Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel’s ten-year culmination, is a sad film. It’s fun, no doubt: It zips by despite its gargantuan runtime, and even finds slowed-down moments to remind us that we love these characters in part simply because they often crack wise. Yet those wisecracks exist not to break up action beats — as is the case with many of its franchise predecessors — but rather to provide levity from a story steeped in the failure of heroism. The movie depicts not just the broad concept of heroes failing to achieve their goals, but rather the failure of the very ideals the Marvel heroes have spent a decade arguing for and solidifying. It’s a film in which heroes are constantly asked to weigh the cost of individual lives against the greater good — indeed, in which the ability to do so defines one’s humanity. Though one might rightly ask, once the dust has settled and the implications for future Marvel films become clearer: To what end? Can the Marvel Cinematic Universe retain its stakes in a story where time, reality, and meaning itself can be unwritten in an instant? (Spoilers for several Marvel movies to follow.)
With a mere snap of his fingers, Josh Brolin’s megalomaniacal Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe in Avengers: Infinity War. With six Infinity Stones at his disposal (Time, Reality, Power, Mind, Space, Soul), he can manipulate the fabric of reality and the arc of the Avengers’ narrative, robbing their sacrifices of consequence as he rips holes through space and time, traveling from incident to incident whenever and however he pleases. Thanos’s universal genocide would ordinarily be the midpoint of such a story, but it finds itself a cliffhanger here, setting up what is sure to be an unexpected (and as-yet-untitled) Avengers follow-up in 2019. Thanos’s bejeweled Infinity Gauntlet grants him near-limitless power, which he uses for purposes he thinks altruistic. “This universe is finite. Its resources finite,” he tells his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, as he recalls the fall of his own planet decades prior. His solution to Titan’s overpopulation was the random culling of half its citizens. He was cast out and branded a madman for his ideas before Titan eventually fell, after which he made it his mission to ensure no other planet, including Earth, suffered the same fate. Terrifyingly, his methods appear to work: Gamora’s home planet, from where Thanos kidnapped her as a child after murdering half its people, now flourishes. Its children no longer starve.
In purely numerical terms, divorced from any sense of empathy or emotion, Thanos is arguably right. His methods are distinctly inhuman, stripped of all emotional meaning and attachment, but what makes him such a fascinating villain is what remains of his humanity despite this. To achieve his limitless might, he needs to collect the Soul Stone, an ancient Infinity Stone granting its wielder mastery over life and death. Its acquisition, however, as Thanos is informed by the Stone’s ghostlike guardian, demands a sacrifice to ensures its new keeper understands its cost: It requires the death of that which Thanos loves most. Gamora, who has reluctantly led her father to the Stone’s location, laughs at this revelation. In her mind, her father the Mad Titan is incapable of love. She is mistaken. Thanos, for all his shortcomings, still loves Gamora. He very much possesses the ability to weigh one meaningful life against countless others — the faceless trillions he’s unlikely to meet — and, in choosing to kill Gamora, he rids himself of what little emotional direction his own life possessed beyond his murderous mission.
Once confronted with the implications of the Soul Stone, Thanos holds back tears as he yanks Gamora to the edge of a cliff and tosses her off it. His success is made all the more harrowing by the fact that Avengers: Infinity War, and the Marvel universe at large, has thus far toyed directly with this exact predicament of sacrificing certain lives in order to save others. The rejection of Thanos’s philosophy in this regard — the refusal to barter with people’s lives — is nothing less than the foundation of the Avengers’ heroism. “We don’t trade lives”: Captain America (Chris Evans) is firm in this belief, expressing it to the artificially intelligent being the Vision (Paul Bettany), a hero whose forehead houses the Mind Gem, one of the Infinity Stones sought by Thanos. The Vision’s beau, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), having been granted her powers by the Mind Gem itself, has the ability to destroy it — and the Vision along with it. But the Captain insists there must be another way. He takes the Vision to Wakanda, home of the Black Panther, to see if the advanced Wakandan science can separate the Vision from the Gem in his head. For Rogers, to sacrifice the Vision would be both a wholly personal choice and a last resort.
