Thanos: Altruism and the Movie-going Audience

“What’s wrong, little one?”
“My mother. Where is my mother?”
“What’s your name ?”
“Gamora”
“You’re quite the fighter, Gamora. Come. Let me help you.”
Gamora and Thanos – Avengers : Infinity war 2018

And so begins Gamora’s journey, an alien girl who was adopted by the intergalactic conqueror, Thanos. Avengers: Infinity War was a long awaited sequel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) released in April 2018 which broke the box office gross revenue record compared to all previous superheroes movies (All Time Worldwide Box Office for Super Hero Movies, n.d. ; List of Highest-Grossing Film, n.d.). Its well-managed yet complex plot, smooth CGI animation, wide roster of characters, and many other factors led to the movie’s authentic cinematic beauty. However, many watchers would probably agree that the one prominent factor that greatly contributed to the movie’s fame, which was the movie’s main villain, Thanos. The Mad Titan is not your typical villain character, especially in comparison to many other villains of the MCU; there seems to be more complexity behind him, a quality shared by many good villains in good movies. Such intricacies in a villain’s character can have both positive and negative merits which are important to look at, and as such we will examine them in this article.

“A Small Price to Pay for Salvation“ – Thanos

The Zehoberei were a race of green humanoid creatures who inhabited the planet Zen-Whoberi. Their planet was suffering from a lack of resources, this prompted Thanos to conclude that overpopulation was the reason they lived by “scraps” (Zen-Whoberi, n.d.), and he proceeded to slaughter half the population. However, since Thanos arrived “ the children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies” and the planet seemed to have become a ‘paradise’, but all because Thanos’ murderous act.

It was quite clear that Thanos was portrayed as the the main antagonist of the movie, whose goal was to wipe half of the universe’s population through the power of the six infinity stones that possessed limitless capability. But the complexity behind his intentions is revealed as Thanos was trying to do it for what he thought to be a good cause; to bring balance and save the world, or at least half of it. While Thanos’ view of the world deserves some discussion of its own, It would be amiss to neglect the significant change in the character of Thanos over his comic book counterpart who made his first appearance in 1991 (Infinity Gauntlet(1991), n.d). His personality in the comic could easily be described as ‘evil’.

While the comic also tells of Thanos using his gauntlet and enacting a massacre of half of the universe’s population, he did it not to save the universe but to impress his one and only love, Mistress Death, who was the Marvel Universe’s embodiment of death itself. Thanos’ love for the concept of death itself led him to various evil acts such as killing his own classmates when he was small and torturing his mother to death( Death – earth 616, n.d). Thanos’ intentions in the comic book lacked sympathy for the countless beings in the universe and while they were acted out of love, it was a selfish, ambitious and twisted form of love, caring for nothing else but his relationship with Mistress Death.

This new Thanos in the MCU has a more altruistic and sympathetic motivation as bears his gauntlet. His home planet – Titan – suffered a similar bout of overpopulation to the Zehoberei, however his people did not listen to his suggestions to cull the people, and in the movie we see the planet already in ruins, Thanos implying that it was caused by this problem. Saddened by his history, he set out to ‘save’ the universe. Here he was portrayed to a certain level to be ‘good’, and many moviegoers seemed to love it.

There is Nothing New Under the Screen

Interestingly, Thanos is not alone in his apparent altruism. A similar instance can be seen in the 2008 movie, The Dark Knight. The Joker from this Batman movie was characterised as a smart psychopath who wanted to introduce anarchy to the city. Even so, his motivation was not presented as ‘absolute evil’ as he showed the world how hypocritical society truly was. To him, they were the real bad guys.

“Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics,
because it’s all, part of the plan.
But when I say that one, little old mayor will die,
well then EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MIND!”
The Joker – The Dark Knight 2008

While The Joker’s act was clearly cruel, the film offers another perspective on the villain. A perspective that attempts to make the audience sympathise with the villain, a perspective that presents the Joker as having some truth in his words, such a perspective suggests that perhaps, he is not actually so evil (Or at least his reasoning seems sound enough to not be evil). The notion that the villains are purely evil is abandoned in movies like Infinity War, The Dark Knight and many others.

Are ‘Bad Guys’, Bad?

There are reasons why these types of villains are more interesting compared to the usual villain’s motivation of pure hatred. By adding slight traits of altruism, or a sliver of truth in the antagonist’s motivation, the movie incite a deeper contemplation of the villain’s character and narrative plot.

On one side these portrayals are good, they encourage moviegoers to see that there is more than meets the eye with regards to morality. That a person can have a more complex personal history and motives different from mere stereotypes, and Christians should also see as such. James 1:19 calls us to be “quick to hear, and slow to speak”, which should bring the realization to not quickly judge someone before being aware of their full story or scenario. In the book Generous Justice, Timothy Keller tells a story of how he faced his furious deacon (Keller, 2010). A woman who was a single mother of four, has been wasting funds from the church for menial things such as junk food, bikes and trips to the restaurant instead of paying her bills. While it may seem normal to say “No way do we give her anymore” as the deacon did, Keller convinced the deacons to hear her story, open up their hearts and continue in funding her life. It had turned out that the mother felt guilty of not being able to provide her children with a life as a normal family in the neighbourhood and thought that buying them those things would remedy the situation. Indeed, her view and actions needed to be corrected, but as the smog clears and the circumstances present themselves, the woman does not seem as bad as the deacon initially thought.

This is the uniqueness of movies that portray the villain with selfless ulterior motives like Avengers: Infinity war. Characters like Thanos prompt the viewer to contemplate deeper and not to judge too quickly of someone’s intention even behind malicious looking actions. However, we must acknowledge that even Thanos’ motivations and worldview were terribly misguided through the Biblical lens.

