Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The series ends this week, as we examine Avengers: Infinity War and beyond.
Heavy spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. Ye Be warned.
Much has been said about Avengers: Infinity War. A constant seemed to be that, while people agree that there is a shallowness of themes in what is actually just a merry and heartbreaking gathering of earth mightiest heroes, others are preoccupied with one of the most interesting question post-Infinity War. Not whether or not dead heroes are going to come back, but whether Thanos is a *puts on glasses and checks notes* Daddy.
I could talk about the fact Thanos’s design departed from the heftier side of the original one and that they chose to focus on the muscles rather than the dad bod. It’s actually funny to consider that His Deadly Purpleness followed the same diet as many MCU actors. I could talk about the fact that Thanos establishes THICC dominance over HULK in the first minutes, or that his Highness AND Thiccness could probably choke many fortunate partners with their consent, but that’s neither here nor there. Much could be written about the confrontation between Stark and Strange and Thor and Star-Lord. They’re obviously all competing for the role of ultimate Dad of the MCU, and that Peter Quill’s gaining weight is a stealthy attempt at subverting expectations and finding his own balance in the universe.
I could also probably point to the fact that Thanos is an actual daddy who uses such terminology as “little one” or that he offers a gift to “his little girl,” but that would take us in depth on Daddy-dom, a kink for which I might have spent hours to study for, but this watered-mouth writer wouldn’t dream to bother his kind and patient readership with specifics. You are obviously not here for that.
It is actually here that I think that whole social experiment of the gathering of every and all heroes of the MCU1 made some thematic sense to me. Apart from those merry memers memeing about notedly Memeable Brolin’s Purple Brawler Thanos Rex, Overmaster,2 I think we were all, somehow, affected by some of the relationships at the core of Avengers: Infinity War and in the MCU as a whole. Most of those relationships have something in them about children growing up and parents doing their best or their worst. Infinity War, to me, more than anything else, is about Daddy D—I’m sorry, about fatherhood.
The father you trust, the dad you chose.
There’s a reason Spider-Man’s demise in Infinity War packs a wallop. Even though the death of many fan favorites didn’t hit me as hard as I thought they would, because I couldn’t turn off that stupid knowledge of a “part two” in my brain, I got choked up at Peter’s death. The moment rewards the thread established in two prior movies, Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In both movies, Peter gets acquainted and builds a difficult relationship with surrogate father Tony Stark. Every one of their interactions is presented with many intricate feelings directly coded into the fabric of the awkward dialogue, beginning with the first encounter in Peter’s room. They all happen simultaneously in Tony’s head — “That kid is powerful. That kid has the potential to be better than all of us. Peter is kind. Peter is just a kid.” You feel all of this, because the dialogue is that sharp, and because the acting is that good, and Infinity War delivers on this set-ups beautifully.
I particularly like this moment when Tony knights Peter because he doesn’t have any other choice, and that might be the most casual, yet ceremonial, moment in the MCU. Tony, knighting Peter, is a moment of hastened pride and negotiation with an immediate danger, and the fact Tony cannot get Peter back in safety anymore. What happens in Tony’s head is the realization that his surrogate kid needs to grow up fast if he is to survive the encounter with the meanest creature in the galaxy.
But then the camera actually indulges at the moment, to echo Peter’s new found confidence and pride. It mirrors something so pure and so essential in a parent-child relationship: Tony doesn’t know what he’s doing, he makes things up as he goes, but Peter takes this knighting with the seriousness of Lancelot being awarded a seat at the round table by Arthur himself. Tony doesn’t necessarily realize how much of a reality changer, this is for Peter, how the hastened arm touching his shoulder is a moment of religious proportions for the 16 year old. When you are a kid, looking up to your parents, they are your whole world and reality. But Peter’s choice to fight was not in question.
That’s where I slowly pieced together how momentous Teen Groot and Thor’s interactions were to the fabric of Infinity War, but also of Phase 3 of the MCU. When Groot meets Thor, along with the other Guardians, he is just a teenager, whose only interest lies in his Space Invaders game. It took me a while to piece together why it was so important to James Gunn and the Russos to remind people that Groot is actually a different person and not just Old Groot grown anew. This kid doesn’t understand why Guardians do what they do, help people and sing together like those dumb adults.
So with his first encounter with Thor, he’s confronted with a god filled with sorrow and an incredible sense of purpose that Groot doesn’t feel yet. Many of Groot’s interactions are basic moments of contemplation of what Thor does, feels and believes – that mockingly and totally unsettles Peter Quill and the Daddy’s status quo in the house-spaceship, by the way. Groot won’t obey, but Groot will listen. So when he is confronted with tales of hardships, violence and unlawful deaths from someone he slowly acknowledges as a force of good, Groot makes the decision to become the handle to the axe, Stormbreaker.
While Peter Parker was always willing to gain agency but didn’t have the tools, Groot was undecided but just had to make the decision to help. Groot chose another dad that would also become his newfound moral compass. It’s no wonder this axe also helps Thor travel everywhere by invoking the Bifrost. Traveling and helping bridge the gap between the individual and others is one of the key themes of many MCU movies so far, not only between strangers but also between relatives. In Thor and its Bifrost as well as Black Panther and its metro and spaceships powered by Vibranium. Time, Space, and Souls are not only stones that make the fabric of the universe, they are key themes that both separate and bind individuals together in their quest for belonging, approval, and role models.