The World War II–set Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ends with Captain Rogers saving millions of New Yorkers by crash-landing an atomically armed plane in the Arctic rather than putting it down in a remote land area where a few thousand would die instead. Rogers’s superhuman abilities keep him alive, but he loses seventy years of his life in the process. In that film’s follow-up, the crossover landmark The Avengers (2012), the idea of sacrificing millions to save billions is introduced when New York is jeopardized once again. The World Security Council, a shadowy, militaristic U.N. parallel, orders a nuclear strike on the alien-ridden Manhattan to stop the extraterrestrial invasion from going global. The superhero team, however, is unwilling to make this trade; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) carries the nuclear warhead out into space rather than letting it harm a single innocent person. He doesn’t die, either, but the sacrifice extracts a cost, leaving him with crippling PTSD (as seen in Iron Man 3).
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), the debate over trading lives takes on an immediately political dimension. American drone-ships take aim at “potential” threats, with the intention of killing a few million individuals to achieve a peaceful outcome for the world’s remaining billions. As expected, Captain America stops these ships from ever firing, believing that the punishment must come after the crime rather than before it. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) sees the Avengers’ own robotic creation — Ultron (James Spader), a being detached from humanity and empathy — trying to bring about world peace by destroying humanity itself, the root cause of all conflict. Ultron even builds a backup plan into his apocalyptic scheme, one in which he lifts the fictional nation of Sokovia hundreds of miles in the air before planning to drop it like a meteor, thus bringing about global extinction. Even if the Avengers succeed in saving the rest of the world, they would still have to destroy the floating city and the thousands of people on it, making them pariahs to those who survive. While on his way to this mission, Captain America vocalizes the fact that their success at the cost of Sokovia’s citizens is still a failure. When it seems like the Avengers don’t have any way to succeed, they decide to stay on the floating mound until their deaths, saving as many people as they can rather than escaping. But since they eventually succeed with outside assistance, their unlikely success can’t help but feel as if the film is avoiding the difficult questions it raised itself about the perils of heroism.
Those questions are, in fact, asked more directly in Avengers: Infinity War. “We don’t trade lives, Captain,” the Vision repeats as he saves Rogers, despite inadvertently putting himself and the Mind Gem in Thanos’s path. The refusal to compromise on this point has been part of the Avengers’ identity for nearly a decade — the self-sacrifice in some cases being more tangible than in others. In Thor (2011), the God of Thunder allows himself to be killed — albeit temporarily, as is the case with many of these films. Thor’s sacrifice saves faceless extras in New Mexico. Captain America’s sacrifice is to save faceless millions in New York in 1942, which is the exact same case for the Avengers in 2012. The millions all over the world in Winter Soldier, the few thousands in Age of Ultron, and so on and so forth, are ultimately a distant collective, representing an outcome that, while helping to define these heroes’ philosophies, doesn’t ground their sacrifice in interpersonal emotions. In Infinity War, however, the heroes are constantly forced into positions wherein they have to debate sacrificing not only the populace at large, but one another.
Wanda, for her part, must consider killing an increasingly human A.I. whom she loves, lest Thanos retrieve the Stone in his head. Gamora, the only living person with knowledge of the Soul Stone’s whereabouts, makes her lover, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), promise to kill her if she’s captured. But even after Star-Lord and Wanda agree to their respective deeds, and even as Gamora and the Vision agree to die in order to save the universe, Thanos immediately undoes their respective sacrifices using the Stones he already possesses. He manipulates reality and turns Star-Lord’s bullets into bubbles. He turns back time and returns the Vision to life, undoing his noble sacrifice (and Wanda’s painful act). He cracks open the A.I.’s head to take his Mind Gem, rendering the couple’s sacrifice moot and killing the Vision anyway. When Gamora learns that her death is the key to the Soul Stone, she attempts to take her own life to prevent a universal genocide. Thanos turns her blade into bubbles. Sacrifice may as well be child’s play to Thanos unless it’s in service of his goals.
