Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Avengers: Infinity War is a relentlessly bleak movie about a giant purple alien collecting a brightly-colored set of glowy MacGuffins with which he intends to solve overpopulation on a cosmic level. He is opposed by nearly thirty major characters from eight distinct superhero franchises, including but not limited to a wizard with a magic necklace, the god of thunder from Norse mythology, and a space raccoon.
You might look at a big, silly comic book movie like this one and wonder why anyone should so waste their time. But every story presents a certain view of the world. If the story wields enough cultural clout to become a box office hit, that worldview can be deeply ingrained in the culture.
In the case of Infinity War, that’s probably not a bad thing.
Sacrifice and individual worth
The theme of Infinity War is sacrifice. Many of the characters are faced with an ethical dilemma during the film’s run-time, and it’s always the same one: should an individual life be sacrificed for the greater good?
Thanos, the film’s villain, doesn’t hesitate to agree. Thanos believes that eliminating half the population of the universe will enable the other half and their future generations to live more peaceful, plenteous lives. He proves his dedication to this philosophy when he willingly sacrifices the person he loves most to win one of the MacGuffins. Philosophy students will recognise this as utilitarianism, the idea that individual needs and desires should be sacrificed to the greatest good of the greatest number of people.
By contrast, the heroes of this story are defined by their unwillingness to sacrifice individual lives. “We don’t trade lives,” says Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. And they don’t. Again and again, the heroes of this film give Thanos what he wants rather than sacrifice their friends. For Steve and his friends, the lives and dignity of all the people in the galaxy can only be safeguarded on an individual level.
Like all well-written villains, Thanos challenges the heroes of this story by pressuring them to abandon their ethic of individual worth. Every time they give Thanos what he wants in order to save individual lives, he takes another step closer to his goal. By the end of the movie, things are so desperate that the Avengers must abandon their own ethic, deciding to sacrifice one of their own in order to stop him.
It doesn’t work. By the end of Infinity War, Thanos has accomplished a flawless victory—at least, we assume, until the second part of the story is released next year.
The one and the many
Infinity War brings up the old philosophical problem of the one and the many. What is more important: the rights of the individual, or the good of the collective? When these two things come into conflict, then how do we resolve the problem?
In his book The One and the Many, RJ Rushdoony argued that Christian Trinitarian theology is the only belief system that can resolve this dilemma. Non-Trinitarian philosophy deals in false dichotomies, either elevating the individual above the collective, or the collective above the individual. When the individual is made supreme, people are free to act as selfishly as they like without reference to the good of others. When the collective is made supreme, anyone can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without their consent based purely on the will of the majority. In the Trinitarian Godhead, however, both the individual person and the collective Godhead is equally ultimate. Theoretically, Christians ought to be able to find a way to reconcile the conflict.
But how, exactly, does this work?
Captain America: Civil War and the right of private judgement
It turns out that this is a theme Marvel has been developing for years. 2016’s Captain America: Civil War comes as close as any blockbuster action movie ever has to explaining how the one and the many should be reconciled in practice. In Civil War, Steve Rogers faces a similar ethical dilemma when it’s proposed that superheroes should be registered and controlled by a United Nations committee, deployed only when the committee deems it necessary, and bound to do nothing otherwise. One of the Avengers, Tony Stark, argues that the Avengers need that oversight and control. Others want to cooperate with the UN for fear of losing control entirely.
But Steve can’t agree. He doesn’t trust the government to have people’s best interests at heart, and he won’t stand by and do nothing if he thinks someone needs his help. In a nutshell, he believes that individual superheroes should retain the right to judge for themselves when and how to get involved in a situation. He believes in the right and duty of private—that is, individual—judgement.
Throughout Civil War, Steve’s friends continually pressure him to compromise. At one point, he nearly signs away his services to the government, then refuses when he discovers that another of the superheroes is being held prisoner. Steve cannot bring himself to accept the level of control involved, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s the example of his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. the Winter Soldier.
Bucky has spent decades under Soviet control as a soldier without mind or conscience, deployed when the government chooses to deploy him, frozen when the government chooses to freeze him. With no right of individual judgement, Bucky is dehumanised and exploited, no longer a conscious moral agent. In other words, he is the superhero envisaged by the Accords.
Service versus control
While Steve’s ethic is an ethic of individual judgement and individual liberation, Tony Stark represents the ethic of control. As Civil War develops, Tony resorts to increasingly coercive measures in order to recruit people to his team and keep them there. When he can’t bribe Spider-man to join his team with the promise of gifts, he blackmails him by threatening to reveal his alter ego to Aunt May. When another team member decides to help Steve, Tony confronts and threatens her.
By contrast, Steve Rogers understands that the way to build community is through sacrificial service of others. Those who join his fight are the people he has served as a friend or liberator. They join him willingly, out of love, because they know he cares for them and does not intend to sacrifice them for some “greater good.”
At the end of Civil War, Steve explains that “My faith’s in . . . people, I guess. Individuals.” This is borne out by his actions: he believes people should be free to make their own individual choices in life. Indeed, he respects the individual choices of other people to such an extent that even after the acrimonious breakup of the Avengers, he commits to helping the others if they ever need him.
The foundation of true community
This is the only ethic that allows individuals to take a stand based on their own consciences. The only alternative is control and exploitation. Unlike Tony, Steve won’t force anyone else to act against their conscience or lay down their lives for the greater good. Where Tony can only deceive or threaten, Steve can win hearts. Where Tony must cajole or coerce people into conformity, Steve can give them the dignity of choice. No matter how they may disagree with them, he’ll still be willing to serve them.
Of course, this isn’t just something observed in comic book movies, it’s the same in real life. Families that support individual members in their own unique callings and consciences are unified and happy together, while families that exploit individual members to the convenience of the whole fracture into ugly pieces. The solution is counter-intuitive: you can only build a healthy community if you pursue individual good. It was the lesson which Jesus tried to teach his disciples in John 13:13-14: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
When lives are at stake
Captain America: Civil War forms the thematic backdrop to Avengers: Infinity War. Except that in Infinity War, it’s not individual consciences that are at stake: it’s lives. What do you do when one person’s death could prevent the deaths of millions more? Steve refuses to “trade lives,” but we know that he’s willing to sacrifice his own life. His ethic of individual conscience prevents him demanding the same of others.
The true difference between Thanos and the Avengers is not that Thanos is willing to make sacrifices while the Avengers are not. Rather, the difference is that for the Avengers, sacrifice has to be voluntary on an individual level. I’m guessing that that’s how the story will ultimately play out, next year when the next movie comes.
The problem with radical individualism is that it encourages people to act according to their own self-interest without laying down their lives in the service of others. The problem with radical utilitarianism is that it sacrifices other people for the sake of the greater good. The Christian ideal of unity in diversity, on the other hand, calls for self-sacrifice determined according to the conscience of every individual person. As such, it preserves individual conscience and liberty without losing sight of our duties to others.
Avengers: Infinity War is a big, flawed mess of a movie that you probably won’t appreciate unless you’ve seen all eighteen of the previous films—ideally within the last few months. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or even a good story. But it does build on themes, characters, and ethical questions raised by the previous installments. By now, Marvel has fleshed out a detailed worldview of individual dignity and sacrificial service close enough to Gospel truth to warrant the ridiculous amount of money it makes. Despite its problems, I enjoyed the movie and I’ll be there to see the next one, too.