By Jason Hamburger
There is no question that the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a crowd pleaser. Avengers: Infinity War was packed to the gills with heart-pounding action, intimate romance, and enough one-liners to make the Hulk giggle. But underneath all the CGI fueled fight scenes and long anticipated character team-ups lies a compelling story with a strong thematic core that will have you leaving the theater with more to think about than you expected from a comic book movie.
One of the biggest questions that Avengers: Infinity War asks its viewers is simply this, “What is the difference between a hero and a villain?” Now of course we have all seen enough movies to know intuitively the answer to this question. The heroes are the ones who you like. They are good-looking, funny, and driven by an unflinching altruism that allows them to always make the right choice when it really matters. Villains on the other hand have egos as big as the bad-ass looking armor they wear. They have henchmen, are always accompanied by sinister music, and want to shape the world to conform to their own twisted vision of paradise. This is what we know, and this is what we expect. Infinity Wars is such an interesting story because it plays with our expectations of what it means to be a hero or a villain in surprisingly complex ways. It does this by exploring what each of its main characters are willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals. What does it mean to be a hero in the context of Infinity War? The answer is much more complicated than you might expect.
Let’s start where the movie starts, with the opening scene. The Asgardian transport ship is under attack by a ruthless foe. The camera pans over a scene of death and destruction as, above it all, Ebony Maw strides over the corpses of the fallen, making a speech about how lucky the Asgardians are to be sacrificing their lives to the noblest of causes. What follows is a gut-wrenching scene where Thanos kills everyone’s favorite Norse heroes (except for one). Loki trades Thor’s life for the Tesseract, Heimdall trades his life to save the Hulk’s, and within the first few minutes the movie effortlessly sets up its main thematic conflict. What this scene tells the audience is that the heroes of this movie are going to value the lives of individuals while the villains are going to dispassionately kill anyone who stands between them and their goals. Simple enough right? This is a story we have all seen before. But the brilliance of Infinity War is that it refuses to tell the easy story. Instead what it does is give us heroes who consistently fall on the wrong side of the line, morally speaking, and pay a heavy price for their actions.
It’s important to note here how the actions of Thanos help shape the main thematic conflict of this movie. Instead of a cliched, over-the-top megalomaniac, Thanos is presented to us as a very human character forced to make painful decisions throughout his quest to save the world. Thanos’s story plays beautifully with the themes of personal sacrifice as he is forced to kill the person he cares about most in the universe, his adopted daughter Gamora, to acquire the Soul Stone. While we the audience certainly feel for Thanos’s loss, his decision to value the success of his mission over Gamora’s life cements him as the villain of this story. By having Thanos be the antagonist, we are primed to believe that those with a similar disregard for human life belong on the side of evil.
It is no exaggeration to say that Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) is the most unambiguous hero in the MCU. Time after time he is willing to stand up for what he believes in, regardless of the situation. He is a capable leader who never for a second forgets that to be a hero means to protect the innocent at any cost. He is the moral compass of every movie he is in and it should come as no surprise that he is the voice of heroism in the Vision and Scarlet Witch story line. Towards the beginning of the movie it is established that Scarlet Witch and Vision have fallen deeply in love. Unfortunately for them, they are attacked soon after by two of Thanos’s children, narrowly escaping thanks to a well-timed dramatic entrance by Captain America and his crew. Once out of harm’s way, Vision brings up the idea to destroy the Mind Stone even though it would cost him his life. Captain America, the voice of morality, staunchly denies Vision’s plan to sacrifice himself to stop Thanos. Cap is so rigid in his ethical code that he brings Vision and the Mind Stone to Wakanda to try and have the two separated. When it is made clear that the process will take time, he convinces the heroes to make a stand against Thanos’s forces rather than sacrifice Vision to suicide. So why is this so important? Because the logical decision would be to sacrifice Vision’s life to save the countless others who will surely die in the upcoming conflict. But that is not what heroes do. Captain America is clearly taking a stand here against the cold, calculating, logic-driven solution that Vision offers. Captain America is not Thanos. He will not, under any circumstances, sacrifice someone he cares about to achieve victory.
One example of a hero who is not as morally upstanding as we might expect is Doctor Strange. While on the way to Thanos’s home world Titan, Strange outright tells Tony Stark that he will not hesitate to sacrifice Tony and his adorably naïve sidekick Peter Parker to protect the Time Stone. Not exactly a heroic move by Dr. Strange. But, fortunately for Strange’s character, he has a change of heart after seeing into the future and discovering that there is only one possible way to save the universe. What did he see exactly? We won’t know until the sequel no doubt but whatever it was it convinced him to value the life of Tony Stark over protecting the Time Stone. It’s interesting to note that before this motley crew is sent off into space, Tony Stark tries to prevent Peter Parker from getting involved in the upcoming crisis. He knows that Peter is too young to understand what he is truly sacrificing by getting on Thanos’s ship and tries as hard as he can to prevent it. Stark demonstrating here that he too is worthy of being called a hero.
Many, many of the story threads in this movie revolve around characters struggling with the decision to sacrifice something to achieve their goals. Gamora asks Peter Quill to sacrifice her before Thanos can retrieve the information she knows about the Soul Stone. Gamora can’t bring herself to sacrifice Nebula to let the secret of the Soul Stone die with her. Thor is forced to sacrifice himself to forge Stormbreaker. At each of these turns our heroes are given a choice, to either sacrifice a human being or achieve an end. And in most cases our heroes chose as we would expect them to. Either saving the one they love from harm or giving their own life for the betterment of all. But not all our heroes fall on the side of good during these decisions. The instance of sacrifice that is most central to the plot comes at the hands of Scarlet Witch. It is fascinating that in the end Scarlet Witch kills Vision (or at least tries to) to keep the Mind Stone out of Thanos’s giant purple hands. Sacrificing her true love to prevent Thanos’s plan lands Scarlet Witch uncomfortably close Thanos’s side of the hero-villain spectrum. And of course, it’s too late and Thanos turns back time and retrieve the stone anyway. What does this mean for the story of Infinity War and its central theme? In its final movements, the plot of Infinity Wars delivers on our expectations of what it means to be a hero. By failing to stop Thanos, Scarlet Witch demonstrated painfully that the salvation of our heroes will not come by bowing to the pressure of the situation and undervaluing human life.
So where does that leave us? How will our heroes find a way to defeat Thanos and undo the damage he has done? I believe the answer lies with Dr. Strange. Because unlike Scarlet Witch, Strange chose the life of his companion over his desire to stop a tyrant. I can’t say with certainty what I think the next Avengers movie will look like, but the fact that Tony Stark was not included in Thanos’ great halving of the universe is strong evidence that by saving his life, Dr. Strange did the right thing and that Tony will be integral in the ultimate resolution of this epic story.
(All images owned by Marvel)