Superhero movies are often dismissed as teen adventure flicks writ large. But for my money, Marvel Studios has been downright daring in raising difficult, and very adult, moral dilemmas.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest entry, Avengers: Infinity War, raises a question familiar to hero stories — what is the worth of one life relative to many? — but avoids offering the usual easy answer. Instead, it asks audiences to sit with failure and doubt, in a way very few blockbusters do (and much more successfully than the recent Star Wars movie).
In doing so, it raises itself into the upper ranks of Marvel movies, maybe even of blockbusters generally. The more I’ve thought about it (and after seeing it twice), the more I like it.
But it also sets a bar that will be extremely difficult for 2019’s sequel to clear. The very intractability of the moral dilemma that’s been set up is going to tempt writers to cheap answers.
[Yes, this post is going to contain spoilers for Infinity War. You’ve been warned.]
The moral question of “trading lives” haunts the fight against Thanos
Early on, it becomes clear that Thanos has a few Infinity Stones, wants them all, and intends to wipe out half the living beings in the universe if he gets them. The stakes could scarcely be any higher or more clear.
One of the Infinity Stones is in Vision’s head. But when he suggests that Scarlet Witch destroy it, and likely kill him in the process, Captain America says, “We don’t trade lives.”
Within that one line of dialogue lies one of the oldest disputes in moral philosophy.
On one side, you have Captain America’s deontological perspective, typically associated with philosopher Immanuel Kant, which says (to, uh, simplify considerably) that every human being is an end in themselves, a basic moral unit due basic moral consideration, not a means to other ends. Kant said that you should act toward others only in a way that you would be willing to make a universal principle for all moral beings. You couldn’t make “sacrifice others for the greater good” a universal principle, lest everyone end up sacrificed.
On the other side, you have Thanos’s utilitarian perspective, typically associated with philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which says that the goal should be the most good (happiness, well-being, utility, what have you) for the most people. The greater good, not the individual, is the primary moral consideration.
Both these positions can be made to seem ridiculous if taken to their logical extremes. Kant not only says you can’t kill one person to save two people, he says you can’t lie to one person to save two people. Contemporary philosopher Peter Singer has been outraging people for years by pushing utilitarianism to its limits, reaching conclusions many find abhorrent (like his position that it is justifiable to kill babies with severe disabilities).
But both positions also appeal to some of our intuitions. And their contrasting attractions are drawn with particular clarity in Infinity War.
Captain America won’t sacrifice lives; that’s all Thanos does
Thanos’s plan is fairly crude utilitarianism, but not so crude that it can be dismissed out of hand.
As World War II showed in the US, Japan, and Germany, the aftermath of a mass casualty event can be a period of sustained economic growth. If Thanos succeeds, there will be half as many people, but (once they recover from their shock and grief, presumably) they will have access to twice as many resources and will end up twice as happy. Their children will be happier too. Over the succeeding few generations, the total amount of well-being in the universe will increase relative to the no-Thanos baseline.
Of course, life being what it is, it would eventually overpopulate again and Thanos would have to do his thing again. But if he’s willing to cull every few centuries, he could theoretically achieve a gargantuan boost in net welfare over the fullness of time. He would be hated, but he would have produced more net utility than any being in history. He would be a utilitarian god!
Notably, nobody ever really argues with Thanos. When he lays out his plan to Gamora, she just replies, “You’re insane.” Well, but is he?
It’s not a question that troubles Steve Rogers. He cannot countenance the sacrifice of half of sentient life. A staunch Kantian, he can’t countenance the sacrifice of anyone. “We don’t trade lives.”
But that’s just the problem: He’s such a Kantian that he can’t sacrifice Vision, even though it would have saved countless Wakandan lives even before Thanos snapped his fingers. He can’t sacrifice anyone else, even when they want to be sacrificed, even when it would obviously help. (He can sacrifice himself — more on that later — but that’s a different moral calculus.)
This is a familiar tension in hero movies of all kinds: the dilemma of whether to sacrifice lives for the greater good.
