I’m still digesting the behemoth of material that is Avengers: Infinity Wars. Usually, I don’t form a concrete opinion or write something like this without experiencing it at least twice. That being said, I just have to address something that gnaws at me. A something that–to my knowledge–nobody else seems bothered by. If it’s just me, then fine. This concerns the villain or–arguably–the protagonist: Thanos.
To me, the identity of what a villain should be is evolving from a two-dimensional caricature of most traditional stories. We expect a more sympathetic, developed “bad guy” with whom we can empathize and see where they’re coming from. Thus leading stories into the grey area between the black and white duality of yin-yang. If we’re dealing with a universe like, say, Star Wars, then the complexity of the villain wouldn’t obsess me as much. Because well . . . they say LIGHT side, DARK side. Upon arrival of the Winter Soldier, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) set itself up to be a divergence from this legacy of yin-yang storytelling. The second Captain America promised a future where audiences had to question the integrity of which side they rooted for. Civil War tests our allegiances and moral compass the most. Black Panther only solidifies the MCU’s commitment to providing complex stories that aren’t as cut and dry as Axis v. Allies. The abandonment of Erik Killmonger shakes T’Challa as much as it does viewers. Erik’s reason for revenge is perfectly justified. His method isn’t. Read more about that film here.
Now we have Thanos whom I was most concerned about walking into the theatre. I didn’t want some mustache-twirling Big Brother wanting to destroy the world without any motivation. I am pleased to find he did. His conviction is absolute. His (as he puts it) “burden” of the truth of the Universe is evident but not as thought out as I would have liked. Allow me to set up my argument with Star Wars.
In A New Hope there is a literal threat looming over the Galaxy: the Death Star. We are stricken when the machine destroys Alderaan with a single blast.
Leia (the first main character we meet and connect with) witnesses her home being wiped away in the length of a breath. We know right then that the Rebellion MUST succeed in order to spare other planets from meeting the same fate as Alderaan. Now imagine you never saw that scene; you never saw Alderaan destroyed; you never saw Leia’s reaction, the moment to empathize with one of our heroes. Would you think the Death Star is as big a threat as it is rumored without seeing the doom firsthand? I understand the beginning of the film is transporting the plans to the rebellion, but the importance at that time is the action of transporting the plans NOT on what the battle station can actually do. When we see Alderaan destroyed and witness a character’s reaction, we understand the immediate threat the Empire poses over the Galaxy.
What gnaws at me about Thanos is related to the Death Star’s threat to our characters’ safety.
His motivation stems from his knowledge there is a finite amount of resources in the Universe and not enough to go around. His solution: to cull half the population of the entire Universe to ensure plenty for the remainder. I’m not saying he’s wrong. Theoretically, there is a finite amount of resources, and life consumes. However, the Universe is a BIG place regardless of your species. From an Earthlink’s understanding, the Universe is eternally expanding with a hypothetically infinite capacity for life. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a need for Thanos’ actions right now.
A popular comparison to Thanos’ crusade is one of Climate Change on Earth. Again, I agree with that too. The difference between Thanos’ and Climate Change is we can measure the effects of Climate Change and predict how things will fall to shit if left unchecked. Pretend you’re an alien and came to Earth, and we tell you our planet is doomed unless we do something about Climate Change. The logical reaction of intelligent life is “okay, where’s your proof? Where is data I can look at?” When dealing with big picture calamities like Climate Change or resource shortages, it’s not enough just to be told it’s a thing. We need to experience the impending doom ourselves to empathize and support the cause. We need to see our characters (ANYBODY) observably threatened by the resource shortage. The explanation Thanos gives in the film is a lot of telling that Gamora suffered, his planet declining. Resource shortage isn’t foreshadowed in any MCU film. The post-credit scenes just show him seated in a chair. As the culminating film of ten years, you’d think the theme of this one would be incorporated somehow into the build-up. We are told the Death Star needs to be destroyed without seeing the obliteration of Alderaan.
What is more, we don’t see any personal connection Thanos has to this resource shortage. There’s not a scene when he begs the leaders of his planet to listen and see the writing on the wall or him comforting the sick and putting them out of their misery. We just see his planet green in one frame and desolate in another. In previous movies we see our characters obtain personal reasons for doing what they do: Steve defending Bucky, Tony pushing for regulation after Sokovia, Erik’s revenge in Wakanda, etc. There’s an observable moment, on-screen where audiences understand why the characters’ drive. Audiences fall behind them, accordingly. There’s no emotional connection to Thanos’ motivation. So why should we empathize or even praise the “main character” who offers no proof of his ominous purpose, nothing for us to observe of this impending doom?
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