This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War
As the culmination of 10 years of world-building, Avengers: Infinity War was destined to be a radical shift for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s status quo. And in order for that to happen, it was inevitable for some major aspects to get reshaped, or even eliminated altogether. So it only makes sense that the central idea of the movie would be the ways the characters are pushed to a breaking point of no return, for better or worse.
An element that symbolizes this concept with great economy is Steve Rogers’ new look and attitude. His outfit, a black and altered version of the Captain America costume, is a way to illustrate that he embraces the role that identity played in his history, and that he still mourns it. The beard and longer hair not only serve to hide himself from the authorities, they indicate that he’s no longer playing by the rules that an idealistic soldier from the past used to hold in such a high regard. It’s also worth noting the way Chris Evans’ performance changes because of these factors. He’s more weary, and his commanding presence, though still warm, has an “I have no patience for this nonsense” vibe that reflects all the disappointment and confusion Steve’s endured.
James “Bucky” Barnes, who’s been a huge part of Steve’s life, also goes through an important development here. After having his life stolen and shattered by toxic masculinity and Nazism, he finally has a chance to heal and unlearn all the terrible methods he was trained to execute. Not to mention that said process takes place in Wakanda, a country that found a way to achieve massive technological progress while still treating nature with respect, an environment that contrasts with Hydra’s death-obsessed and reckless authoritarianism. The Winter Soldier is finally buried, and Bucky’s rebirth as White Wolf consolidates it.
One of the most striking moments of Avengers: Infinity War is when it is revealed that Red Skull, Captain America’s nemesis during World War II, ended up as the keeper of the Soul Stone after grabbing the Tesseract. Red Skull was a natural leader, but one that always ruled with fear and demanding his subordinates to glorify his image. That made him an influential, yet lonely figure that only served his own interests. The fact that he ended up in a secluded mountain, protecting an artifact that requires the user to care for someone other than themselves, is a potent beat of poetic justice (the nightmarish visuals in Vormir serve to drive this point home). Though wrecked by these circumstances, Red Skull managed to get some peace and closure in them. He always wanted to be a god, and in a way, that’s exactly what he is now. He holds an extraordinary power and is the ruler of a dark land where no one can challenge his ideas… and where no one can follow them either. He’s simultaneously living his dream and serving his punishment.
Avengers: Infinity War follows the path of several characters, but the heart of the movie is specifically in two of them: Thor and Thanos.
Thor starts the movie at his absolute lowest point. His land was annihilated right after becoming king, and Thanos humiliated him in the process. He spent so much time isolated from Jane Foster that their relationship became unsustainable. The things that gave his life meaning are gone, and the only drive he has is his thirst for revenge against Thanos. This will make Thor want to walk on a path that puts his life at risk, and he doesn’t mind because everything he loved was stripped from him. To contrast this, he’s paired with Rocket, who is an all-around horrible individual. He likes to hurt people for his own amusement and masks his own insecurities with a pathetic and disingenuous badass persona to make himself feel like he’s the boss. When Rocket gets to know Thor, he’s put in front of a mirror that makes him see all his bullshit. Thor was left alone with a death wish, and yet he does his best to look back on his life to learn the most enlightening lessons possible. Rocket likes to think he’s a soul broken beyond repair to rationalize his toxic behavior, but he still has a family that cares for him in the Guardians of the Galaxy, which makes his mindset even more unjustified.
Thor’s journey in the movie works as a brilliant continuation of his arc in his first film in the MCU, where he also has to die and resuscitate as a better version of himself. But there’s a key difference. In Thor, the God of Thunder loses his life and earns the right to wield Mjolnir right after finding his purpose as Earth’s protector, whereas in Avengers: Infinity War, his death and the acquisition of Stormbreaker are the result of the depression that comes with having nothing to live for besides relishing death. Even after Thor confronts Thanos and stabs him with Stormbreaker, he’s unable to stop the villain from wiping out half the life in the universe, which makes his loneliness and failure even more painful to endure. Of course, a good part of why all of this works is Chris Hemsworth. His performance in Thor conveyed the anxiety of a privileged man that experiences a major loss for the first time, and in Avengers: Infinity War we see the next step in the portrayal: a fully formed warrior that has gathered many emotional scars and doesn’t mind exposing them with an angry, but quiet dignity that says he’s not afraid to face whatever comes to him.
