Thanos is the Hero of Avengers: Infinity War

WARNING: SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS AND SPOILERS

Avengers: Infinity War was made for comic book fans like me.

The first two Avengers movies were nice amuse-bouches for what it would be like to have a bunch of heroes together on film, and Captain America: Civil War was an even more satisfying crossover meal, pulling in the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Ant-Man and Black Panther.

Infinity War is a Sizzler All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Marvel’s heroes and villains — almost everyone we’ve been introduced to in a decade of MCU movies. The only ones missing are Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and Howard the Duck.

In each of their stand-alone films, these heroes went through their own arcs — Captain America becoming the country’s greatest soldier, then struggling with his lot as a tool for a government he can no longer trust; Peter Parker learning how to balance protecting his loved ones, protecting New York, and protecting the world as a semi-Avenger; T’Challah coming into his own as the King of Wakanda and deciding to reveal his hidden nation to the outside world in order to do more good; and that’s only a few.

So when all the heroes come together in Infinity War, there’s not a whole lot of time or room to give them all satisfying arcs. We know who these heroes are, we know what they’ve been through, and they show up to go balls-to-the-wall against Thanos for two and a half hours. Since they’ve already overcome their own challenges, they’re all at the top of their games, using all their skills to fight the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced.

It’s like all the individual movies were acts one and two of MCU’s overarching story, and Infinity War is one giant Act Three. In the tradition of comic book crossovers, there’s not much learning or change, just a lot of punching, explosions, and character deaths. (I mentioned there will be spoilers, right?)

Which makes for a great popcorn movie. I got goosebumps when Dr. Strange, Wong, Iron Man and Bruce Banner were facing down the children of Thanos on the streets of New York. I cheered when the legs popped out of Spider-Man’s Stark-designed Spidey suit, the same one Tony gave him in the comics 11 years ago. Star Lord tangling with Iron Man gave me the same chills I got when Thor and Iron Man fought in the first Avengers movie, or when the heroes had their airport throwdown in Captain America: Civil War. And the fights on Titan and outside Wakanda that make up the last hour of the movie have a gauntlet-full of fist-pumping moments.

But then the final credits rolled, and I thought: “this can’t be it.”

As the first few names in the stark credits sequence flashed across a black screen, I wondered if the Russos were pulling one over on the audience. Like, they knew that people sit through the credits for every Marvel movie, so they were going to have Doctor Strange turn back time and have the “real” final act of the movie start there. I mean, video games do it all the time.

But, nope. No wibbly wobbly time games, no jk lol goofs. Half the universe was dead, and the Avengers had just well and truly lost.

It’s an incredibly bold move for a $300 million blockbuster to make. And it’s hard to believe any of it will stick, with Black Panther continuing to break box office records and the next Avengers movie just 53 weeks away. But I wasn’t thinking this can’t be it because I was sad about who died, or because the Avengers failed, or because I know the heroes will actually end up coming back, or because 149 bladder-busting minutes wasn’t enough for me.

I was thinking this can’t be it because it didn’t feel like an ending. It didn’t play to the structure I was expecting — introduce the problem in act one, have your heroes face increasingly tough challenges (with a twist or a big setback in the middle) in act two, then have them beat all the odds and resolve the problem in act three. That didn’t happen. I think Susana Polo at Polygon puts it best: “Narratively, it’s more of an inclined plane than an arc.”

Driving home from the theater, I kept turning it over in my head. The structure didn’t work for me. Sure, the ending was ballsy as hell, and I didn’t need the Avengers to win, but I needed something – a pyrrhic victory, a resolution of some part of the Thanos problem, something – to square the narrative in my mind. I recounted the plot, each character, each location, and nobody had an arc.

But there is somebody who has an arc. A classic, three act arc, with a satisfying, earned resolution at the end. It’s just not one of the Avengers.

Thanos is the hero of Infinity War.

One of the things that jumped out at me throughout the film is how much energy the Russos put into humanizing Thanos. I’d wager he gets more screen time and more dialogue than anyone else in the movie – he gets both the opening scene and the closing scene, and whenever he’s not on screen, the other characters are talking about him.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn’t an Avengers movie, it’s a Thanos movie.

And through that narrative lens, it might actually work.

The Journey of Thanos

ACT ONE — We meet Thanos in the first scene, wrecking the Asgardians’ ship. He has a motivation: he wants the Infinity Stones. He has answered the “Call to Adventure” and decided to chase down the Stones himself. He kills Loki (so we get an idea of his powers — he can kill gods) and takes the Space Stone.

