Note: Spoilers below.
To celebrate the end of the semester, a group of us seminarians went to see the latest Avengers movie on May 17, 2018. On the 23rd, I watched it again because one of my friends hasn’t seen it yet. On June 3, I watched it again because my sister Liza and our friend Maurice hadn’t seen it. On Aug. 19, I watched it again with the Oblate community in Denver. (Yes, that’s right. I watched this film FOUR times.) The themes became clearer in the subsequent viewings.
Marvel achieved in this movie what “The Last Jedi” failed to do: a well-crafted movie in the spirit of “The Empire Strikes Back.” What else can you ask for? There were an unstoppable villain, character development, explosions, plot twists and tons of Marvel superheroes.
If after the movie your head was about to explode with Marvel universe connections, you can turn to Emergency Awesome to explain all the links. My friends and I watched his videos and they helped put everything in context. NOTE: Watch his videos after the movie because he needs to reveal a lot about the movie to tie everything together.
In talking with my friends afterward, I found three major spiritual and philosophical themes.
1. A driven Thanos
Supervillain Thanos exhibited a truth in everyday life: When anyone with passion works toward a goal, whether for good or evil, the universe falls over to fulfill that desire. Circumstances fell in place for him to acquire all six Infinity stones to give him power over life and death. Each stone’s acquisition gave him an edge in the next confrontation.
But Thanos also modeled Nietzsche’s idea of will to power. He acquired power at any cost to destroy half of all life in the universe in order to save it. The movie highlighted each cost he had to occur. Minions and lives of the massacred mattered little to him. But he experiences and expresses the biggest personal loss during his quest. He sacrificed his daughter, Gamora, to get the Soul stone. At the end of movie, Thanos rested, happy for achieving his goal. But we should be left disturbed; each life mattered because it was created by God. Wasting innocent lives on such a scale can never be justified.
Meanwhile, the Avengers were a foil to Thanos. While he focused on his top priority, Thor and Quill acted out of impulse and anger at key moments. Quill punched Thanos instead of helping the others to pull off his powerful gantlet. Thor told off Thanos after stabbing him with his ax instead of quickly giving the death blow. (You would think that with such an ax, Thor should have chopped off Thanos’ head first.) Their actions crippled the Avengers’ chance for victory. Meanwhile, Bruce Banner represented that conflict of wills in the individual level as the Hulk refuses to come out.
2. Cooperation with evil
Thanos was a master in coercing the heroes in the movie. They acted out of nobler motives like love for the other. To save her sister Nebula from further torture, Gomora led her father to the Soul stone. Meanwhile, Loki thought he could surrender the space stone so Thor could live and he could betray Thanos with a dagger stab.
A surrender to evil doesn’t mean evil would stop. Thanos killed Loki and blew up the refugee ship with Thor on it. Gomora ended up dying. A dwarf’s cooperation to make Thanos’ gauntlet didn’t stop Thanos from slaughtering the dwarves.
With great difficulty, the heroes acted to fulfill promises. But some promises entailed committing moral evil. For example, Quill tried to kill Gomora to prevent Thanos from reaching the Soul stone. Funny, even then, Thanos stopped him. He turned Quill’s laser blasts into harmless bubbles with the Reality stone.
3. All you have is failure
If you noticed from the above trailer, Thanos promised the heroes that they will fail. Those were Thanos’ first words in the movie. Throughout the movie, each hero made a sacrifice in their attempts to stop Thanos. Wanda stayed by Vision and later tried to destroy the Mind stone even when that means Vision’s death.
Yet all the heroes failed.
Thanos won. Half of all life in the universe was wiped out in a moment.
Captain America and Iron Man expressed the despair of that failure at the end of the movie. The failure was more painful because they were so close to winning three times.
Such a scenario would be unpopular to American audiences, who prefer happy movie endings. A part of me screamed that such heroic sacrifices somehow be honored or lead to a greater good. But that dissatisfaction points to a key truth: We all have to face complete failure.
We hate that because it resembles death in its powerlessness and hopelessness. People in ministry often faced that possibility. They can work hard in pro-life counseling or drug rehab. But the abortion or drug overdose still happens. That crippling failure reminds me of the Crucifixion. At that moment, all hope disappeared for Jesus. All his disciples fled except for John. He was surrounded by taunters and enemies. His mother and a few women can only watch him slowly die. There, he expressed the perceived abandonment of the Father: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Such moments of failure call us to be with Jesus in that hopelessness. When we pray and sit in that moment, we’ll see our true powerlessness. That bleakness will produce a dissatisfaction that there must be more. That’s when we’ll see our need for God, a Savior and Resurrection. Then, we’ll find God even in that bleakness. Captain America gave the correct answer at the end of the movie when he said, “O God.”