Every time a Marvel movie comes out, someone inevitably complains about the “low stakes”, saying that because we know what movies will be coming out for the next however many years, we know everyone will survive and that death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t really matter because no one stays dead anyway. This is true—Captain America, Agent Coulson, Groot, Bucky Barnes, Nick Fury, and Pepper Potts have all had fake-out deaths. And before Avengers: Age of Ultron even hit theaters, we knew that Hawkeye would be appearing in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, so despite rumors that circulated for years, we knew Hawkeye would not die in Ultron. Even Pietro Maximoff’s late death in Ultron has an air of impermanence about it, simply because everyone else has come back to life at some point. Why not him? We know Joss Whedon would prefer that he stay dead, but who says Marvel will honor Whedon’s wishes?
While I agree that resurrection, as a trope, is overplayed by Marvel, I also wonder why death is the only thing that matters as a measure of stakes. (And do people actually want to see a movie in which half the Avengers die? That sounds like a bummer to me, and I do not go to Marvel movies to be bummed out.) Everyone is so fixated on who is dying or not dying that the real stakes of the MCU are being completely ignored. What really matters among the Avengers, the thing that is on the line in each movie, is friendship. It’s not about whether or not someone dies, it’s about the relationships between these characters and how events impact them. What’s at stake in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not whether or not Captain America dies at the hands of the Winter Soldier, it’s is there is enough of Bucky Barnes left to save his childhood friend.
One of the richest relationships in the MCU is that between brothers Thor and Loki. Thor has never once been in appreciable physical danger in any of his four appearances on film, but Loki has escaped death twice, which means he’s either invincible or else he really will die somewhere down the line in truly spectacular fashion, as foreshadowed by these fake-out deaths. But their relationship is not defined by the possibility that one of them may die—Loki abandons his family at the end of Thor anyway; they don’t even need to death to accomplish that. Instead, they’re defined by betrayal, distrust, and the potential for forgiveness. Every time Thor and Loki share the screen, what’s at stake is their brotherhood. Can Loki be redeemed? Can Thor forgive him? Can he forgive Thor? It may come to pass that Loki’s redemption requires the ultimate sacrifice, but that’s a secondary issue to whether or not Thor and Loki can once again be affectionate brothers. The stakes of a Thor movie aren’t about the death toll, they’re about this relationship and how far apart Thor and Loki are or are not by the end.
Similarly, when Captain America and the Winter Soldier start beating the hell of each other in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though it does feel like they could kill one another, what informs their conflict is not the possibility of death, it’s the memory of their friendship. Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes were best friends, relying on each other in what can be assumed to be a hardscrabble youth in Depression-era Brooklyn, and then later as soldiers in World War II. We see the lengths they go to for one another in The First Avenger, and in The Winter Soldier we see that Steve pines for Bucky’s friendship as much as he does Peggy Carter’s love. We know, because of future slated film appearances, that Steve is not in any real physical danger, but we don’t know if he can ever regain his relationship with Bucky. Every wound and blow they inflict on one another during their climactic fight does not carry the weight of death, it carries the weight of that bygone friendship. This is what’s at risk of dying; this is the thing Steve stands to lose—not his life, but his best friend.
Guardians of the Galaxy best captures the spirit of friendship in the MCU. A free-wheeling space opera, the thematic weight of the movie is not derived from imperiling the heroes, but in the forming of their friendships. The Guardians come together out of necessity, they stick together out of convenience, and then they decide to remain together even with no more battles to fight because they have actually come to like one another. In their corner of the MCU, there is no SHIELD or Avengers Initiative holding them together. The only thing that defines the Guardians as a team is their friendship, the trust and loyalty that forms between them over the course of the movie. Not for nothing is their climactic battle resolved with a Care Bear Stare. The Guardians literally save the day with the power of friendship.
We go into Avengers: Age of Ultron knowing that most everyone is going to survive, and yet the movie feels fraught with tension. Ultron opens with the high of a battle won, but that quickly fades as Tony Stark sets about creating his Ultron peacekeeping program. He refers to the “man is not meant to meddle medley”, alluding to previous conversations in which his ideas must have been voted down. So instead he decides to act unilaterally, and he ends up creating a murderous would-be robot overlord. In The Avengers Steve Rogers accuses Stark of not being a team player, and Stark agrees. Ultimately, he is able to function as part of the Avengers, but we see in Ultron that he still has that “smartest guy in the room” weakness of being unable to recognize that his ideas are not necessarily the best ideas just by virtue of being his ideas. When push comes to shove, if Tony Stark thinks he’s right, there is no stopping him.
What matters in Ultron is not who dies, it’s how this event challenges and changes the Avengers. In the end, the original team can’t keep it together. Stark retires, along with Clint Barton, Bruce Banner is MIA, and Thor returns to Asgard. It’s not necessarily a sad ending, but it is less celebratory than the shawarma at the end of The Avengers. The Avengers saved the day, but at the cost of their team. The stakes of Ultron were high all along, and in the end they paid out in the dissolution of the original Avengers.
Now, with Civil War looming and the bonds between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark tenuous at best, the stakes are beginning to go up. It’s still not really about wondering who, if anyone, dies, but about the potential cost of more conflict between Avengers. The theme of friendship has been so meticulously woven into the MCU that the prospect of Avengers fighting feels direr than potential death. It’s not about which superheroes die and how, it’s about how they live. As Clint Barton says to Wanda Maximoff, you can sit down and that’s fine, or you can stand up and fight. The stakes of the MCU depend upon characters that stand up and fight—more often than not, side by side.