Then are ‘Bad Guys’, Good?

We see in the Israelites and even in people today, every God-given grace and every God-given beautiful thing can be twisted by the human heart into something hideous. As John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” (Calvin n.d.)

As discussed in the previous section, this addition of multi-faceted motives with a pinch of altruism in a villain’s motive can lead someone to think more critically, quicker to hear than they are to speak, and see from the perspective of the individuals we face in our life. However, we must all be aware of the underlying worldview that is being pushed throughout today’s culture, a worldview that continues to be stronger and its message clearer. This worldview says – the notion of truth, good, and evil are very subjective matters.

Postmodernism is a worldview that came about as a response to the modern era. It is characterized by a perception of fundamental things such as truth, value, beauty, and morality to be non-existent in the absolute sense, but rather only existing in an individual’s subjectivity (Postmodernism Philosophy, n.d.) . Hence, postmodernism holds that morality is relative, each person defines what is good or evil and it is impossible to impose one’s morality upon another. I do believe that many people, including Christians, take this notion of postmodernism or “post-truth” as their view of reality. There is certainly a history of how this way of thinking came about, which will not be discussed in this article. But the prevalence of postmodernism means that those who watch Infinity War will see a sort of affirmation of this relativistic idea.

The postmodernist viewer might say subconsciously:
“Even Thanos who does wretched things, does so out of good intentions – at least it seems so from his subjective view. Goodness is truly to a subjective matter.”

However, anyone -especially Christians- should realize just how dangerous, unrealistic, and self-defeating both the popular philosophy and its presentation in the entertainment industry are. While an ice cream flavor can be preferable to some but not others, morality and truth cannot be considered as subjective matters, and must not merely be a matter of choice. If the notion of good and evil is truly relative to the individual, then Thanos is not a villain and the Avengers are not heroes, they are just individuals fighting for their subjective perception of reality and their notion of ethics. While some would think this view is not problematic, in actuality upon close inspection it does present some pressing issues.

The Postmodern Contradiction

This is made clear in Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. When one claims that “reality and morality are subjective things”, one might need to question whether he/she earnestly believes this statement to be true. Some may hesitate to say yes, but many of those adopting the postmodern relativistic philosophy would readily do so, often holding this truth close to their hearts with absolute certainty (Keller, 2008). But when someone does affirm his/her certainty of the aforementioned statement, he/she is already describing an absolute reality of the universe, which is contradiction to the previous statement. To make it clearer, it is as if that person said this:

“I as a person who holds the postmodern and relativistic philosophy,
claim that the world does not have any absolute standards and all standards are subjective, but my statement that I have just spoken to you is not my subjective perception but I hold it to be true objectively and absolutely.”

We see that this is a self-defeating statement, as it contradicts the view that the person held. But the argument may not be over; after realising the foolishness of the statement, the person would change his/her answer to. “No, my view of relativistic morality and reality is not absolute but only true in my subjectivity.” We then move to another problem, that is, society cannot run based on this principle.

Relative, yet Misguided Morality

Imagine someone had just killed your beloved mother whom you loved so much, right in front of your eyes. With deep anger and sadness you will then bring the murderer to court for the judge to decide the punishment he deserves – while your hands are also eager to give some as well. But suddenly the judge releases the killer without a sentence of any kind. How can this be? It seems the killer struck his knife with good intentions in his mind. He did it in order to save your mother from the misery and harshness of the world, the harshness of working 8 hours a day, or the harshness of having flu every now and then. The killer subjectively thought that his act was done in mercy more than malice. And so he was let go.

Now this is an easy example which articulates 2 things: First, morality and truth cannot be subjective matters, and secondly there are clear boundaries regarding what is moral or immoral, ethical or unethical and this is a concept affirmed by most people.

But if morality and truth cannot be subjective matters, is there an absolute standard everyone can subscribe to? Where should that absolute standard come from? This is why John Frame in his book ‘Apologetics’, argues clearly that ethics and morality can only exist when grounded by the absolute personality of the Trinity – which is a very exclusive statement among other worldviews (Frame & Torres, 2015).

“The end is near”- Thanos

As like any good movie or entertainment platform, Infinity War should incite further discussion about philosophy and worldview. While further questions may be raised of the viability of Thanos’ motivations, this is not the purpose of this article. I also believe that the claim that morality must exist with a Trinitarian basis requires further explanation, perhaps through other articles. However, the main purpose of this article is mainly to bring to light the prevalence of altruistic villains in modern media, and that we as followers of Christ must both be grateful and wary of this uprising of relatable villains.
As Marvel answers our questions in the coming movies, we pray that the Lord will answers our questions as well through reading passages in the Bible, and perhaps other articles on our page. To God be the glory. (HIC)

 

References

All Time Worldwide Box Office for Super Hero Movies. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/worldwide/all-movies/creative-types/super-hero

Calvin, J. (n.d.). Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 3. (H.Beveridge,
Trans.). Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xii.html

Death-(Earth 616). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://marvel.wikia.com/wiki/Death_(Earth-616)

Frame, J. M., & Torres, J. E. (2015). Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief. P & R Publishing.
Infinity Gauntlet(1991). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://readcomiconline.to/Comic/Infinity-Gauntlet-1991

Keller, T. J. (2008). The reason for God: Belief in an age of skepticism. New York: Dutton.
Keller, T. J. (2010). Generous justice: How God’s grace makes us just. New York, New York.: Dutton.

List of Highest-Grossing Film. (n.d.). Retrieved from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#cite_note-infinity_war-20

Postmodernism philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/postmodernism-philosophy

Zen-Whoberi. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com/wiki/Zen-Whoberi

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