Superheroes are typically Kantian, but they win anyway
Superheroes typically prize the individual life; that is said to be what makes them superheroes. That’s why fans were so outraged when Superman made the brutal utilitarian decision to snap General Zod’s neck at the end of Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel. Superman doesn’t kill; he’s a Kantian.
It is “antiheroes” who make those ugly decisions to sacrifice others, who are willing to be reviled to serve the greater good. One reason Batman has been so intriguing for so long is that he hovers unpredictably on that line between superhero and antihero. You never quite know how far he’s willing to go.
The problem is that if you set up the situation right, it can start to look pretty ridiculous to preserve the individual life at the cost of many lives. I mean, can anyone argue, as things currently stand, that Captain America made the right decisions? If he and his friends had destroyed the Mind Stone and killed Vision the second they learned about Thanos’s plan, they could potentially have saved billions, maybe trillions of lives.
Was Vision worth it? Actually, Vision died anyway. Was the principle of not trading lives worth it?
We’ve seen similar dilemmas in dozens of movies: the one for the many. It’s a great way to create narrative tension. Morally speaking, though, there’s not really a satisfactory resolution. Sacrificing the many rubs our utilitarian intuitions the wrong way. Sacrificing the individual rubs our Kantian intuitions — our sense of what a “superhero” is — the wrong way. Either way, there’s potential for disappointment.
That’s why the most common resolution to the dilemma is some last-minute narrative twist that allows the hero to save both the individual and the many, some clever (or often not-so-clever) way of avoiding the dilemma altogether.
Daring to let superheroes fail puts the Avengers sequel in a narrative corner
What’s remarkable about Infinity War is that there’s no last-minute twist, only failure. Steve Rogers and his friends make the typical heroic Kantian decision not to trade lives ... and it is a disaster. An unfathomable number of lives are lost. The movie ends with Captain America sitting on the ground, devastated, saying simply, “Oh, god.”
Movies rarely do that. Blockbuster superhero movies never do that. By cutting one giant story abruptly in two, ending after the conventional third-act crisis, the low point, Infinity War is able to do something genuinely novel in the superhero genre. And not with special effects — emotionally novel.
Still. Infinity War shows the Kantian approach failing spectacularly, but as many people have noted, it fails so spectacularly that it can’t be real. It’s got to be undone, if for no other reason than the people demand more T’Challa.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who will all return for the 2019 sequel) have not escaped their narrative dilemma. They’ve only pushed it back. They made a great movie by leaning into it, making heroes suffer real consequences and failure as a result of their choices, but by doing so, they underscored it, highlighted it, and have millions of people around the world watching intensely for its resolution.
That sets an extremely high bar. It’s going to be difficult to clear it in a way that’s emotionally and morally satisfying.
The usual ways of resolving Kantian/utilitarian dilemmas
As I said, for writers trapped in a corner, the first resort is some sort of twist or scheme that allows the tough choice to be avoided — allows the hero to save the one and the many both, like when Spider-Man saves MJ and the falling bus full of children.
In the case of Infinity War, that will amount to someone getting ahold of the Infinity Gauntlet and reversing Thanos’s snap. The two-movie story will almost certainly culminate as such stories typically do, with the heroes triumphant, their foes defeated, and all their sacrifices (and avoided sacrifices) retroactively justified.
That can feel cheap, though, unless the twist through which the heroes escape the dilemma is truly clever, something that was planned and hinted at all along. Infinity War did drop a hint to that effect: Doctor Strange surveyed 14 million ways the future could unfold and saw only one in which the heroes win; he subsequently surrendered the Time Stone to Thanos.
However the heroes win, the path runs through Thanos finding all the stones and snapping his fingers. Perhaps Strange saw that the act somehow contains the seeds of its own reversal. Or perhaps he corrupted/ensorcelled the Time Stone in some way.
