Infinity War and the philosophy of trading lives

Comic book movies are often dismissed as cheap, popcorn fun, with surface level action set pieces, characterizations and plots. Even among the very best, there’s a built-in prejudice, where we call such movies “great…for a comic book movie.” Very very few have been transcendent enough to be called “great films” (Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for an example) and even those have their detractors who are quick to snootily say “…but it’s still just a silly comic book movie.”

Fine.

When examining the latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, few would call it high art. Few would probably call it any kind of art, in fact, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t strive to elevate itself above its more schlocky peers. It may not have been as tightly-packed as The Dark Knight, or as perfectly-paced as The Winter Soldier, but it wasn’t lowbrow either. In fact, Infinity War has a very definite theme—a philosophy to contemplate, even—at the core of the story.

We don’t trade lives.

That’s what Captain America says to Vision early in the movie. The issue arises because Vision is the possessor of the Mind Stone, a gem which, if it were to fall into Thanos’ hands, could lead to the destruction of half the universe. Obviously Thanos needs to be prevented from ever laying a finger on the Stone. The most plausible solution to the problem is to destroy it, but doing so would likely mean killing Vision (who is a sentient android). Vision, to his credit, is ready and willing to have Wanda (the woman he loves and the only one with the power to destroy the powerful gem) do the deed, but that’s when the ever-virtuous, ever-honor-bound Cap says no. We can’t make someone die to save someone else.

If you’re a Star Trek fan (and why wouldn’t you be), you know this flies in the face of Vulcan logic, which teaches:

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There’s another movie—Star Trek II—that is secretly hiding a deep, philosophical story. Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise. For him, it was a no-brainer because he believed the Vulcan philosophy of “we>me.” On the other hand, Star Trek III is all about the uber-human Kirk, willingly sacrificing the Enterprise (along with his career and the career of the bridge crew) that Spock died to save in order to bring Spock back from the dead. When questioned as to why they would do this, Kirk says:

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Captain America is very much like Captain Kirk (fight me), in that he refuses to make the cold, logical choice. He believes in doing what is right, even if that is seen as “wrong” by everyone else. That’s a philosophy that defines him as a person…

That philosophy of “we don’t trade lives” is what Infinity War is all about. Captain America himself may not have had a big role in the film in terms of screen time, but it’s his core mantra that drives the plot: Thanos’ quest to collect the stones brings him in direct conflict with this philosophy, while the Avengers are faced with the same conflict on the other side of the coin…

When securing the Reality Stone, Thanos makes an offhand remark that the Collector would sell out his own brother to keep the stone in his possession. That seems like a slight comment but it illustrates Thanos’ personal feelings on the matter; he agrees with the sentiment and would likewise sacrifice his family to secure an Infinity Stone.

When we first meet him, Thanos threatens to kill Thor in order to compel Loki to hand over the Space Stone. At first, Loki is happy to let Thor die but after seeing him writhe in agony he relents and hands it over. Sure he summons the Hulk seconds later but he still hands over the stone because he couldn’t bear to let his brother die. Loki wouldn’t trade a life and Thanos got what he wanted.

Doctor Strange states emphatically, early in the movie, that if push comes to shove, he will let Tony Stark and Peter Parker both die to keep the Time Stone out of Thanos’ grasp. We believe him too. We saw in Strange’s solo movie that he’s arguably a bigger ego than Stark and certainly wasn’t looking to join the Superfriends on the mission to Titan. And yet, when push came to shove, and Stark was stabbed and bleeding, about to die at Thanos’ hands, what did Strange do? He offered up the Time Stone in exchange for Stark’s life. He traded a life for a stone because that’s a better trade than a life for a life. Yes yes, Strange peeked into the future and saw, as he said “the only way” to beat Thanos; I’ll get to that in a second.

Of course, poor Wanda faces this choice in the realest and cruelest way possible. She finally does destroy the Mind Stone, but only after Vision basically puts the gun in her hand and helps her pull the trigger. It’s an assisted suicide/sacrifice more than anything…and because they waited so long (when more logical, cold-hearted people would have long-before destroyed both the stone and Vision with it), Thanos was able to reverse time and take the stone anyway. Once again he got what he wanted.

And what about Thanos?

When it came to it, he was more than willing to sacrifice a life to get what he wanted. He killed his own beloved (adopted) daughter. He chose to trade a life. He’s the only one who makes that choice, hurling Gamora over the cliff against her will (in contrast to Vision’s willing-sacrifice). And once again he seems to have gotten what he wanted.

When the dust settles and the credits roll, Thanos wins.

Captain America refused to break his personal code of conduct; all the heroes did, in fact. Thanos was the only one unscrupulous enough to do whatever it took, kill whomever necessary to win. He did. He won.

But the universe he reshaped with the snap of his fingers is going to turn around and bite him in a big way. You can call it karma or poetic justice or whatever you want, whatever it is will be whatever Dr. Strange saw. The man who, more than any other Avenger, was prepared to let anyone necessary die, chose to spare a life because he saw that was the one way to beat the only guy willing to kill anyone to win. That’s a pretty beautiful, symmetrical bit of storytelling…for a comic book movie.

So when the dust settles next year and the credits roll again, Thanos will lose and the lesson will be learned:

We don’t trade lives.

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