When Thanos snaps the fingers of the completed Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Infinity War, he is transported to a Netherworld, where he sees the child Gamora. She asks him whether he accomplished his mission, and with a weary sense of triumph he states that he did. She then asks him what did it cost him, and now with a weary sense of sorrow, Thanos responds, “Everything.”
But what ultimately divides Captain America and Iron Man is their mutual unwillingness to accept required sacrifices.One of the shocks of Avengers: Infinity War—beyond the elimination of half of all (sentient?) life—is that it is Thanos who successfully completes the hero’s journey. Thanos fights against great odds and several foes for the safety of the universe (from his warped point of view), and after much sacrifice proves victorious. And then, like many a hero, he retires to a peaceful farmland. The actual heroes fail in their quest, in great part because they refuse to make the sacrifices superheroes are expected to make—sacrifices that the villain Thanos makes (again, in a warped way).
Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame are the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as we know it. Throughout its run, the MCU has challenged the idea of superheroic altruism, in which superheroes make all the sacrifices to provide the public with absolute safety and security. This is central to the Avengers initiative itself—stated by Nick Fury in The Avengers and dramatically recited by the Avengers themselves in the first Infinity War trailer—“to bring together a group of remarkable people . . . to fight the battles we never could.” Ideally, no sacrifices will be necessary: the public will be protected by the strength and goodness of the superheroes, and the heroes will be protected by their inherent invulnerability. But if sacrifices are to be made, it will be the superheroes who will make them.
Superheroes serve as stand-ins for governments, who in the real world are tasked with making the tough calls in order to ensure peace and tranquility. But in the world of comics, governments are often either oppressive or incompetent while superheroes are trustworthy and invulnerable. Many comic book heroes battle tyrannical rulers—from Captain America punching Hitler to Superman battling Darkseid (the DC precursor to Thanos). But superheroes are not democratic, either. Superheroes are commonly criticized for being an “authoritarian fantasy,” in which their inherent trustworthiness negates the need for any checks and balances. But it also means the public can safely free-ride off the superheroes, receiving peace without having to sacrifice for it.
This is the foundation for the superhero bargain: absolute safety in exchange for unchecked, unthreatening power. Each side chooses what they get to give, and both sides get exactly what they want.
Infinity War, however, exposes this for what it is—a fantasy. Peace can never come without shared sacrifice. Nor can it come by choosing which sacrifice you get to make. The rich young ruler boasts about his obedience, but walks away sorrowfully when asked to sacrifice his riches. The Israelites in the wilderness declare their readiness to take on any foe, but reject God and His prophets when this may mean putting their families at risk.
Infinity War highlights not physical self-sacrifice, but rather sacrificing those you love—which is a different type of self-sacrifice. Being a stand-in for government means making the difficult decision to sacrifice lives in order to protect the community. This is never an easy call, or at least it shouldn’t be. It requires carrying the pain of seeing others die, the anguish of survivor’s guilt, and the gnawing question over whether a different path was possible.
Superheroes allow us to imagine that only certain types of sacrifices are necessary for peace, and that our heroes are only too willing to make them. Endgame in some ways perpetuates this idea (no spoilers here!), but Infinity War exposes this as a fantasy and shows what happens when superheroes seek to achieve peace without a full view of sacrifice. Though the heroes are ready to sacrifice themselves, sometimes a different type of sacrifice is required.
The MCU begins with Tony Stark confronting the true costs of US security for the first time, after escaping capture by Afghan militants. At a press conference, Stark publicly rejects “a system comfortable with zero accountability.” His response, though, is to create Iron Man, a superhero with zero accountability. Stark later boasts to a Senate committee that he has “successfully privatized world peace.” Iron Man, not corrupt governments or fallible militaries, will now provide peace.
Following the “Battle of New York”—the MCU analogue to 9/11—Stark becomes even more dedicated to protecting both the world and those he loves. He creates the A.I. Ultron to be a “suit of armor around the world,” but in typical A.I. fashion, Ultron decides that safety can only be assured by destroying all humanity. While the Avengers prevent world destruction, this comes at the cost of an entire country. This is the first major crack in the superhero bargain, which Stark seeks to atone for with the Sokovia Accords.
Yet, as Iron Man questions his infallibility, Captain America becomes more assured of his. Steve Rogers is recruited into the super soldier project, because he would literally catch a grenade for you. His exposure of Hydra’s control over S.H.I.E.L.D. further convinces him that “the safest hands are still our own,” and that the constraints of the Sokovia Accords are unnecessary and dangerous. Governments, and by extension the public, cannot be trusted to ensure peace and regulate superheroes. The Winter Soldier himself is the worst case embodiment of government control over superheroes.
But what ultimately divides Captain America and Iron Man is their mutual unwillingness to accept required sacrifices. Cap is unwilling to sacrifice Bucky despite compelling evidence of Bucky’s guilt, and Iron Man lets his unresolved grief over his parents’ death make him complicit in Zemo’s plan to destroy the Avengers. The Sokovia Accords violate one part on the superheroes’ bargain by regulating heroes; Cap and Tony violate the other part by prioritizing their loved ones over their heroic duties.
Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok—the two movies that directly proceed Infinity War—show the collapse of the superhero bargain on a countrywide and planet-wide scale. In both, superheroes serve as the government in societies that have seemingly achieved utopic levels of security. Both T’Challa and Thor, though superhero royalty themselves, also stand in for the public who in blissful ignorance accept that peace without sacrifice is possible. Yet, in both cases, their peace is built on the sacrifices of others. Asgard achieved peace through conquest; Wakanda through isolation and exclusion. Both these shams are exposed by claimants to the throne who have either made those sacrifices (Hela) or suffered for them (Killmonger). Asgard suffers the ultimate punishment of global destruction, while Wakanda endures a (brief) civil war. A reinstalled T’Challa pledges to open Wakandan borders, though still from a position of paternalistic strength. Unlike Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther ends without a true reckoning with what its utopic security has cost others.
Infinity War thus begins with most of the Marvel heroes either having rejected a spirit of sacrifice or having never really acquired it. The absence of such a spirit greatly enables Thanos’s triumph. In every case where we see Thanos gain an Infinity Stone, he does so because a hero is unwilling to sacrifice a loved one. (He gains the Power Stone and Reality Stones off-screen, both through brute force. And Doctor Strange gets a pass, because his surrender of the Time Stone is part of a longer game.)
The first stone Thanos acquires is the Space Stone from Loki. Though Loki has largely been a villain in the MCU, his surrender of the Space Stone is presented as demonstrative of his hero’s turn. Having been vain, self-serving, and jealous of his brother Thor throughout his MCU arc, Loki now sacrifices the Stone and then his life for Thor. Loki’s sacrifice is truly heroic, but it includes a notable irony. Throughout the first Avengers movie, when he tried to conquer Earth with the help of Thanos’s Chitauri army, Loki disdains heroic sentimentalism and during his interrogation by Black Widow, he mocks her for “bargaining for one man,” Hawkeye, while the world is in the balance. Yet, in Infinity War Loki trades the power of the universe for his brother’s life. This is treated as heroic, showing Loki’s reconciliation with his brother and transformation into a hero. But it is also foreshadows the heroes’ over-arching flaw throughout Infinity War: an unwillingness to accept the grave sacrifices necessary to save the universe.
Jesus modeled the sacrificial life before submitting to a sacrificial death. And Jesus calls His followers to do likewise.Thanos’s next acquisition is the Soul Stone. It is here that Thanos makes his most painful sacrifice and trades Gamora’s life for the stone. However, Thanos only gets Gamora to reveal the location of the Soul Stone by first torturing her sister Nebula. As with Loki, Gamora’s decision to give the location is a payoff from her MCU arc of reconciliation with Nebula. Again, this has value in terms of familial reconciliation, but it also shows the level of heroic decay. Gamora knows the power of the Infinity Stones and Thanos’s plans for them. Yet, for one life she gives away the power of the universe.
But the Avengers themselves are the worst. Loki and Gamora at least acted in the moment. The Avengers had more than ample time not only to destroy the Mind Stone but also to consider and discuss the ramifications if they didn’t. Yet, the Avengers all agree that Vision’s life is more important than half of the universe’s. Captain America earnestly states, “We don’t trade lives.” But that’s exactly what superheroes do! They just expect to give their own lives, not others’ lives—even other superheroes. Yet, it is the soldiers of Wakanda whose lives are traded Thanos’s forces, while Vision—who is fully willing to give his life—has a futile surgery to extract the Mind Stone. This all makes a lie of Cap’s statement in Civil War that the safest hands are those of superheroes. With a clear opportunity to save the universe, the Avengers instead choose to save one of their own—and ultimately do neither.
Thanos’s sacrifices are of course abhorrent. He sacrifices half the universe to achieve a goal that could’ve been achieved in much more peaceful ways. And his only tear is for the lost one he loved, not the trillions who are also sacrificed. Thanos is the superheroic authoritarian fantasy taken to its perversely logical extreme—bringing peace and prosperity without any love for those he is supposedly saving or sacrificing. He is the Canaanite who sacrifices children for crops.
The Christian call for sacrifice rejects both these examples. Christian sacrifice begins with the Savior King sacrificing His all, not only be dying but first by living a life of daily sacrifice. Philippians 2 declares that Christ, before “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross,” first “emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant.” Jesus modeled the sacrificial life before submitting to a sacrificial death. And Jesus calls His followers to do likewise.
For some, like the apostle Peter, this will include giving up one’s life. For others, like the apostle John, this will mean a life of sacrificial endurance. But the Christian life is not one where the great hero alone sacrifices, and the church simply applauds. Nor is it one where we as Christians get to choose which sacrifices we get to make. Some must leave mother and father behind (as Tony needs to). Others must invite in the strangers, knowing that may include risk and loss (as Wakanda needs to). And others must love their enemies, even as this includes extra miles, multiple slaps, and unknown costs (as we all need to).
Jesus’ call is not a superhero’s hubristic promise of free security. His call is to join in His sacrifice.