The other way to give that narrative twist some heft is self-sacrifice, which satisfies our Kantian instincts without running afoul of utilitarian consequences. Superheroes may not sacrifice another, even to save many, but they may sacrifice themselves, and all agree it is good. (Here’s a listicle of great acts of self-sacrifice in comic book movies. RIP, Groot.)
That’s what I’d bet on, were I a gambling man: There will be a way to reverse what Thanos did, but it will require one or more of the old-school Avengers — my guess is Cap and Tony, whose contracts are up — to sacrifice themselves. There’s a reason the original Avengers were the ones left behind by the snapocalypse.
The MCU is under serious pressure as it resolves this dilemma
In Infinity War, all the lofty talk of “not trading lives” was exposed as moral vanity, with disastrous consequences. The ones who refused to trade lives suffered death and loss; the one who traded lives got what he wanted. Utilitarianism in its crudest and cruelest form won out over Kantianism at its most noble.
It was a bold choice for the film to make. But it can’t stand. And backing out of it, without cheapening the whole thing, still holding on to a sense of consequence, will be an extraordinarily difficult narrative feat.
Marvel keeps raising the stakes, and it keeps executing. Now the stakes basically can’t get any higher, financially or emotionally. The 2019 Avengers sequel — the end of Marvel’s Phase Three and the launch of its Phase Four (god, I feel old) — will carry unbelievable weight. Even for some of us adults.
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In Infinity War, all the lofty talk of “not trading lives” was exposed as moral vanity, with disastrous consequences. The ones who refused to trade lives suffered death and loss; the one who traded lives got what he wanted. Utilitarianism in its crudest and cruelest form won out over Kantianism at its most noble.What is the ethical dilemma in Avengers: Infinity War? ›
Avengers: Infinity War raises many important ethical questions: When is it justified to take a human life? Can we sacrifice some for the good of many? Is it ever right to “trade lives”? Unlike Thanos, the Avengers refuse to treat people as a means to an end.What is the moral lesson in Avengers? ›
Many of the other Avengers feel the same and will always fight for what they believe is right. This strong belief in doing the right thing and fighting for it, even when it's hard, is definitely a good life lesson.What is the main message of Infinity War? ›
The first main theme of the film is sacrifice. Many characters in the movie are forced to come to terms with a choice: sacrifice someone/something they love in order to gain (potential) victory, or let the other side win.What is the saddest death in Infinity War? ›
At the end of the Infinity War, Groot turns to dust in the arms of Rocket Raccoon. The scene is without a doubt heartbreaking, and at the end of the film, it is a brutal gut punch to the audience as Rocket cries trying to save his friend. Groot's death is definitely one of the saddest losses in the film.What is the main problem in Avengers endgame? ›
The overwhelming devastation caused by the mad Titan Thanos has left what remains of the Avengers reeling. For a while, all hope seems lost... until an opportunity to reverse the damage is presented. Now, the team must assemble once more and do whatever it takes to restore the universe and bring those they lost back.Why Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War gets sustainability so wrong? ›
Mad because his sustainability plan got him kicked off his home planet of Titan. Not a plot point you might expect in a superhero movie, but rather compelling in this one. Titan was suffering a population explosion, with the resultant resource crunch and political instability.Who in the Avengers has the strongest moral beliefs? ›
Modern heroes call for a modern sense of ethics and it's why Black Widow is actually the most moral Avenger of all, not Captain America or Iron Man. Though she's a super-spy who often plays both sides, Black Widow is actually the most moral Avenger for modern times, and here's why.What is the main point in Avengers? ›
Summaries. Earth's mightiest heroes must come together and learn to fight as a team if they are going to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.What can we learn from Thanos? ›
Thanos had a belief system like no other. One that attributed the oppressed (his prey) showing gratitude to his actions for the atrocious acts he had and was making on their behalf. As a leader, making tough decisions must be made and living with its consequences, he gracious did with shear pride.
