By Eliana Dockterman
April 27, 2018

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.

You knew the Avengers: Infinity War ending might be tragic. You knew that some of Marvel’s greatest heroes were going to die. But you probably expected Captain America or Iron Man to bite the bullet. Instead, some of Marvel’s newly minted heroes like Black Panther and Spider-Man disappeared. It was a shocking twist, but the Marvel universe has been building up to this for nearly a decade.

Throughout the Marvel films, Thanos has worked to gather all six Infinity Stones so he can destroy half of all life in the universe. In the Infinity War ending, the Avengers try to stop him, eventually killing Vision in order to destroy the Mind Stone inside his head. But Thanos simply uses the Time Stone to reverse the process and gain all six stones.

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Thanos has won. When he snaps his fingers, people and aliens alike begin to disintegrate. In a stunning sequence, many of Marvel’s superheroes slowly turn to dust. Okoye cries out as her king, Black Panther, dissolves. Rocket tries to grab on to Groot as he watches his friend die — again. Spider-Man, still just a teenager, begs for his life in Iron Man’s arms before deteriorating into nothing.

All told, billions of people vanish, and 12 heroes disappear: Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Bucky Barnes, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Nick Fury and Maria Hill.

This heart-wrenching scene concludes a particularly brutal film. Fan favorite Loki was killed off in the first few minutes. Marvel characters in general, and Loki in particular, have a tendency to “die” and then pop up again in sequels. But, as the villain Thanos assures the audience after he finishes off Loki, “no resurrections this time.”

It’s all rather devastating — until you look at a calendar of the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and realize that Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy cannot be gone for good. Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 is due out in 2019. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is set for 2020. Black Panther just broke every box office record, and Disney is eager to make a sequel.

There is an intriguing scenario in which directors Anthony Russo and Joseph Russo really did kill off all the recently cast heroes. Avengers 4 could play out like HBO’s The Leftovers: The remaining heroes deal with the emotional and philosophical fallout of half the world disappearing. Shuri could become the new Black Panther (as she does in some of the comic books), and the Miles Morales character hinted at in Homecoming could become the new Spider-Man (again, just like in the comic books). Rocket could find all-new companions for the Guardians team. And the original Avengers would be forced to soldier on through another decade of films.

But that probably won’t happen because Thanos’ seemingly random culling wasn’t so random after all. The characters who remain at the end of Infinity War offer a clue about the plot of Avengers 4.

The entire original Avengers team — with the possible exception of Hawkeye, who is curiously missing from the entire film — survived Thanos’ attack. Presumably, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk and Hawkeye will reunite one last time in Avengers 4 to fight Thanos and bring back their friends. By the end of that movie, some of the original Avengers will die. Some of them will ride off into the sunset. The marketing campaign will use old movie cliches like “one last job” or “this time, it’s personal.” The title — which Marvel has yet to reveal — will be something spoiler-heavy like Avengers: Resurrection.

Losing was all part of the plan. Doctor Strange watched millions of possible futures before the Avengers fought Thanos. He tells Iron Man that he sees only one future in which the heroes ultimately prevail. Conveniently, he doesn’t offer any details about that actual scenario. But Doctor Strange probably figured out that the good guys had to lose the battle with Thanos in order to win the war. As he disintegrates, he tells Iron Man that giving up the Time Stone to Thanos in exchange for Iron Man’s life “was the only way.” That means Iron Man plays an integral role in beating Thanos in Avengers 4.

And then there’s the way that our heroes “died.” Floating into the aether feels less permanent than a stab wound or an explosion. Just imagine that stunning disintegration sequence in reverse, the pieces slowly coming together to regenerate the heroes we thought we lost.

Which brings us to the real-world reasons that all the young heroes will return despite the Avengers:Infinity War ending. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth have all starred in three solo movies in addition to multiple Avengers films. Their Marvel Cinematic Universe contracts are up after Avengers 4, and they have all strongly hinted that it will be their last Marvel film. That doesn’t necessarily mean Iron Man, Cap and Thor will die in that movie. But it certainly means that they will all pass on their respective superhero mantles to a new generation of Avengers — a storied tradition in the comics.

So what might the Avengers 2.0 look like? Spider-Man and Black Panther will return, and perhaps Black Panther will recruit his sister Shuri or warrior Okoye to the new Avengers team. Cap’s sidekicks Bucky Barnes or Falcon may become the new Captain America. Perhaps Valkyrie, Thor’s new ally from Thor: Ragnarok, will visit Earth to join the team.

We know from the Infinity War post-credit scene that Nick Fury contacted a new hero, Captain Marvel, right before he disintegrated. Brie Larson is currently filming the Captain Marvel solo film, which will premiere next March before Avengers 4. Set in the 1990s, the movie will tell an origin story of sorts, setting up Captain Marvel’s arc in Avengers 4. (Assuming Larson plays the hero in both films, the directors are going to have to conjure up some pseudo-scientific reason that Captain Marvel didn’t age for 20 years. Maybe she gets stuck in ice like Cap.)

And by 2019, Marvel Studios will get some new superheroes for its toy box. Disney and Fox are currently merging, and soon Disney will own the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Rogue, Storm and Wolverine have all teamed up with the Avengers at some point in the comics, so a future film crossover is possible.

As for the rest of our heroes, Doctor Strange probably returns. An end-credits scene from his solo film hinted at a sequel. And there’s a good chance Gamora comes back too. Nebula survived the culling and will prioritize resurrecting her sister over saving the universe. Perhaps they can use the Soul Stone to revive her or the Time Stone to undo her murder. And who better than Gamora to finally cut Thanos’ throat — for real, this time — at the end of the movie?

How Gamora and the rest of the Marvel heroes actually reach Thanos, I have no idea. But they will. They are called the Avengers after all. And now they have a lot of people to avenge.

Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com.

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