By A.G. Holdier
In a matter of hours, fans will learn the fate of Thanos, his victims, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the grand finale to The Infinity Saga. While it’s been almost a year since the Snap (and two more MCU films have since been released) we’ve enjoyed essentially no hints about what exactly happened to the people who crumbled into dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Although everyone from Kevin Feige to the Russo brothers to Chadwick Boseman and more have indicated that those deaths are not going to be reversed, many fans are (for good reason) still holding out hope to see Black Panther, the Wasp (and her parents), most of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the rest of the Avengers’ roster return in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame – after all, neither Spider-Man, nor anyone else, wanted them all to go.
But if the Marvel heroes somehow reappear as a consequence of (or, even better, in the process of) Thanos’ defeat, that raises interesting metaphysical questions about what’s been happening to them in the interim period. The name of the Soul Stone alone suggests that the inhabitants of the MCU either possess, exist as, or are partially comprised of something immaterial (as T’Challa experienced during his travels to the Ancestral Plane and as Doctor Strange learned so powerfully from the Ancient One), so what guesses could we make about what happened to the souls of Bucky, Wanda, Falcon, and the rest following the Battle of Wakanda?
Perhaps the souls victimized by Thanos’ Snap experienced something like what’s described in the Bardo Thödol – a Buddhist title often translated in the West as ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ In its description of the ‘Bardo,’ or the interim period following a person’s experience of death and rebirth, the Bardo Thödol describes a series of stages that the soul must pass through on its way to reincarnation. Since one of the functions of this (roughly) forty-nine day process is the cleansing of the karma one has accrued, an experience of the Bardo will involve “symbolic visions” based on one’s actions over the course of their life. As Section VII of the Bardo Thödol explains, “What he has thought and what he has done become objective: thought–forms, having been consciously visualized and allowed to take root and grow and blossom and produce, now pass in a solemn and mighty panorama, as the consciousness–content of his personality.” Once complete, the person is reborn as another human being. Will Peter one day tell Aunt May stories of how he “remain[ed] subject to all the karmic illusions of the Bardo, blissful or miserable as the case may be” until he and the rest of Thanos’ victims were restored to life?
Or might those souls awaken to find themselves in what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls ‘purgatory’ or the ‘final purification of the elect’? Citing the experience of the sons of Job, Jesus’ suggestion that some sins could be forgiven “in the age to come,” as well as the example of Judas Maccabeeus, some Christians believe that a sort of postmortem “waiting room” exists where souls are prepared to enter God’s presence. In some ways similar to the notion of karmic cleansing, the ‘purifying fire’ of purgatory allows a person “to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” – perhaps this is where Nick Fury finished the sentence he started after barely managing to alert Carol Danvers of the emergency.
Both of these theories might, in different ways, be suggested by the infamously orange-tinged scene immediately following Thor’s (failed) last-ditch Stormbreaker throw. After Thanos wipes out half the universe, he finds himself in a conversation with the childhood form of Gamora; to her questioning what his quest cost him, Thanos replies, “Everything.” Much speculation has spun about exactly “where” this conversation takes place – Thanos’ position at the start of the scene (as well as his posture when the scene shifts back to Wakanda with Thor) suggests that he’s having a momentary, internal vision – might he be mentally communing with the actual soul of the Gamora he sacrificed on Vormir? The fact that this visionary experience appears to happen somewhere that shares the same color as the Soul Stone itself has led to many theorists suggesting that the Snap did not merely kill half the universe, but that it captured the dead souls inside one of the Infinity Stones – a theory that fits within the canon of the Marvel comics, where the Soul Gem houses a pocket universe populated by intelligent creatures and led, at one point, by Adam Warlock, later wielder of the Infinity Gauntlet. If this is true, then whether the Soul Stone functions like the Bardo, like Purgatory, or like something else, restoring Thanos’ victims might be as simple as setting them free from their captivity – turning Avengers: Endgame into a three-hour riff on Christianity’s Harrowing of Hell.
Of course, eagle-eyed viewers of trailers and scattered shots of the movie’s set have guessed that a bit of time travel might be in the cards for Endgame – if that’s the case, then this theory may lose some of its force. Nevertheless, our bardo-like process of waiting for the resolution of more than a decade of MCU films is nearly at an end of its own.
A.G. Holdier is a graduate student in the philosophy department at the University of Arkansas, an ethics instructor for Colorado Technical University, and blogs regularly for The Prindle Post and The Story Geeks. His philosophical work focuses on cognitive architectures, implicit cognition, and other issues in the philosophy of mind/language. Learn more at www.agholdier.com.