With their third entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Russo brothers have seemingly perfected the Marvel formula.
(This review contains major spoilage. You have been warned).
Not that Infinity War is perfect, mind you. I have some criticisms. But the directors were given a very difficult task. This film is the culmination 10 years and 18 films, and requires an epic beyond the scope of anything we’ve yet seen onscreen, and requires the juggling of dozens of characters across multiple worlds, all while facing massive expectations. So how exactly does one juggle all of those things, and still create a compelling story? You narrow the thematic focus, and give one character the central arc, with the surrounding characters supporting the exploration of that theme. And that character is Thanos.
While this may seem like an odd direction to take this review, there’s little doubt in my mind that Thanos is the main character of this film. No one hero dominates the screentime (although a large amount of time is given to Thor, the Guardians, and Iron Man), but Thanos is always in focus. We see the development of his plan, his backstory, his motivations, even his familial connections. He even sheds tears.
His motivating philosophy? Utilitarianism. Thanos is worried about overpopulation, so his answer is to destroy half of all life. He plans to accomplish this on a scale across the entire universe by wielding all six infinity stones, a task that causes him to cross paths with numerous heroes. This alone is a strange inversion of the “Journey of the Hero.” It is Thanos who has a task to complete, and the heroes who serve as antagonists to that goal. And it is Thanos who learns something about his inner self throughout the story – what he’s willing to sacrifice to accomplish his goal.
The “end justifies the means” approach is hardly a unique theme for a supervillain. What is particular to this film, however, is the extent to which the Russo brothers are willing to go in order to let us feel the consequences of such an evil worldview. In a world where Thanos becomes the hero (after all, the winners do write history), this is what it looks like. It looks like a lot of death, and a lot of suffering. What do the losers, the antagonists, our heroes, have to counteract that?
Their philosophy, introduced fairly late in the film from a writing perspective, is first explicitly stated by Captain America: “we don’t trade lives.” In the face of a philosophy that says life is meaningless when confronted with the fate of the universe, our heroes say every life is valuable. Superhero stories have a way of becoming life-affirming stories – sometimes unwittingly – and that’s especially explicit in this film. In a story that boldly takes on high stakes and mounting loss, the Avengers and their allies affirm the value of life even in a suffering world. The most poignant of these moments comes from Gamora, who prefers the squalid conditions of her home planet before Thanos’s arrival over the “blessed” present they now enjoy after half the planet was killed.
In a way, it’s sad that what most people will leave this film talking about is the plot details and the cliffhanger ending, and which deaths will or won’t be undone. The concept of Thanos as the lead in this film is a fascinating one that yields a new twist on familiar thematic explorations in the superhero genre. In some ways, that was probably always going to happen with this film – the heroes themselves get very little onscreen development simply because there are so many of them, which leaves plot itself and onscreen spectacle the most exciting parts of the movie. But there is depth to this movie, even if you have to do a little bit of work to get to it.
This film will be remembered primarily for how fully it pleased its audience. But I for one hope we will take the life-affirming messages more seriously, and that the architects of the Marvel universe see fit to let some of these stakes have their full effect, reminding us that life is worth it, even amidst the evil of a fallen world.