The latest Avengers film holds a prophetic mirror to our times – no wonder it’s so popular, writes Mark Vernon
Avengers: Infinity War is one of the biggest movies of all time. That’s official, after a record-busting release weekend across the planet. The film is generating cash as extravagantly as its superheroes perform feats. Marvel is making billions. But why?
Critics have argued that the franchise is a licence to print money. If you throw Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Dr Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians into two hours and 40 minutes of boom, what can go wrong? Well, lots. The story has to resonate. And that’s what’s so arresting about the movie with the biggest box office. (Spoiler Alert.)
The heart of the plot is that the bad guy wins. There’s no happy ending. As the screen went blank in the cinema where I saw it, there was a collective intake of astonished breath.
Our most powerful leaders could readily be cast as unyielding interstellar brutes
He’s called Thanos, a name that sounds like the Greek for “death”. He defeats everyone. Iron Man’s bond with Spider-Man isn’t enough. The Star-Lord’s love for Gamora is too weak. Even the hammer of Thor meets its match. In the final scene, the anti-hero sits and smiles as the light of a red sun spills across his face. The job is done. He has removed half of all humanoids to save an overpopulated galaxy. Survival has necessitated cool massacre and mass death.
The chilling apocalypticism explains why the movie is so big, I reckon. Think of it as a dream and it becomes a myth for our times. Things are so far gone that the only person who can save us is a monster, someone prepared to pursue the harshest policies. That resonates.
After all, our most powerful leaders could readily be cast as unyielding interstellar brutes. And they enjoy widespread support. The presidents of China, Russia and the US are the three obvious candidates. Populist politicians are pulling strings in the governments of many smaller countries, too.
Avengers: Infinity War is truer than its cartoon form belies, or rather, its cartoon form enables it to speak. It holds a mirror to our times. But does it offer any analysis? Is it a collective eruption that illuminates what’s happening as well as reflecting events? Perhaps.
The clue is, again, with Thanos. He’s bad. He’s foul. But he’s not evil. That’s interesting. The genius of the filmmakers, and the detail that the critics liked, is that his character has depth. In particular, he knows about that most humanizing experience, love, and further, he learns that to fulfil his bleak mission, he must sacrifice the one person to whom he is utterly devoted: his adopted daughter. What makes him different is that he is prepared to do it.
He becomes an Agamemnon, who slew his daughter, Iphigenia, on the eve of the Trojan War. It makes him godlike, akin to the Christian deity who had to sacrifice Jesus, his only son, to save humankind. Nothing less than divine blood could stop the rot, most Christians believe.
In other words, Thanos’s tragic victory echoes an ancient trope. Its roots reach back to Gilgamesh. Another flawed hero, he realised that the divine order of the ancient Sumerian city-state was moribund. Its superhero deities had become tired, degenerate, irrelevant. They could no longer respond to the challenges of the times. The story goes that he stepped out and stirred things up.
It happened in ancient Egypt as well, when Akhenaten abolished the city of Thebes and sacked the priestly elites. Moses, in his turn, rounded on Egypt, calling down plagues and destruction. Then, there’s Jesus. He’s popularly remembered as a man of peace, but in the climactic week of his life, he trashed the Temple, cursed nature, and told his followers that he had come not to bring peace, but a sword.
It led to a new dispensation, though the cycle must be turning once more because the Christian church now looks tired, predictable, self-serving. Its leaders have no answers to the questions that our civilisation faces – with the possible exception of Pope Francis, and he’s widely recognised as having inherited such a behemoth that he’s effectively powerless to reform it.
That makes way for steely operators like Thanos because they do have ideas and the will to carry them out. In the film, civilisations across the galaxy have become excessively materialistic. Individuals can’t control their consumption. They know only their way of life. That’s why people must die.
We, too, recognise the rape of the environment, and yet the plastic, the extinctions, the pollution continue to mount. We sense that consumption is a kind of addiction, and yet it’s a drug few can get off. We need radical alternatives to satisfy our desire for life. We need a spiritual revolution that might once more unveil the deeper truths of existence. But who can tell us, who can save us? It’s as if that’s what we’re calling out.
So it could be that the latest Marvel fiction turns into more than a resonate myth with great box office appeal. It could be frighteningly prophetic. Thanos is already the fate of many when it comes to rulers. And as to the consumption, well, there’s James Lovelock. The avuncular climate change scientist thinks that Thanos has wildly underestimated its impact. Gaia isn’t asking for half of all people, he calculates. She will demand nine-tenths.
Only, prophecies aren’t predictions, they’re felt comment. Dreams aren’t fixed, but fluid. They can be warnings from the shadows that by recognition also stir the better angels of our nature.