Infinity War ends with the Avengers losing, and with most of them withering away into dust. Painful as it was to watch Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky Barnes, Scarlet Witch and others fade away into dust, we had a little hope after Nick Fury paged Captain Marvel, just before he became ashes too.Why Thanos was right in Infinity War? ›
The argument for Thanos being right is that humans are decreasing biodiversity and over-consuming our share of resources.What was Thanos goal in Infinity War? ›
Portrayed by. Thanos was a genocidal warlord from Titan, whose objective was to bring stability to the universe by wiping out half of all life at every level, as he believed its massive population would inevitably use up the universe's entire supply of resources and perish.Who hurt Thanos the most? ›
Thanos has faced some powerful foes but never anything like Orion. Orion has Thanos beat in most categories and never stops coming. Thanos may be smarter but Orion would overwhelm him. Anyone who can beat Darkseid by themselves can take Thanos, so Orion has this one in the bag.What is the most painful MCU death? ›
- 1 The Entire Earth-838 Illuminati Was Slaughtered By The Scarlet Witch.
- 2 Loki Was Choked To Death By Thanos. ...
- 3 Doctor Strange Sacrificed Himself Countless Times To Defeat Dormammu. ...
- 4 Brock Rumlow Suffered A Longer Death Than He Expected. ...
- 5 Proxima Midnight Got Shredded By Her Own Forces. ...
Hawkeye. On numerous occasions in the comics, Clint Barton has said he's just a regular guy with a bow and arrow. Unfortunately, his lack of power usually leads to him suffering injuries regularly and has led to fans deeming him the weakest member of the Avengers.What killed Tony Stark in endgame? ›
In the film, Tony Stark dies after sacrificing himself to help bring down Thanos. Fans were heartbroken, and in the collector's book The Story of Marvel Studios: The Making of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Russo brothers recount that Robert Downy Jr.Who was the saddest death in endgame? ›
Tony Stark - Avengers: Endgame
Tony died as he lived, making sure he got the last word. The actor's improvised "I am Iron Man" line at the climax of Iron Man was already iconic, but repeating it before snapping his fingers and finally killing Thanos ensured that the four words will forever live on in cinematic history.
No. But he does regret killing his daughter Gamora. He believes what he's doing is for the greater good.Why did Thanos wipe out humanity? ›
Thanos killed half of the Universe to stop resource depletion and to balance the population that was driving the Universe to ruin. He strongly believed that if biological life can grow unchecked, eventually, the resources will run out, and everybody will face a painful and slow death.
His solution was simple, fair and brutal: He would kill half the population by random drawing. The rich and poor alike would be killed according to chance, and the rest of the population would have a chance to live in a world of plenty. The other Titans didn't go with his plan.Who is the selfish avenger? ›
Ant-Man Has Taken Star-Lord's Spot As The MCU's Most Selfish Avenger.Who is the most kindest in Avenger? ›
1 Thor Is One Of The Nicest & Most Charismatic Members Of The Avengers Who Always Proves Himself Worthy.Who is the luckiest avenger? ›
- 1 Scarlet Witch Gets Forgiven For Atrocities.
- 2 Luke Cage Finally Got A Chance To Shine As An Avenger. ...
- 3 Captain Marvel Has Always Found Herself Doing Better. ...
- 4 Iron Man Is Lucky To Have Been Forgiven For All Of His Terrible Acts. ...
- 5 Hawkeye's Survival As An Avengers Is Ridiculously Lucky. ...
“No man can win every battle, but no man should fall without a struggle.”Why did all the Avengers fight? ›
Casualties. The Avengers Civil War was a conflict between members of the Avengers that stemmed from tensions between two factions of the team led by Captain America and Iron Man over their divisive opinions of registering into the Sokovia Accords.What was the purpose of Secret Avengers? ›
The Secret Avengers were founded by Captain America in response to the Superhuman Registration Act, set up precisely for those who wanted to fight against Iron Man's initiative for superhuman registration.What gives Thanos his power? ›
Thanos is a mutant member of the race of superhumans known as the Titanian Eternals. The character possesses abilities common to the Eternals, but amplified to a higher degree through a combination of his mutant–Eternal heritage, bionic amplification, mysticism, and power bestowed by the abstract entity, Death.What was Thanos original motivation? ›
Thanos the Warlord
He truly believed that, if he could rid the universe of half its population in an ultimately "fair" and "dispassionate" way, he could save the surviving half from suffering starvation and poverty.
