With Avengers: Infinity War on the horizon, fans are eagerly watching for hints of one of Thanos's defining comic book characteristics: his obsession with earning the affection of his beloved Death. Given that's the case, Marvel fans are expecting Death herself to appear at some point; and concept art for Doctor Strange has just hinted that we nearly did get to see her after all!
Did Doctor Strange Almost Introduce Death?
Prelude comics for Doctor Strange suggested that Death herself would be the force Doctor Strange battled, not Dormammu. The Zealot gave us Kaecilius's backstory, and revealed his obsession with the conquest of death, and bringing his loved ones back to life. It was a fantastic backstory, but in the end, the movie took a different direction. In the film, Kaecilius's obsession was the conquest of time, with death and entropy viewed as a side-effect. The two portrayals are only subtly different, but the differences are noticeable nonetheless.
Now, concept art for Kaecilius's Zealots has teased that they may have originally been more closely linked to Death. These original designs for the Zealots (above) show them swathed in robes, looming and ethereal, with faces like skulls. If you compare the concept art to the images of Death herself above, you have to admit: the resemblance is uncanny. It would certainly seem that, at some early stage, Marvel did indeed consider having Death herself in #DoctorStrange, seducing Kaecilius into breaking down the barrier between our world and the Realm of Death.
Ultimately, Marvel chose a different route. By early 2016 at the latest, the studio had set itself on a course to unveil the Dark Dimension, with Dormammu as the main villain. An opportunity had been missed — and not many remain.
Why Should Marvel Introduce Death?
But why should Marvel introduce Death? The reason is actually pretty simple; #Thanos doesn't really work as a character without her.
In the Marvel Comics Universe, certain forces of nature are given abstract form, Death being one of them. A fundamental force of the universe, Death embodies entropy and decay, and dwells within a dimension known as the Realm of Death. Where most fantastical fiction has anthropomorphized Death as a man, Marvel's Death typically takes on a female form — and this is particularly important for Thanos.
Thanos, you see, literally fell in love with Death. Seeking to win her affections, he's launched countless plans to present her with 'fitting' gifts, which usually involve killing as many people as possible. In the comics, this was the reason he sought the ultimate power of the Infinity Gauntlet, and he literally snuffed out a third of life across the universe in order to woo Death. Ironically, though, Death has often also fought to preserve life — if all of creation were to die, she would become extinct.
As you can see, Death is an integral part of the Mad Titan's story, and his entire character would need to be redesigned in order to exist without Death!
What's Next for Death?
One possibility is that Death will appear in 2018's Black Panther, which is scheduled for release before Avengers: Infinity War. Black Panther is associated as much with mysticism as with incredibly advanced science, and could easily unveil the missing Soul Stone.
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However, it's worth noting that most fans are expecting the final Infinity Stone to appear in 2017's #ThorRagnarok — which may, too, be a more likely place for Death's appearance. The villain of Thor: Ragnarok is none other than Hela, played by Cate Blanchett. And Hela is, of course, the Norse goddess of death. It's entirely possible that the #MCU version of Death will actually be Hela, and that Thanos will be smitten with Hela. It's actually entirely possible that, in the MCU, Hela is herself ruler of the Realm of Death — and if so, perhaps the reason for Ragnarok is because she herself comes to Asgard in pursuit of the Infinity Stone held there, leaving the other Stones for Thanos to collect.
Fitting in with this theory, all we know about Hela's role in Thor: Ragnarok is a single tantalizing comment from Mark Ruffalo:
"She plays the worst of the worst. So evil. She is going to kill us. It’s such a great part she gets to play."
Supporting this theory, the MCU Phase 3 sneak peak video explains that Thor: Ragnarok begins with Thor discovering an "impending threat" - Hela. Given that he left Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron to seek out the mysterious force pursuing the Infinity Stones, it's significant that his quest apparently leads him to Hela. Meanwhile, over in the comics, The Unworthy Thor #5 has tied Hela and Thanos together in a passionate embrace. The timing of that shift in Thanos's status quo, coming in the same year as Thor: Ragnarok will introduce moviegoers to Hela, seems more than a little suspect.
This would be a smart approach to take, and is probably the most sensible one. It combines two Death-figures, explaining why Marvel changed course over Doctor Strange.
Checking the Timings
Here's the significant thing: C. Robert Cargill was working on script rewrites for Doctor Strange through 2015, only revealing that he'd finished them in December of that year.
Given Cargill got drawn into the controversy over the Ancient One, we know that these rewrites were pretty dramatic. We also know, perhaps significantly, that Marvel visionary Kevin Feige first started hinting that the Dark Dimension would appear in Doctor Strange back in January 2016 — after Cargill had finished his rewrites.
When you set this timeline against that of Thor: Ragnarok, you get an interesting sense of correlation. Although Christopher Yost and Craig Kyle had been working on the script since 2014, in December 2015 Marvel hired Stephany Folsom to do a rewrite. Those rewrites were still in progress in February 2016, and the movie only started filming in July 2016.
If I'm right, originally Marvel planned to have Death herself as the villain of Doctor Strange — and you can still see fragments of that concept in the official Prelude comic, The Zealot, as well as in the concept art. Cargill was hired to rewrite the script, and over the course of 2015 the concept changed shape; Dormammu became the major villain. With the overarching concept of the MCU changing shape, Marvel hired Stephany Folsom to rewrite Thor: Ragnarok. It seems extremely likely that these rewrites involved positioning Hela as the MCU replacement for Death, setting her up as the beloved of Thanos for Avengers: Infinity War.
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I freely admit that this article is speculative, but it seems likely that Marvel did indeed originally intend to introduce Death in Doctor Strange. Removing her changes the shape of the MCU to a massive extent, leaving Thanos simply without any motivation at all, and Marvel clearly need to find a way out of that. The Hela approach really does seem to be the most likely!
Do you think Hela has replaced the avatar of Death?
(Poll Image: Marvel Comics)