As for Thanos, his path is similar to Thor in the sense that they’re both defined by witnessing a horrible event where the things they loved were lost forever. That trauma filled Thanos with rage and made him decide that if he was going to suffer, it would be because of his own wishes rather than external factors where he lacks opportunities and choices. He wants to become the most dangerous being in the universe to feel fully in control of his destiny and make everyone live what he went through, consequentially taking comfort in the warmth that comes with shared experience. Instead of allowing his traumas to bring him down, he decides to process them in a way that makes him more motivated and strong, even if it comes at the expense of other people’s wellbeing.
This passion for destruction is also shown in the relationship Thanos has with his daughter Gamora. According to Thanos’ twisted ethos, he saved Gamora from a miserable life by training her to become a formidable warrior. But Gamora experienced it as abuse instead, since she was taken away from her home and family. No matter how hard he tries, Thanos can’t make people see the universe through his perspective, which comes down to sadism masquerading as philanthropy. And even though he loves Gamora, deep down, his feelings towards her are closer to a fascination with the idea of turning her into another version of himself than an appreciation of her true essence. Killing Gamora to obtain the Soul Stone feeds Thanos’ need for getting satisfaction out of tragedy.
Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones is about leaving behind the limitations that come with humanity to achieve consolidation as a force of nature. Very much like a flood or an earthquake, Thanos leaves a trail of destruction that the heroes can only survive rather than fully contain. His desperation led him to an “objective” sense of environmental justice that demands that everyone pay the price for the chaotic state of the universe; since nature doesn’t discriminate who’s affected by its rage. Despite the shock factor that comes with seeing the heroes lose, the movie ends with Thanos enjoying a moment of ecstasy after his victory. It’s a brief and bittersweet scene that emphasizes the pleasure that comes with fulfilling the desire for tearing the painful present down to build a new beginning from the ashes.
The Great Titan is not a sympathetic character by any means, but Josh Brolin plays him with enough pathos to make the audience understand the terrifying place he’s coming from. He’s always intimidating and confident, particularly in the scenes where he fights against the heroes. But he conveys a sense of frustration about the scenarios he’s witnessing, which contrasts with the joy he gets when he accomplishes his objectives. It’s all encapsulated in a wonderfully effective sense of escalation that establishes him as a disaster beyond solution throughout the entire film.
Although Avengers: Infinity War follows multiple plot lines and works on a massively overwhelming scale, directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have always had a knack for providing each of their characters with enough time to shine, elevating the overall picture. That trait stands out even more in a movie that juggles every narrative angle the MCU has built over the years. They managed to create a bold thematic core to make the development of the characters not only resonant on an emotional level, but a successful and coherent representation of the universe-shattering situations taking place on screen.
Whenever we’re struck with trauma and something valuable is taken away from us, it is natural to have a desire to obliterate everything that lead to that point, including ourselves. Even when it seems that all our effort towards accomplishing our goals was for nothing, we can pave new paths with the resources we have left, as sparse as they may seem.
The ultimate consequences of the events in Avengers: Infinity War remain to be seen. But it’s fair to say that the desire for reinvention that has marked the Marvel heroes (e.g. Tony Stark regularly upgrading his armors, T’Challa allowing Wakanda to help the world, Steve Rogers abandoning the Captain America identity, etc.) has been taken to a point where every single personal decision, mistake and development has an important impact for virtually all MCU characters out there, and the franchise is stronger because of it.