In Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel has successfully adapted a classic comic book storyline featuring nearly all the most beloved franchise characters (as well as a few characters from the second tier). That is a remarkable feat of cinematic storytelling on its own. The film is the more remarkable, however, because it is about ordinary life—the enemies of which, in our age of postmodern disenchantment, are gnosticism and skepticism.
Infinity War tells the story of a struggle between a group of superheroes and the intergalactic supervillain Thanos, who is on a quest to collect the six Infinity Stones (“all-powerful MacGuffins,” to borrow afrom Steven D. Greydanus). Thanos wants to recast the universe according to his own design, the centerpiece of which is the destruction of half the living beings in it, willy-nilly.
The assumption of the villain of the piece—who is really the great villain of the Marvel franchise—is that life, as such, is not good. Thanos claims that his quest is ultimately for balance in the universe. This means that, to him, the Infinity Stones are not keystones holding everything in balance—making it kosmos—but tools to be wielded by one who would bend the world to his own design, a design in which life is disposable. Against this diabolical vision, the film offers fleeting glimpses of goodness at work in the ordinary world and in the souls of powerful and flawed characters.
The film establishes its theme by showing the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary, epitomized in conversations between characters involved in relationships that we might call—however unsatisfactorily—romantic. These conversations come at crucial moments in the story: Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Pepper Potts in the park talking about settling down and starting a family, right before Dr. Strange appears to enlist Iron Man’s aid in the fight against Thanos; Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision on Cockburn Street (I think it was) in Edinburgh, where they are almost literally blasted to smithereens, along with their fleeting dreams of an ordinary life, in an attack that seems to come out of nowhere.
“Ordinary” might be roughly synonymous with “everyday”—but it also denotes that which gives order to our lives. The good guys in this movie want to find order in the ordinary. The bad guy wants something else.
Thanos’s psychological motivation is established as a sort of thrall to Malthusian terror (set off by terrible trauma). His spiritual motivation is the gnostic bleakness of Nietzschean will to power, acquired or activated as a result of the last.
Thanos’s vision is archetypically gnostic. Gnosticism preaches the senselessness of existence and the need to escape the world’s condition. The gnostic, however, cannot work without telling stories, and stories must have sense. The best of them make sense of the world. The worst are told by idiots. Thanos’s desire is to be both the story’s author and—in the etymological sense—an idiot, i.e. a private man. A brief sequence showing Thanos as an evil cosmic Cincinnatus confirms this.
Thanos lays out his plan and its justification calmly and with conviction before his adoptive daughter, Gamora. He says he simply must destroy half the living beings in the universe; otherwise they will drive themselves to the same desolation his own people suffered (and their planet too) when they rejected his plan of salvation by population culling. Gamora then says to him, “You don’t know that.” With this response, the gnostic Thanos—whose will to power is manifest in his simultaneous desire for certitude and despair of it—is hoist on his own petard. The remarkably complex villain responds in the only way his commitments will allow: with intimate and deadly violence.
Thanos’s opponents face their own moral quandary. They reject a proposal to trade one life—of dubious status, to boot—in order to save the lives of those who will be destroyed if Thanos has his way: half the residents of the universe. They do not base their rejection on explicit ethical grounds. Treating a life as disposable—even a lowly one, even in a good cause—is just something the good guys will not do.
This difference between the two sides sets up the driving conflict and determines the ways in which the belligerents will conduct themselves. Even when one character makes a reasonable and well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous tactical decision and is forced by the result to do the unthinkable, the film offers one of the most effective object lessons in the principle of double effect that I can recall seeing in any genre.
The moral of the story is that life is good—indeed, that life is a good, one the good guys seek to preserve, and bad guys seek to destroy. We know they’re bad guys when they seek to destroy life, however apparently noble or genuinely compassionate their real or stated ends may be.
These superheroes are good, but they are not perfect. They make hard decisions, the prudence of which we may question but the basic moral soundness of which—with one exception, which shows that worlds may stand or fall on one man’s willingness to check his anger (however righteous)—we do not doubt. They pay the price for the choices they make in conscience, too, and all that is good to see.
Many fans and critics have complained that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given away too many mainstays of cinematic storytelling in its pursuit of the commercial rewards of serialization. I sympathize. Nevertheless, these adaptations have proven that it is possible to respect the serial nature of the source material, without sacrificing dramatic effect onscreen. I want to see the next one (with my son, too, if he still wants to go with me when it comes out). Marvel can have my money.
But there’s another reason I like these films, and Infinity War in particular. In our own, real world, moral argument is increasingly difficult to begin, let alone sustain, for want of shared presuppositions. The telling of comic-book superhero stories requires world-building and good guys and bad guys. Infinity War has good good guys and good bad guys—and a good story. This kind of storytelling, the kind that tells a good story and makes a buck for the storytellers, may turn out to be one of the things that help, in some small way, to save us from ourselves.
Christopher R. Altieri writes from Rome.