(There obviously are big spoilers involved in this post.)
There’s been a ton of talk, understandably, about how in the world our heroes are going to move forward after Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It’s a question without an easy answer — literally anything could happen from here. But we do know two things for sure.
1. Everybody who died in that climactic cataclysm will be back in “Avengers 4,” in some way. We know this because Marvel can’t (and probably doesn’t want to try to) hide who’s in that movie, since the bulk of the cast died at the end of “Infinity War.”
2. Doctor Strange looked into the future, saw how to win, and carried out whatever he believed he needed to do before he fell victim to Thanos’ cosmic finger snap.
This article is going to primarily concern itself with the second point, because after a couple viewings, we think we figured out what he saw. That doesn’t mean we’ve figured everything out about what “Avengers 4” has in store for us, because we don’t know why the thing he saw will lead to an ultimate victory — we just know that it does. We do, however, believe that the “why” of all this involves some greater, cosmic power moving behind the scenes. And we have three guesses about what that power might be.
Take this with a grain of salt, of course — there’s every possibility that we’re wrong about this. But we feel like what we’re about to discuss is as good a read as we’re gonna get at least until “Ant-Man and the Wasp” comes out in July.
Let’s start with what Doctor Strange saw.
“We don’t trade lives”
This line is uttered several times during “Infinity War,” by Captain America and Vision. But it’s not an empty saying — all of the good guys live by that motto throughout the movie.
Of the six Infinity Stones Thanos collects over the course of the movie, he gets a hold of two of them without interference from any protagonist characters: the Power Stone, which he gets from Xandar immediately before the beginning of the movie; and the Reality Stone, which he destroys Knowhere to get offscreen.
The other four — the ones that the good guys theoretically have a chance to prevent Thanos from getting his hands on — all end up on the Infinity Gauntlet because of that “we don’t trade lives” idea.
Loki gives up the Space Stone so Thanos won’t murder Thor. Gamora gives up the location of the Soul Stone so Thanos won’t murder Nebula. Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone so Thanos won’t murder Tony Stark. And Thanos only gets within spitting distance of the Mind Stone because our heroes choose to fight for it instead of killing Vision outright to destroy it. Yes, Scarlet Witch ends up murdering Vision anyway to keep it away from Thanos, but by the time she decided to do that, Vision was gonna die either way. And, in fact, he did die both ways. Arguably, Peter Quill’s reluctance to kill Gamora to keep her from being captured by Thanos and eventually giving up the Soul Stone also counts — Thanos had to actually goad him into pulling the trigger as part of some cruel mind game.
The good guys’ actions are in direct contrast to what Thanos does the entire movie — the good guys give up the Stones to save people, and Thanos murders people so he can obtain them. It’s a point made explicit on Vormir, when Thanos can only get the Soul Stone by murdering the person he loves most in the world: Gamora. To overstate the point, the heroes’ efforts to save their friends and loved ones at all costs is darkly reflected by Thanos’ willingness to literally do the opposite.
We believe that contrast is significant for literal plot reasons and not just thematic ones, because of Doctor Strange. There are three stages to Doctor Strange’s position regarding whether they should give up the Stones in order to save people.
1. He is categorically opposed to the concept, telling Tony straight up that he will prioritize the safety of the Time Stone over the safety of other people.
2. He looks at 14,000,605 possible futures, and sees only one in which the good guys win.
3. He pointedly chooses to give up the Time Stone in order to save Tony’s life.
The moment when Doctor Strange hands over the Time Stone does not quite go the way the other similar moments go. When Loki hands over the Space Stone and Gamora gives up the location of the Soul Stone, Thanos is doing a “give me what I want or I’ll kill this person you care about” thing, and those characters struggle with the dilemma before ultimately caving. Thanos is not doing that with Tony on Titan, though. The fight is over and Thanos is victorious, and he’s just matter-of-factly about to end the threat that Iron Man represents.
Thanos doesn’t order Doctor Strange to hand over the Time Stone or he’ll kill Tony — Doctor Strange makes the offer himself, unprompted. Because he knows, based on his vision of the future, that it’s what he has to do. And it’s at that point that “we don’t trade lives” changes from subtext to text.
Moments later, after Thanos traveled to Earth and tore everybody up, took the Mind Stone, and killed trillions of people, Doctor Strange’s last words are pretty notable: “There was no other way.” As far as Doctor Strange was concerned, the good guys were still on the path to victory even though they had clearly lost this battle.
So as far as we can tell, the key to victory in that one possible future in which the good guys emerge victorious from all this madness is simple: they can’t trade lives to protect the Infinity Stones. They have to value all life, and fight to defend all life, even if it means risking the fate of the universe. And they did that.
So now what?
That’s the big question — the idea that the good guys will win by being better people than their enemies and not compromising their moral principles is a nice thematic idea but it’s tough to translate into a coherent plot. It would be very easy to look at everything we just described as merely a thematic thing, but that would put the actual story in essentially non-literal territory, with the themes overriding the storytelling instead of the two working in tandem.
That’s why we put such emphasis on Doctor Strange’s arc — what he did was clearly influenced by the future he saw, rather than some natural compunction to care about whether Tony Stark lives or dies. The movie does not indicate Doctor Strange underwent a change of heart, so that fact means something.
Now, it’s also possible that Doctor Strange merely saw that Tony would be key in the endgame of this conflict. But with how thick the “we don’t trade lives” thing was laid on throughout the movie, we don’t think it’s quite that simple. So the question then is how that idea goes from theme to actual plot.
Fortunately, the Marvel Universe is so grandiose that it provides some pretty distinct possibilities.