Taking advantage of the heroes' absence, Thanos invaded Earth with his Black Order, searching for his son, Thane. In this alternate universe, Thanos chose to aid the Avengers instead. Reasoning that the Builders served life while he still served death, The Mad Titan offered to fight alongside Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
Since Thanos' snap is supposedly random, Marvel Studios is able to easily get away with the explanation that the six Avengers were simply lucky to be spared. Of course, fans know that there's a narrative motivation in keeping them all alive past Avengers: Infinity War and into Endgame.Did Thanos regret the snap? ›
He felt sad, after all he had to kill his own daughter. But not regret. The “Snap” has always been his goal. And now, he finally achieved it.Why is Thanos more powerful in Endgame than Infinity War? ›
The 2014 Thanos from Endgame was simply hungrier, and, after realizing that all six Infinity Stones were his for the taking, he likely fought that much harder. As a result, he appears to be significantly stronger in Endgame than he was in Infinity War.Was Thanos afraid of Odin? ›
The theory posits Ego, Odin, and The Ancient One as three of Thanos' greatest fears, and he waited until all of them were dead to make his move.Why did Thanos need all 6? ›
Thanos thinks that if he kills half of all life in the universe, he'll restore balance. To do so, he needs all six Infinity Stones to power his Infinity Gauntlet, which in turn will give him the ability to bend time, space, energy, and the laws of physics and reality.Can Thanos lift Mjolnir? ›
Endgame Detail Proves Thanos Knew He Couldn't Lift Mjolnir - Theory Explained. While many believed Thanos lifted Mjolnir during the Battle of Earth in Avengers: Endgame, a detail shows he knew he wasn't worthy of it.Who kills Thanos? ›
In the aftermath of his failure, Thor had a new-found determination to kill Thanos and undo the Snap. The remaining Avengers converged on the Titan's home to find him wounded and the Infinity Stones destroyed. Seeking vengeance, Thor raised Stormbreaker and, with one fell swoop, beheaded Thanos.Who was Thanos in love with? ›
A storyline in the title Captain Marvel showcases Thanos' scheme to conquer the universe, as the character becomes determined to prove his love for Death by destroying all life.What is Thanos biggest weakness? ›
Thanos has another weakness: his own monstrous ego. In 1991's Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos became so powerful that he left his body to exist on another plane entirely... forgetting the Infinity Gauntlet still attached to his hand.Who is Thanos most afraid of? ›
As per the user, the director of Avengers confirmed that Thanos was most scared of Iron Man. “Not because of his strength, not because of his power, not because of his power, but because of his suit,” he added.
Kang is more powerful than Thanos
Thanos certainly presented the Avengers with a challenge, and his power continued to grow as he amassed the various infinity stones. Kang, though, seems to have almost limitless power once he can access even one aspect of his hyperadvanced technology.
Thanos was split completely in half by Ultron with the Mind Stone; "perfectly balanced" as his primary counterpart previously emphasized.What Marvel character Cannot be killed? ›
1. Franklin Richards. As an Omega Mutant, Franklin Richards is arguably the most powerful being in all of Marvel.Who is the saddest avenger? ›
Tony Stark - Saddest: Losing Peter
Tony's next appearance, though, saw him get warped by Wanda into believing he must never stop trying to prevent an existential threat to humanity. As evidenced by Thanos' scorched earth affair in Infinity War, Tony was (temporarily) unsuccessful.
1: Thanos — The Infinity Saga. Acuna: Remember when the MCU had stakes? Thanos is the only Marvel villain to successfully execute his evil plan and it wasn't some tired "I want to take over the world" scheme. He wiped out half the population of the entire world for five years.What is the most brutal Marvel movie? ›
- 1 The Illuminati - Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
- 2 Hulk Chokes Out Abomination - The Incredible Hulk (2008) ...
