Of all the comparisons you might have expected to draw with Marvel’s latest superhero-stuffed ensemble film, HBO’s The Leftovers probably wasn’t high on the list. But in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos (Josh Brolin) makes good on his promise to eliminate half of the earth’s population at random, and thus ensues a haunting scene desperately in need of a Carrie Coon monologue.
MPAA guidelines being what they are, we were never going to see this play out as a literal bloodbath; instead, scores of the MCU’s most beloved heroes abruptly turn to dust, as their friends and allies watch in numb disbelief along with the audience.
Bucky Barnes, the soldier-turned-sleeper agent who’s survived death and fought his way back from brainwashing? He’s the first to go, and barely has time to murmur “Steve?” before evaporating into a handful of dust. Black Panther, the newly minted MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe who represents such a long-overdue new era for superhero storytelling? Poof. Peter Parker, the sweet kid who’s aware enough of what’s happening to literally beg for his life in Tony Stark’s arms? Gone. Doctor Strange, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord? All gone.
It was rough, and it was a disorienting, striking final beat in what had otherwise been a fun but by-the-numbers blockbuster ride.
So, is this a “last in, first out” deal? Did the powers that be take a look at Infinity War’s ludicrously stacked call sheet and conclude that they had way too many characters on their hands? Probably not. Several of the heroes who disappeared are already committed to future solo movies, including next year’s untitled Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel, 2020’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and the confirmed but not yet scheduled Black Panther sequel. Much as the MCU could arguably stand to lose a few heroes, it’s not going to be these newbies. Let’s dig into what’s really happening here.
Who exactly was lost in The Dusting?
In total, 12 characters disappeared: Bucky Barnes, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill. That’s in addition to millions more people across the planet, so we’re bound to hear about more losses in the future—will The Dusting be incorporated into the canon of the Marvel-Netflix TV universe, for instance? Because if Iron Fist were to vanish into dust, that would be okay.
The above list doesn’t include the characters who died at Thanos’s hand earlier in the film, like Loki, Heimdall, and Gamora. Their deaths were more physical and literal, and may therefore be more final; it’s easy to imagine Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba walking away from the MCU at this point. On the other hand, if our heroes find a way to fully reverse all of Thanos’ actions—maybe by using the Time Stone—then his earlier victims could be saved after all.
Did this happen in the comics?
Pretty much. Marvel’s 1991 comic book series The Infinity Gauntlet sees Thanos, under orders from Mistress Death herself, destroy half of the universe’s population, because the number of living things has become greater than the number that have died. The destruction happens midway through the first of five issues, with the rest of the series devoted to exploring the fallout and the reversal of Thanos’s destruction. The plot of Infinity War doesn’t share much else in common with that of Gauntlet, but assuming the basic shape of this arc remains the same, you can expect to see a lot more of Karen Gillan’s Nebula in the fourth Avengers movie.
What’s going to happen next?
The prevailing fan theory is that the fourth Avengers movie will focus heavily on time travel and the quantum realm, with Captain Marvel and Ant-Man both proving instrumental in saving the heroes who disappeared. There has to be a reason, after all, why Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 2018) and Captain Marvel (March 2019) are both slated to come out before the next Avengers movie (May 2019)—considering the huge cliffhanger left us with, their plots are likely to be related.
The quantum realm was first introduced in Ant-Man back in 2015, described by Hank Pym as “a reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant”; it appeared again in Doctor Strange, and will reportedly play a role in Captain Marvel. So assuming that both Ant-Man and Captain Marvel are able to navigate the quantum realm, it’s possible that they could use it to manipulate or reverse the reality Infinity War left us with.