Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks mulling over Avengers: Infinity War, what I thought of it, and I think it is saying about and to us. Though I haven’t really figured out for sure what I believe, I’ve got enough to at least sketch out the broad parameters of an argument. So, here goes.
Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron and the way in which it can be understood as a melodramatic myth for our current era, in which the processes of climate change that we have ignited threaten to destroy us. Ultron, as the product of human engineering, is the essence of this fear congealed into a single figure and he ultimately seeks to trigger a cataclysm to wipe out humanity, which is averted just in time to prevent absolute catastrophe. The film ultimately proposes that it is not too-late for collective humanity, though it teases us with the possibility that it might be (hence the melodramatic affect it produces).
While Thanos is not driven by the same robotic logic as Ultron, he is just as ruthlessly determined to see his own vision brought to life, no matter how many lives are destroyed in the process. His goal, however, is (in the macro-level) to save the universe from its own rapacious consumption. In Thanos’s vision of himself, he is a savior but also a destroyer, and one term is not possible without the other. In many ways, Thanos seems to exhibit exactly the sorts of egomaniacal tendencies we have observed in real-world politicians. Indeed, his argument that he alone can fix the problems afflicting the universe and that his decision to wipe out half of all of humanity is a necessary act is eerily reminiscent of Trump’s claim that only he could fix the intractable problems facing a broken country.
The terrifying thing about Thanos is that, like it or not, the film really is about him. Brolin brings to the role a measure of both gravitas and charisma that draw us toward him, even as we recoil at the horrors that he perpetrates and the relentlessness with which he pursues his genocidal goals. The fact that so much of the film’s narrative is scattered–split among the various Avengers and Guardians–ensures that it is Thanos’ particular narrative thread that holds together the most coherently and cohesively.
Once again, the Marvel universe channels our anxieties and deepest dread about the anthropocene onto a singular figure, though admittedly one whose powers are such that he cannot be defeated in the normal ways. As Hollywood films typically do, they posit that humanity is beset by forces outside of itself, that the catastrophe that will result in the deaths of billions of people is something so vast and beyond human comprehension that it can only be apprehended through the actions of an individual. That is, essentially, the paradox at the heart of the anthropocene, which the superhero films of the 21st Century seem uniquely poised to capture.
Yet there is also a perverse pleasure in indulging in Thanos’s fantasy solution to the problems afflicting the universe. If manmade climate change and the host of other problems afflicting contemporary subjectivity (and politics) remain intractable and difficult to solve via traditional policy solutions, a film like Infinity Wars allows us to indulge in the idea that yes, indeed, these things can only be fixed by a superhuman figure like Thanos. There is, then, a sort of perilous utopian logic at the heart of this film, one that allows us to give in to our innermost self-destructive fantasies at the same time as it provides us a way out, a way of disavowing that moment of sacrifice. I might even go so far as to suggest that Thanos is the epic hero twisted into a new form, one that commits atrocities in the name of a greater good and that must nevertheless be stopped.
Of course, the truly heart-wrenching part of the film comes when Thanos succeeds in his efforts and literally half of the universe is wiped out, including several members of the Avengers, and the film has a curiously pessimistic conclusion. The downbeat nature of the ending is, of course, a bit of a teaser, as it is almost certain that it will prove temporary and our beloved heroes will somehow be restored to the mortal plane. However, beneath that certainty, I think, there lurks a darker, bleaker awareness that even our superheroes–the ego ideal that we all desire to be–are not immune from the destruction that lurks at the edge of our collective unconscious. What’s more, it also reminds us that, while heroes may return from the dead, that is a privilege denied outside the realm of fiction.
Just as importantly, I do think that the MCU, more than perhaps any other cultural product of recent memory, expresses our collective sense of never-ending catastrophe. It’s hard not to feel that we are enmeshed in a perpetual cycle of bad news and global crises that can never be fully resolved. Though we know that the Avengers will continue in some form, they will have to confront another set of issues in the future. Their work is never done, and this begins to wear on the bodies of the superheroes. As a friend recently pointed out to me, even Cap has begun to show the signs of strain, his face bearing witness to the strain of always having to defend the world (and the universe).
In the end, Avengers: Infinity War is utopian Hollywood entertainment at its finest. It forces us to experience both the pressing problems of our current historical moment and provides (temporary) solutions to those problems that highlight their ultimate intractability. Once again, an Avengers movie has held up a startlingly clear mirror to our own world, forcing us to confront the monsters that haunt our collective imagination.
Who could ask for more than that?