Avengers: Infinity War

“Infinity” is an ironic subtitle for a movie about a villain who is convinced of the finiteness of the universe. Thanos wants to eradicate half of the life in the universe so that the other half can thrive without struggling for resources. I don’t know why he can’t use the six infinity stones, properly mounted on his golden glove, to create more resources – they seem able to create anything out of thin air – but I’ll take him at his word. He is persuasively committed to his peculiar kind of cosmic mercy.

Thanos is the third decent villain we’ve seen in the MCU (h/t to Loki and Kilmonger), and Avengers: Infinity War is engaging largely because its “big bad” is motivated by a personal philosophy that’s at least worth considering as a viable ethic of (non)life. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, always so careful to science-away any hint of the truly divine, is, indeed, a finite universe. Maybe mass extinction is the only way for it to continue in the long run. At least that would create the need for some new characters to be introduced into the filmography.

The finiteness of the universe is a red-herring though. Avengers: Infinity War truly orbits a pair of central questions of a more moral nature: “Are all lives worth the sacrifice of one life, and if so, are you willing to sacrifice the life of someone you love to save the rest?” That is such a strange question pair on which to hang a blockbuster film. It is the stuff of gigantic myths, like  Avengers: Infinity War, for sure, but it’s not a question we tiny individuals in the audience ever face. We have opportunity to give our lives for others (in non-lethal ways) regularly, but we almost never have to choose whether or not to sacrifice someone else to save ourselves… and the rest of the universe, as the case may be in this movie.

Perhaps it’s not the applicability of the question that’s engaging for us, but rather the opportunity to pretend we have to face it. ‘Would I be able to literally kill someone I love if doing so would preserve the lives of countless others?” That question takes for granted the moral correctness of the bargain. The tension is in the individual’s ability to live up to the standard. We buy that all lives are worth the cost of one life; we wonder if we have the moral resources to pay the price ourselves.

In the midst of a succession of scenes of super-powered fisticuffs—that’s mostly what the movie is, to distracting, thrilling effect—Avengers: Infinity War puts that dreadful question to its heroes in an effort to close a series of character arcs that have been rising and descending for a decade. I would be spoiling the thematic arc of the film if I revealed who faces the question when, but I’d encourage you to pay attention to when the question appears and what it means for the questioned to make the choice they make. These MCU movies have always dolled out spoonfuls of character development to help the spectacle go down, often going back on the development to make the characters face the same challenges in the next go-around. I don’t think they can do that this time. Our heroes are finally going to have to live with their choices.

Hopefully. For moral quandaries to have real narrative and psychological weight, they have to have real stakes, and the MCU has always sacrificed gravitas for the sake of merchandising. I’m looking at you, Agent Colson. Maybe Marvel really has used their CGI brush to paint themselves into a corner this time. Time will tell.