Unfortunately, the Marvel Universe is also so grandiose that it’s also pretty much impossible to confidently guess which of those possibilities is the right one. Add in the complicating factor that the MCU often takes very generous liberties with the source material — these movies are not straight adaptations of any comic book stories, but rather a new universe that takes its inspiration from all of Marvel lore — and we’re pretty much taking a stab in the dark at how “Avengers 4” will play out.
We think we’re right about the setup, but what it means is anyone’s guess. And we have a few guesses, which we’ll discuss below. So let’s do that.
The Infinity Stones have their own mysterious agenda
A low-key but also incredibly important detail in “Infinity War” is how a couple characters talk about the Infinity Stones as if they were people — which has not generally been a thing in the MCU in the past. The Red Skull says the Space Stone, for example, “cast me out” at the end of the first “Captain America” movie. He also said that the sacrifice Thanos had to make to obtain the Soul Stone was required by the Stone itself. And Vision says that the Mind Stone is warning him — he uses that word specifically — when Thanos and his lackeys are around, and he’s the first to know when Thanos arrives on Earth because the Mind Stone tells him.
There’s one big similar thing from the previous MCU movies — in “Thor: The Dark World” of all places, when the Aether (aka the Reality Stone) actually possesses Jane Foster, and the Asgardians talk about it like it’s a parasite trying to use her for some unknown purpose.
Now in the comics, the Stones are actually sentient on some level, but aside from vague hints here and there in past movies that go in that direction the MCU has never overtly embraced that idea until now. And this development is a doozy, because all of that seems to indicate that the Infinity Stones have their own plan for this conflict.
One big reason we’ve been thinking about this is because of the Soul Stone. That it would explicitly require Thanos to murder someone he cares about in order to obtain it, an action that is morally the exact opposite of what the good guys do the whole movie, is another of those “subtext becomes text” moments. If the good guys refusing to sacrifice life to save life is the key to an Avengers victory, then it follows that Thanos doing the opposite would likewise be key to sealing a Thanos loss, even if it’s not obvious to him just yet.
But if the Stones have their own agenda and it’s playing out in this war, what’s the ultimate goal? Maybe a test of worthiness to find people to wield their power? Whatever it is, the prominence of the Stones throughout the MCU would seem to indicate this test has been going on for a long time, and certainly did not begin with the war with Thanos.
The Grandmaster and the Collector are playing a game
In the books there are a bunch of Elders of the Universe, but we’ve only met two of them in the MCU so far that we know of: the Grandmaster and the Collector. It seems like it’s probably not a coincidence that those are the only two the MCU has shown us at this point — those two are big on what we’ll call Cosmic Games.
The Elders are the oldest living things in the universe, and they’re also immortal. Their nicknames are based on whatever they’ve decided to spend the last couple billion years or whatever doing: the Collector, for example, collects items from all modern civilizations as an archive for after the universe ends. The Grandmaster, meanwhile, likes to play games.
And, no, not just games like the arena fights in “Thor: Ragnarok.” In the comics, he views the universe as a sort of playground, and does stuff like make the modern-day Avengers go back in time to fight Captain America and the Human Torch during World War II. The Collector often gets caught up in these schemes because they’re best friends.
What kind of game they might be playing right now is impossible to guess because there’s no easy comic book precedent for those two being involved in this fight. But it would follow that if the Grandmaster and the Collector somehow orchestrated the war with Thanos, its victory conditions would be different than those of a normal battle.
It also feels, by the way, very much not incidental that the Collector actually appeared briefly in “Infinity War.” Sure, it was just an illusion that Thanos created using the Reality Stone, but it probably wasn’t just for funsies that Marvel Studios paid Benicio del Toro to show up to set for a day — There’s almost zero chance that they would kill him off-screen like some people seem to think happened.
So we’re operating under the assumption that his appearance here means the Collector is going to be important in “Avengers 4” in some way, even if it’s not for the reason we’re discussing in this article.
One of the Watchers went rogue
Speaking of cosmic, powerful aliens who like to meddle with humans, another possibility could be the Watchers. In the Marvel Comics, the Watchers are aliens who, long ago, decided not to interfere with lower life forms and instead spend all their time observing them.
These guys popped up briefly in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” specifically as a joke relating to Stan Lee’s various cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gag or not, though, “Guardians 2” really does establish Watchers as MCU canon. They’re around, somewhere.
Not all the Watchers are completely hands-off, despite that basically being their law. The Watcher stationed to keep an eye on Earth, Uatu, has gotten into trouble in the comics for getting interested in the fates of the folks on the planet and occasionally interfering on their behalf. In fact, Uatu had a direct confrontation in the comics with Mar-Vell, the original Captain Marvel, who is a character in the upcoming “Captain Marvel” movie, played by Jude Law.
So it’s not too far out of the realm that Uatu watched the events of “Infinity War” and will be moved to action in the future, especially after seeing the noble heroes doing everything they can to save their friends. Meanwhile, Thanos is a walking murder machine for whom everyone is expendable. That could definitely be enough to get Uatu involved, and that could be a big deal, since the Watchers have ridiculous powers, like the ability to manipulate time and space and to project energy.
It’s entirely possible, and even likely, that all of this is ultimately incorrect. Marvel Studios has been remarkably good about keeping secrets with “Infinity War” and whatever is coming up next — that they won’t even tell us what the title of “Avengers 4” is means they aren’t stopping with the secrets any time soon.
But like we did above in this article, we’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks digging through the details to try to figure out what’s coming not just in “Avengers 4” but also “Captain Marvel” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Click here for our deeper look into how “Captain Marvel” might impact that distressing plot twist. at the end of “Infinity War.” Click here for our look at what “Ant-Man and the Wasp” might have to do with all this. Click here for our discussion of the whole Vision situation and whether he’s really dead. And, finally, here’s our run-down on how the comic book version of these events played out.