heroes who might not make it, we’re underestimating Infinity War’s scale and intent. Because I think, truly, the answer to that question is actually going to be: almost everyone.
Thanos’ victory will wipe out most of the roster. Perhaps Ant-Man - with his scope for Quantum Realm time-travel, and frequent appearances in Avengers 4 set photos - will be the one to kick-start an era-hopping story, or perhaps it will be Doctor Strange with the Time Stone. Either way, we’re looking at a journey through the past to assemble a ‘new’ team of Avengers, by recruiting previous, still-alive versions of them from earlier in the timeline.
Taking in a final, whistle-stop tour-cum-recap of the entire MCU saga, we’ll get a nostalgic send-off to the story so far, before all the timey-wimey tinkering results in the full, in-universe reboot of the MCU by way of a whole new timeline. Some heroes will remain, some won’t, and the MCU will start afresh, with new room to grow. And with the scope to remove both Thanos and the Infinity Stones themselves from existence, this new MCU 2.0 could move forward with fresh narrative concerns, entirely free from the previous world’s past.
It's what the MCU needs as a franchise, it's what the story needs in terms of drama, and as the tale of a reality saved from a timeline cancelled out, it would make for a very secret war indeed. And that, we believe, is why Marvel is keeping the final title, well, secret.