Marvel’s now getting deep into Phase 3. 2016 kicked things off spectacularly with an Avengers-dividing Captain America: Civil War and the mystical expansion of Doctor Strange, and 2017’s set to up the pace with three movies in one year for the first time (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok). The real spectacle, however, comes in 2018 with the arrival of Avengers: Infinity War.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who worked wonders with Captain America in The Winter Soldier and Civil War, the film will bring together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy against the long-lead villain Thanos in an attempt to stop his quest to collect the Infinity Stones and wield ultimate power in the universe. It’s the culmination of everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done up until this point, paying off ten years and eighteen movies worth of foreshadowing and development.
Avengers: Infinity War was originally set to be told over two movies. At the announcement of Phase 3’s slate in 2014, Kevin Feige revealed the event as a massive two-part climax to the whole run. Since then a lot has changed; the slate has adjusted to add Spider-Man: Homecoming and Ant-Man & The Wasp and, more pertinently, the Avengers double-bill has become two apparently independent movies. Avengers 3 will still carry the subtitle Infinity War, but the fourth is currently untitled.
How the next two Avengers movies are related is a closely guarded secret at this point, although given that they’re still being shot back-to-back and most actors are signing on for both films it’ll surely be a more harmonic link than most standard sequels. Obviously there’ll be the character overlap and probably a similarly cosmic angle to both adventures. It’s also possible that Thanos may even reach over both films. And, if that’s the case, it begs the question: could there be a massive cliffhanger to Avengers 3?
Marvel has a massive, shared universe, but has yet to instigate anything close to a proper whammy ending. The closest we got was Thor: The Dark World and the reveal Loki has supplanted Odin as ruler of Asgard. Beyond that, The Winter Soldier and Civil War were both open-ended and post-credits scenes create dangling threads, but these aren’t major cliffhangers (and even The Dark World‘s is more a general tease of what’s to come than a traditional hanger). The reason for this may be because of the franchise’s structure; the ongoing threads between movies are more subtle and each film is explicitly designed to stand by itself, so anything too unanswered leads to progression problems. Indeed, when you consider how much ground is often covered between character appearances – Tony Stark retired as Iron Man at the end of his third film, but was back in the suit for Avengers: Age of Ultron – perhaps the trick doesn’t quite lend itself to the MCU.
But Infinity War may be the perfect opportunity – after all, the cliffhanger has already been written. Issue #1 of “Infinity Gauntlet” shows Thanos finally collecting the six Infinity Gems (Stones in the cinematic universe) for the titular golden glove in a bid to impress the physical embodiment of Death, climaxing with him walking out on to the edge of space, raising his hand in menacing stance and… click: in a single motion he kills half of the universe. It’s the single most iconic Infinity comic moment and it would be a wasted opportunity to not realize it on film. An unfathomable, far-reaching show of evil power would be a shocking end for a summer blockbuster, but definitely could work within the story. The film itself could be concerned with the Avengers trying to stop the Mad Titan, culminating in a crushing (but spectacular) failure as the villain wins, setting up their revenge in Avengers 4.
Of course, for all its spine-chilling potential, this specific idea probably won’t happen. Marvel always play free-and-loose with specific comic ideas (see Civil War and how only the bare bones of the print conflict made it to the screen), and this one in particular would be tricky to make work as effectively on film as it did on the page. However, what the theory does highlight is how a cliffhanger could be done in a way that keeps the movies linked and delineated at the same time.
That would play into the mystery around Avengers 4‘s title. Kevin Feige’s confirmed the name-change relates to the stories being told, which makes it seems likely that something in Infinity War will have a direct impact on the wider universe and that the next film’s name is a direct spoiler for whatever that may be. So even if we don’t end on a big rug-pull or unanswered question, there’ll probably be a seismic shift all the same.
However, as stated earlier, this is new-ish ground for the MCU and it may be actually in the franchise’s best interest to stick to this part of the formula.
The major argument against a big cliffhanger is that it could hurt the wider story. Avengers 4 isn’t directly following on from Avengers: Infinity War, but instead there are two films in between. Ant-Man and the Wasp hits theaters later in 2018 and Captain Marvel early in 2019. All titular characters are expected to appear in Infinity War, so any cataclysmic cliffhanger would have to account for those three being able to partake in standalone adventures. It could be a mood-hanger a la The Empire Strikes Back that allows interim stories – in the old Star Wars Legends continuity, Shadows of the Empire slotted in before the events of Return of the Jedi – but that might be detrimental in the other direction; having intermediate films will either negate the impact of the cliffhanger or force contrived restrictions on Scott Lang and Carol Danvers.
Besides, by-and-large cliffhangers don’t work in franchises. Ending a movie on a shocking note can make a classic (see: The Italian Job), but when you’re going to have to pay it off later can lead to major problems. The Empire Strikes Back really is the exception here; most other cases either lead to the first film only telling half a story, or the second being highly unfocused. This is especially true of movies shot back-to-back. Films like The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels tried to tell set stories, but both sides felt individually incomplete, with the endings of Part 2 serving as nothing more than audience bait. The only notable counterpoint is Back to the Future: Part II (and even that’s divisive). This effect is compounded when it’s applied to what was originally a singular story; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and The Hobbit all forced break points into a flowing narrative and ineffectively tried to drum up tension.
The danger with franchise cliffhangers is that they can become more a marketing ploy than a storytelling device. As MCU movies don’t need to build more hype than they already have to get people to turn out – most general audiences are in on the franchise – it would probably be in the studio’s best interest to have Avengers 3 reach a logical, complete climax with just enough threads left for a sequel to continue on the same track (if only to avoid stretched out disappointment). All word points towards a balance, with the back-to-back films sharing a bigger arc in much the same way as Marvel’s sub-franchises do while still having their own, contained stories.
Although, all this said, if they were going to do a big cliffhanger shocker, surely it’d work best if it was unexpected?