Nearly every Avenger engages in some form of self-sacrifice in order to stop Thanos. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has lost everything from his family to his home world, takes the full blast of a star’s energy to forge a new weapon: the axe known as Stormbreaker, for which fellow-superhero Groot provides the handle by cutting off his own arm. Thor eventually uses this weapon to stab Thanos in the chest, but Thanos simply snaps his fingers, wiping out half the universe and rendering the attack meaningless. Whether it’s Wanda and the Vision, Star-Lord and Gamora, or Groot and Thor, Thanos denies the Avengers any opportunity of heroic sacrifice, quite literally undoing their important narrative beats with the power at his disposal. The heroes lay everything on the line, even going against their own ideals of refusing to compromise lives, only to have the villain get what he wants by robbing each of them of their willful sacrifice. The only sacrifice that has long-lasting consequence is Thanos’s ruthless murder of his daughter in order to achieve the tools for his genocide.
By the film’s end, half the heroes have withered into dust. None of their sacrifices have been allowed to matter, and, while their individual moments of demise hit hard for long-time fans, their deaths exist seemingly independently of any universal logic. There is no why to any of their deaths — not yet, at least. As the remaining Avengers scramble to make sense of seeing their comrades dying in front of their eyes, only an injured Thanos is allowed an ending approaching completion, as he watches the sun rise on what he calls “a grateful universe.” This, above all else, hammers home Infinity War’s melancholy undercurrent. It ends at a point where every death, sacrifice, and decision made by its heroes feels entirely inconsequential — an understandable point of frustration for those skeptical of Marvel’s myriad-chapter narrative structure. In simpler terms, this is a movie where the villain wins and the heroes are left at their low point. And while there are several questions yet to be answered — many of them logistical, like how Iron Man will return home from space after being stranded on Titan — perhaps the most pressing is the question of whether the decision to delve entirely into meaninglessness can be made to matter in future entries.
While peering into the future using the Time Stone, a powerful object he’s sworn to protect, the mystic sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sees more than fourteen million possible outcomes. The Avengers lose in all but one of them, though Strange doesn’t reveal what exactly the lone victorious future entails. That is, until the moment Thanos is about to kill Tony Stark. Strange then hands Thanos the Time Stone — and thus the universe itself on a silver platter — in exchange for Stark’s life. Strange had previously made it clear that if it came down to saving Stark or protecting the Stone, he would not hesitate to let the billionaire die. Yet he goes back on his word here, handing Thanos a device that would allow him to kill trillions, seemingly in order to save a single life, in a curious reversal of what the Avengers stand for. In Strange’s case, this unwillingness to sacrifice a single life is, in fact, a compromise. But “It was the only way,” Strange himself says as he’s about to wither at Thanos’s hands.
Among the deceased Avengers are Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and all but one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, all of whom are sure to get a sequel film in the next few years. These characters clearly aren’t dead for good, as is the case with many a Marvel tale in the comics. Perhaps no one who died in Infinity War is dead for good. But in keeping with this logic of future appearances, it’s worth noting that the remaining Avengers include Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, and Hawkeye: the original team from 2012. Most of them are unlikely to appear in any Marvel film post-2019 — due to contractual reasons, of course. But there must also be a narrative logic, on behalf of the storytellers, to even this “random” selection of who gets to live or die according to Thanos’s will — an opportunity, perhaps, for future sacrifice to be meaningful. Perhaps the strangest thing about Avengers: Infinity War right now is that audiences don’t know whether it will matter in the grand scheme of the Marvel Universe. The answer remains to be seen. Despite all the quips and jokes and weighty speeches about compromise, the film’s true nature will remain in limbo, for better or worse, until its conclusion next year.
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