death and raising stakes in the nerd-verse, or holy shit, infinity war comes out tonight

What do we want to happen tonight?

When I talk to my friends about Infinity War, we circle back to the same point: Somebody’s going to die. We pick apart everything we’ve put together from trailers, old comic story lines, and articles about each actors’ contract to try to solve the mystery of Who’s Going to Die in Infinity War. For example, it’s probably pretty safe to assume that Spidey’s going to web sling his way out of this one since there’s a sequel to Homecoming already in the works.

BUT MAYBE THAT’S JUST WHAT MARVEL WANTS ME TO THINK!

Anyway.

Why are we so obsessed with death in our favorite big blockbuster franchises? I’ve been thinking about this all week, and I’m still not sure. Obviously, a beloved character being “killed off” by their creator raises the stakes, and not just for the other characters within their world. Game of Thrones built part of its brand on making sure we knew that no one is safe. It’s important that these long-running stories shake up the status quo. It’s important that these narratives challenge us. Right? I think. I’m still waffling.

The first death-with-a-capital-D that I encountered in pop culture was Qui-Gon Jinn’s. I was ten-years-old, and I didn’t see it coming for a second. This character who was so important and with whom I’d spent the last hour and a half adventuring and discovering and learning couldn’t possibly be killed off. He was a Jedi Master! He was the smartest and the strongest and the most capable, and that should have made him safe. Because we were all safe so long as there was Qui-Gon Jinn, right?

I was wrecked. I sobbed along with Obi-Wan, completely dumbfounded. None of us expected Qui-Gon to die, including Qui-Gon. Look at his face! There’s none of the old-Ben-acceptance in Liam Neeson’s expression as Darth Maul runs his saber through him. For what is ultimately one of the sillier Star Wars movies, this scene is really brutal.

I’m older and cynical, and I can’t remember the last time a character’s death shocked me like this. There are deaths that have broken my heart, sure, even when I saw them coming. Does a character’s death have to shock us to make it narratively interesting, though? Does a character’s death have to destroy us emotionally to make it good? I appreciate catharsis as much as the next geek, but I also don’t really want Marvel to make me sad just for the sake of making me sad. I do not need your help with that, Marvel.

Like a lot of us, I’ve been all-in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the first time I saw Iron Man in the summer of 2008. We went for my friend’s birthday, and I remember thinking ahead of time, “Iron Man? What a dumb name for a superhero. This is going to suck.” I was thoroughly unprepared for how hard my mind was about to be blown. Before seeing Iron Man, I’d only read a few Spider-Man comics here and there, so I had no idea what it meant when Nick Fury wanted to talk about the Avengers Initiative. But I knew from the palpable nerd excitement in the air that something amazing was going to happen over the next decade.

Once main characters start to die, does that mean that The End is near? The end of all of it? Does that Avengers Initiative-2008-enthusiasm have to die? I don’t want it to end. I’ve said before that I’d be happy for Marvel to keep putting out superhero movies every year for the rest of my life, and I know that makes me part of The Problem. What incentive are we giving Marvel to make bold narrative choices when they know how much we love Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark? Why would they take away what we want, especially when what we want is so lucrative for them?

What do we want?

I want and don’t want a lot of things. If someone dies tonight, I don’t want it to be misery-porn, designed to evoke a frenzied Tumblr response on Friday morning. If someone dies tonight, I don’t want it to be taken back by a magical MacGuffin in Part 4, unless it is really, really earned. I want these movies to be challenging and compelling. If someone dies tonight, I want it to matter. I want these stories to matter, even if they’re the most make believe of the make believe.

Also, I don’t really want anyone to die tonight. These characters feel like my friends, and I want them to be okay. I already know that I’m going to die, and that my real friends are going to die. Watching Captain America die isn’t going to teach me anything I don’t know. The stakes on life are already really high. Maybe it’s okay to watch the Avengers just win every time and then eat shawarma? That sounds super pleasant. All I want to do is win and eat shawarma with my friends. Am I still part of The Problem? Sorry, guys.

I want a lot of things. As we know, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find (hopefully) a really good superhero movie that feels real in that it can break your heart and put a smile on your face within the same two and a half hours. A movie that you can connect with so much that you just have to gather up your friends the next day to discuss it all over shawarma.

I want that.

Have fun tonight, everybody! ASSEMBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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