ACT TWO — Our protagonist continues his journey to Knowhere, where he gets the Reality Stone from the Collector and faces off against the Guardians of the Galaxy. Rising action; challenges in the way of his goal. He abducts Gamora and takes her back to his ship, where we learn about his perspective on their adoptive relationship.

Thanos takes Gamora to Vormir, where the Red Skull is watching over the Soul Stone (that was a very comic book sentence to write). Here, we get our classic midpoint twist/setback, when Thanos has to toss Gamora to her death in order to retrieve the Soul Stone.

(I don’t necessarily think one flashback and a quick conversation on the top of a cliff are enough to make Thanos’ sacrifice devastating, but I think it is enough to count as both motivation and character development.)

Thanos heads back to his homeworld of Titan to meet his children and get the final two stones that they retrieved from Earth, but – surprise – the antagonists have set a trap for him! We learn more about Thanos’ motivation: killing half of all life in the universe so that the other half may flourish. His enemies mock him the same way villains mock the heroes in every superhero film, telling him that he’ll never win.

After giving up so much, and so close to his goal, Thanos faces his biggest challenge so far, threatening to make his entire sacrifice meaningless.

ACT THREE — Using everything he’s collected through the first two acts, Thanos is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, besting Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and the Guardians, and retrieving the Time Stone.

He heads to Earth, where the rest of the Avengers are attempting to destroy the Mind Stone before Thanos can get it—and they succeed. All hope is lost. Thanos is at his darkest point. Star Lord was there in Guardians of the Galaxy, when Ronan was about to destroy Xandar; Thor was there in Ragnarok, losing his eye and seeing Odin in the afterlife; Luke Skywalker was there in Return of the Jedi, getting zapped to death by Emperor Palpatine after throwing away his lightsaber.

But, like in those other films, the seeds of what the protagonist has done and learned throughout the film bear fruit right at the climax. Thanos is able to use his newly-acquired Time Stone like a gadget from Q Branch to turn back time and retrieve the Mind Stone.

Thor buries his new Thanos-killing axe — the only thing, seemingly, that can get through the power that was introduced in scene one — in Thanos’ chest. But as he walks over to the Mad Titan to gloat, Thanos gets his own “yippe-kay-yay, motherfucker” moment. He zings Thor with “You should have aimed for my head,” the James Bond theme kicks in, and he activates the Infinity Gauntlet.

DENOUEMENT — Thanos has a vision of Gamora, where he has a chance to make his peace with the sacrifice he had to make to gain the Soul Stone. She asks if the sacrifice was worth it, and Thanos is unable to answer.

In the final scene, our hero has achieved his goal: he saved half the universe. He accepts the fact that his daughter is gone, and his mission is done. The sun rises on a new day. Credits roll.

Classic narrative structure.

But does it work?

I needed to view Avengers: Infinity War in this framework because it’s the only way I can make sense of it as a standalone movie. Of course, Disney already has my money for the next Avengers movie; I’ll be there on opening night, just like I was for this one. And I have to assume that they’ll be doing the narrative wrap-up for the story of the first Avengers there — with Iron Man and Cap dealing with what it’s like to actually lose and then overcoming it; with Rocket realizing (again) that he actually does love and need Peter Quill and the rest of the Guardians; with Bruce Banner finally learning how to be the Hulk again.

But Avengers: Infinity War is not Avengers 3 and 4; it’s just Avengers 3. It’s just one movie. And as an Avengers story — that is, a story with a beginning, middle, and a resolution—does it even work? As a Thanos movie, does it work any better?

Kind of. I think. I’m not exactly sure yet. I’ll have to watch it again, with this idea of Thanos as the protagonist and the Avengers as the villains more solidly at the forefront of my mind.

Thanos is problematic as a hero. He doesn’t have many totally evil, moustache-twirling moments; in fact, most of the time he’s on screen with the heroes, he’s trying to explain to them why what he’s doing is the right thing. But even if you can get on board with his plan to wipe out half the universe—which I’ll admit is a stretch—he does do some things, like torturing Nebula and Tony Stark in order to get Gamora and Strange to give him what he wants, that put him into “boo-hiss” villain territory.

It’s an interesting experiment, I think, because every villain should think that they’re the hero of their own story. This is a good test to see if Thanos meets that criteria, and I think he clearly does. Trailers made it seem more like he was an evil madman setting out to destroy half the universe just because he could; in the telling, it’s more clear that he’s setting out to destroy half the universe because he thinks he has to.

So, does Infinity War succeed as an Avengers story? I’m leaning towards no.

Does it succeed as a Thanos story? I’m leaning towards yes.

And, most important to Disney: is it going to succeed in getting me to go back to theaters and see it again?

Probably.