Comments on… Avengers: Infinity War
The blockbuster of the decade (until, hopefully, it’s uncrowned next year), Avengers: Infinity War has had mostly positive reviews and I can only add to them. Much of the commentary has been about Thanos as the villainous protagonist of the tale, and it’s an interpretation I heartily agree with. Give me some time and I might have some comments on that.
Today, though, I want to comment on other themes.
The Dignity of Life
There’s a number of commentators which have placed Infinity War in a Pro-Life context. This is mostly as allegory, and I share Tolkien’s distaste for it.
Still, it’s pretty easy to see it. Thanos is pretty clearly inspired by Malthusan societal concerns, and the overpopulation argument was historically among the most used arguments in favor of abortion. That we see our favorite heroes untimely killed for the sake of his plan adds the emotional grip. From there it’s only a skip and a hop to seeing the movie as an allegory for Pro-Life concerns.
Even outlined like that, I’m skeptical of such a reading. I don’t think pointing out the allegorical power of the movie will help many to see the light and is really doing little more than preaching to the choir – helping to justify us Catholic Fanboys in our love for the movie.1
However, I do think the film makes clear the dignity of human life, or specifically the dignity in respecting human life. Over and over again, the movie will not allow it’s heroes to make the sacrifice of an innocent for the greater good.
Two storylines highlight this: Wanda and Vision, and Gamorra and Quill.
As the heroes discern Thanos’ plan, it becomes clear to Vision, as he carries the Mind Stone, that he should accept death (or destruction, being an artificial lifeform and all) in order to keep the Stone from Thanos. For story reasons, the only one on hand capable of destroying the stone is Wanda, his lover who was given powers by the Stone. He asks that she destroy the stone in his head, thus taking his life. (I love Comic Book Soap Opera!)
It’s the moral compass that is Steve Rogers who points out the obvious – “We don’t trade lives.” Cap has consistently been a man of principles, of eternal truths, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Here he takes it a step further – he can’t allow others to sacrifice such truths for the sake of any material gain. The willful taking of an innocent life for the sake of billions is not an option. He’d make an integralist proud.2
Gamorra and Peter Quill (StarLord) have a similar conundrum. Gamorra, aware of the location of the Soul Stone, wishes Quill to kill her to keep the knowledge from Thanos. Quill accepts, and is even able to go through with it when the moment comes. However, Thanos’ intervention keeps Gamorra from dying. Gamorra will later attempt to kill herself to keep the stone from Thanos, but again is frustrated.
The affirmation of human dignity is oblique here, less something arising from the story and more the subtle influence of the author, the hand of god. This is not a deal that can be made. The taking of an innocent life, even one’s own, for the sake of the greater good will be frustrated at every turn.
This frustration is made palpable in the final sacrifice of Vision. Wanda, at the 11th hour, successfully destroys the Mind Stone and kills her lover. It appear Thanos will not get the full power of the Infinity Gauntlet. Again, the author intervenes. Time is reversed, and Thanos pulls the stone from a “resurrected” Vision and kills him.
At every step, the taking of an innocent life for the greater good is either denounced or frustrated.
Except for the villain. Thanos is the only character who successfully takes an innocent life, Gamorra’s, for his perceived greater good. This should make clear the self-corruption of such an act.3
Heroic and Christian Self-Sacrifice vs. Despairing Suicide
There’s a final scene which adds an interesting twist to all this – Nebula’s torture by Thanos. Here, Gamorra is confronted with her sister’s torture and potential death if she doesn’t give up the location of the Stone. Watch the scene. Nebula makes clear she doesn’t want Gamorra to cave. This is not the willful taking of an innocent life, the request that another commit an injustice or the committing of an injustice oneself. Rather, it is the bearing of an injustice one cannot stop. Nebula performs a great act of heroism.
Gamorra caves. It’s understandable, but ultimately fruitless. Fruitless because it frustrates Nebula’s moment of self-sacrifice.
The only thing that can truly stand against great evil is self-sacrifice. At it’s most apparently glorious, it is standing shoulder-to-shoulder and fighting off the enemy until the bitter end. We see this is Wakanda. Okoye voices it perfectly. In response to M’Baku’s despair “This could be the end of Wakanda”, she says “Then we shall make it the noblest ending in history.” They are soldiers and will fight until death takes them for the Good. It is heroic self-sacrifice.
However, there is also the self-sacrifice of bearing an injustice for the Good – Nebula was confronted with just such a sacrifice and accepted it. Prior to this, it’s modeled by Captain America in The Winter Soldier. He will bear all of Bucky’s confused hate and rage just to bring his friend back from the depths, even experiencing a kind of death in replunging into the waters below.
This second self-sacrifice, the deeper sort, is the Christian sacrifice. It does not belittle the first, but it is so much brighter for it is something divine. It does not seek to simply halt evil, no, it seeks to bear it that it may be purged and transformed. This is Christian self-sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice and it’s many species are perhaps the overriding theme in superhero stories, with an abiding sense of the Common Good.4 This is what I love about them, and I wish they got more respect for.
1. I’m also uncomfortable making a pro-life allegory out of the creation of authors who are probably no amenable to the movement. Sure, it looks like an end run around the opposition, but it amounts to foisting one’s own worldview on a work. There are better forms of commentary.↩
2. NB: Moral Theologians can bring up “double-effect” theory here, but I think doing so is just looking for liceity when the higher road seems too heavy a burden. And no, Vision’s willingness to die is not enough to make it licit.↩
3. Pace #ThanosDidNothingWrong crowd. Who are just horrible human beings.↩
4. Or how a lack of the Common Good makes things senseless – see Watchmen.↩