Graphic created by Dalan Overstreet/ Source Image via MCUCosmic
*POST CONTAINS SPOILERS* ( But c’mon, you’ve seen this movie)
Well, Avengers: Infinity War has came, but it definitely hasn’t gone. Usually following my first viewing of a movie, even ones I enjoy, I’m kinda over it. This film, though, is proving to have some resonance with even casual fans, mainly due to that part when half the Universe is wiped from existence. That may stick with you for a while.
Still, some of the film’s other thematic elements have sparked some conversation. No character in Infinity War has been more widely discussed than Thanos. Considering his more complex than usual motivations and his moon throwing, I’d rank him as my favorite Marvel villain to date. Some would even argue that he isn’t a villain in this story, only doing what is ultimately necessary. That may be going too far.
Saying Thanos is anything other than a villain is nonsense, but there are some more interesting ideas to discuss when considering his motives. I recently watched an Avengers 4 prediction from one of my favorite YouTube channels, Wisecrack. In it, they discussed Thanos’ belief in Consequentialism, or the idea the morality of actions should be weighed by their intended outcomes. when you think on Thanos’ goal and his reasoning enough, his philosophy mirrors many others in the MCU, namely Tony Stark.
Throughout the MCU, Tony has lived by an Ends Justify the Means mantra. In the first Iron Man film, Tony was a weapons developer for the United States Military. He produced Weapons of Mass destruction under a Big Stick view of diplomacy. Turns out his business partner, Obadiah Stane sold his tech to Terrorists under the table.
Then there is Ultron. After The Chitauri Invasion of New York, Tony grew more paranoid of another extraterrestrial attack. He, along with Bruce Banner, created Ultron for the purpose of protecting Humanity from impending threats. Would ya know, he resented his creators and became one of the greater threats the MCU had known to that point. The depiction of Ultron wasn’t exactly a fan favorite, but the peril of weighing consequences was obvious.
Lastly, there is Captain America: Civil War. Stark sided with oversight and signed the Sokovia Accords. There were several driving factors behind his decision, including maintaining some autonomy for the Avengers and mending fences with Pepper Potts. The main reason, though, were feelings of guilt after the events of Age of Ultron. Stark now feels, justifiably, the decision-making is best left out of his hands. Even though he is making a mature decision, it is still rooted in weighing consequences. His statement during his argument with Cap, “I’m doing what needs to be done, to prevent something worse”, is a perfect summation of Tony.
After all, Tony’s father, Howard, seems to have held a similar belief. In the first 10 minutes of Iron Man, while being interviewed by a combative reporter, Tony argued that his father’s work on the Manhattan Project, made him a hero. Obviously, Howard Stark is a fictional character, but the Manhattan Project was very much a real thing. If you’re not up on your World War 2 tidbits, The Manhattan Project was the named given to the research effort that gave the World the first Nuclear Weapons. This, if nothing else, has had some real world consequences.
The United States dropped two bombs on two Japanese civilian populations with the reasoning of minimizing American, and even Japanese, causalities in a ground conflict. Since, Nukes have been developed to a frightening degree under the premise of being deterrents. Yes, the World may have less conflicts between sovereign countries, but with the trade we’ve come dangerously close to Nuclear War on several occasions.
This isn’t the only example of Howard Stark’s Consequentialist actions. He was one of the founding members of SHIELD, an organization with the objective of monitoring threats. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was revealed that HYDRA, a rogue Nazi division (if you can wrap your mind around how terrible you have to be for that), was secretly working inside SHIELD for decades. In the Armin Zola scene, it’s revealed former Nazi scientists were invited to work with SHIELD under Operation Paperclip. SHIELD’s founding objective of assessing threats inadvertently gave Nazis a role in assessing who is a threat, a mistake that almost cost millions of lives.
Still, as damaging as the actions of the Starks and SHIELD have been, Thanos is Consequentialism taken to its ultimate extreme. Thanos saw his home World dying due to a lack of resources and offered a solution: kill half the population. Titan chose not to and then later died. Thanos, as the Russo Brothers put it, “Sees the Universe as a garden that needs to be prune”. In his discussion with Gamora, Thanos talks of the price of salvation. He’s truly making the grandest Ends Justify the Means decision: kill half of life to save all of life.
In this, Thanos almost seems to find a kinship with Tony. With the obvious exception of Gamora, He is the only member of the Avengers or Guardians that he acknowledges by name. His line to Tony, “you’re not the only one cursed with knowledge”, seems important. Maybe this could simply be based in some kind of mystical knowledge or maybe he knows Tony is the one that flew the nuke through the wormhole. He could also know all of the Avengers, but Tony is the only one he chooses to speak with as a person. Maybe he relates to Tony. Knowledge is a burden, especially if you’re the only one who has it. In these moments, you feel the responsibility to act, as Thanos does while collecting the Infinity Stones and as Tony did when he created Ultron.
After they fight on Titan and he is about to end Tony’s life, Thanos seems to almost comfort him. ” You have my respect, Stark. When I’m done half of Humanity will still be alive, and I hope they remember you”. When he sees Tony, he sees someone who can understand the choice he’s making.
I said earlier that Thanos is a villain, that should be obvious. With this comparison, I want to establish a parallel, but don’t think of Tony Stark as a villain. That is an oversimplification. The difference is intent. Even at his most reckless and arrogant, Tony Stark always believed his actions would save lives. Thanos is, in truth, the complete opposite. He claims he is acting in the best interest of the Universe, but it’s truly just in service of his ego, his “I told you so” to his dead planet and desire to be a God. Thanos shows the perils of Consequentialism when it is rooted in selfishness.
Tony and Thanos are just the most prolific of examples of an ongoing flaw of manipulating outcomes MCU characters seems to have. More often than not, these kind of machinations have caused more harm than good. Maybe Marvel Studios is trying to tell us to stop weighing outcomes. In doing so we only create a World of acceptable evils. Instead, we should be dedicated to doing whatever is right, no matter the consequences. It is as applicable as lessons get.