- 3 Tony Has His Arc Reactor Torn Out - Iron Man (2008) ...
- 4 The Bus Scene - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) ...
Invisible Woman is completely in a league of her own as her invisibility makes her quite literally a horror movie monster and her shield-creating powers makes her one of the deadliest people alive–proving that Sue Storm, the sweet and heroic member of the Fantastic Four, is actually Marvel Comics' scariest hero.Who killed the most people in the MCU? ›
Extraordinary measures are necessary for severe foes. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) officially says that he has killed 3000 adversaries in his life, which puts him well ahead of most — apart from Thanos — in the MCU kill total.What movies have an ethical dilemma? ›
- Prisoners (2013) After his daughter is kidnapped, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) decides to try and find her himself since the police are taking their time. ...
- The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017) ...
- Toy Story 2 (1999) ...
- The Mist (2007) ...
- Watchmen (2009) ...
- Sophie's Choice (1982) ...
- Looper (2012)
His choice to stop making weapons and become one himself is ultimately a selfish decision. Not only is he denying others some degree of self-defense by withholding his creations, but worse off he believes that he cannot be corrupted in this way and use the weapon (himself) wrongly.
Casualties. The Avengers Civil War was a conflict between members of the Avengers that stemmed from tensions between two factions of the team led by Captain America and Iron Man over their divisive opinions of registering into the Sokovia Accords.How many issues are there in Infinity War? ›
The Infinity War is a six-issue comic book limited series published by Marvel Comics in 1992. The series was written by Jim Starlin and penciled by Ron Lim, Ian Laughlin, Al Milgrom, Jack Morelli and Christie Scheele.What are the 4 main ethical dilemmas? ›
Rushworth Kidder, founder of the US-based Institute for Global Ethics, recognises four types of ethical dilemma: short-term versus long-term, individual versus community, truth versus loyalty and justice versus mercy.What is an example of a moral ethical dilemma? ›
Some examples of ethical dilemmas include following the truth versus being loyal to a friend, following the laws or rules versus having compassion for an individual's plight, and concerns about an individual person versus the larger impact on a community.What mental illness does Tony Stark have? ›
Abstract: This article investigates the manifestation of the character Tony Stark's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how he attempts to cope with his traumatic past throughout the Iron Man film trilogy and The Avengers ensemble movie.How did Tony Stark fix his heart? ›
Tony Stark has a damaged heart from the plane crash that the Mandarin caused, because of that he has an implant made by Dr. Ho Yinsen that keeps it beating. His implant is made out of a stabilized form of Kylight, a metal that is found in the abandoned Stark outpost in the Arctic.What was Tony Stark suffering from? ›
While Tony Stark tries to control his alcoholism, his more serious mental illness is PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This manifests in one scene of Iron Man 3, where his anxiety makes him rush into his suit before his knees buckle under him.How was the problem resolved in Avengers endgame? ›
Tony Stark uses the reality altering power of the Infinity Gauntlet to wipe out Thanos, the Black Order, and their entire army, just as Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.What is the real conflict of the story? ›
Conflict in a story is a struggle between opposing forces. Characters must act to confront those forces and there is where conflict is born. If there is nothing to overcome, there is no story. Conflict in a story creates and drives the plot forward.Who is the weakest Avenger in Infinity War? ›
That certainly means that Hawkeye one of the weakest Avengers. The fact that he's on a much different level than the rest of the team is actually one of the best parts of the character and grounds him, especially since it's clear he has a lot more to lose than them.
Marvel chief Kevin Feige has spoken about why only the original Avengers - Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk and Thor - survived the events of Infinity War.Did Thanos snap his fingers in the comics? ›
The Blip (also known as the Decimation and the Snap) is a major fictional event depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise in which half of all living things in the universe, chosen at random, were exterminated by Thanos snapping his fingers while wearing the Infinity Gauntlet and wielding the Infinity Stones ...