Which leads us to the most obvious, and most troubling, father-child relationship in the MCU. Father figures were at the center of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and we finally get the parental story we’ve been waiting for: Gamora and Thanos. Thanos is not just an angry Titan, he is the embodiment of the threatening and abusive father figure. He’s always shot in a low angle view. He towers over the screen and invokes images of both the unexpectedly kind giant and an ogre of an abusive father we’ve been told to expect.
What has made Gamora’s low-key arc so interesting is that she actually fought against the model imposed on her by a threatening force of nature. Meeting him at the end of her journey of discovering empathy, and finally being able to let another human being care and love her, is so reminiscent of many an individual in their late twenties and thirties; they’ve grown out of self-disgust and hatred for people who broke them when they should have helped them. Now they have to go back home to the abusive household that both made and destroyed them.
I’ve read opinion pieces saying that the MCU is good at characterization but not good at psychology, or even that characters never actually evolve. Teen Groot and Thor, Peter and Tony, Gamora and Thanos are embodiments of the opposite. We oftentimes equal character development with character growth, but the reality of our psychology is that we reproduce mistakes. We reproduce deeply engraved patterns of self-harm and abuse and unconscious love-hate relationship for ourselves and the people that made us.
When Gamora is shocked to tears by the apparent death of her daddy in Knowhere, this captures all of that pain. When Thanos mirrors this sentiment, before obtaining the soul stone, it is real character development — this is the MCU thematically paying back everything it set up. It’s no wonder this interaction ends up tragically, quite literally in fact. While Groot sacrifices one of his limbs to give a weapon to his surrogate father, Gamora is being turned into a sacrificial lamb, quite similar to Iphigenia: Agamemnon, her father, will kill her in order to conquer Troy. This is also a direct reversal of the dynamic that gave us Yondu’s beautiful sacrifice in the MCU with this now famous sentence “He might have been your father, Peter, but he wasn’t your daddy.”
“Is your daddy willing to sacrifice you or himself?” — this is the question at the core of the recent run of MCU films. Gamora and Thanos don’t meet Red Skull on Vormir so much as they confront Thanos’s ultimate drive and narcissistic mania, which will have him be born again in the waters of his own self-aggrandizing religion. Yondu killed himself for Peter; Thanos kills people for himself.
Connect the threads. Make your own interpretations. Steve Rogers is, of course, the surrogate father figure to Wanda, and her own thread about owning up to her actions and recovering agency, under the wing of Cap, is part of her journey too. The fact of the matter is, the MCU is not just consistent with its quips and visuals, but it generally holds water psychologically. It tells you something when the exact aesthetic and dramatic opposition to one of your most important story beat in Infinity War echoes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Fatherhood that heals, breaks, inspires, traumatizes, and makes up the visual and thematic language of the MCU.
So what happens when your father figure also happens to have big plans for the universe? You find yourself confronted with an actual avatar for the devious patriarchy.
Cosmic patriarchy and doing something against it?
When I said Tony knighting Peter was a reality changer for Peter, I meant it with the full scope of what that entails. Parents have the ability to alter the entire worldview of their offspring, and once that is set in stone, children need to perform a massive leap to leave the blueprints behind and start anew.
This is also why it is so hard to break away from the patriarchy. This is literally what we are taught every day, the world we live in. What really caught my attention in Thanos’s story about his will to save the world is how it was just this: a story. We’re supposed to believe him when he says his solution is equal between all members of the planet where he’s going to commit genocide. We’re supposed to believe Gamora’s planet has gotten so much better since what happened but we’re never shown the actual aftermath. Thanos is the living embodiment of the colonial spirit of “enlightenment” that believes that his subjectivity is where lies reality. The fact that Thanos wants to own a gauntlet and stones that help him shape reality is, by design, an performative tool.
What Thanos wants is the power to wield reality and make it fit his ideology. He’s not looking to have his action suit to reality. Thanos has always been the authoritative figure who looks to be able to master the narrative, both in his story and the film’s story itself. It’s no wonder the stones are made of the colors that shape the reality of a movie and a comic book. To master soul, time, reality, mind, space, and power literally means to master faith, history, ideology, omnipotence, and agency.
So what happens at the end when he wins? He casts out those that worked so hard to gain a voice, agency, a moral compass and the control of their own history and ideology. Peter, T’Challa, Gamora, Teenage Groot, Doctor Strange. In this chapter of the MCU, patriarchy is alive and well, and it is embodied by an abusive father, a demented ideologue who believes that there is literally too much diversity in the universe and that sustainable resources don’t exist – something would-be benevolent father and patriarchal figures Tony Stark and T’Challa have been working for all their lives. It is no wonder the only moment it felt like the mad Titan would be overthrown, that his glove would be taken away from him, was happening all because of collaboration and the touch of empathy literally inflicted on him by the wonderful Mantis.
You Know! For Kids!
But here’s my gripe with this. While Tony acknowledges Peter’s role in the Avengers, while Thanos gave Gamora a knife, they both denied them an actual agency to fight for themselves and live with the consequences. The white guys, Peter Quill, Tony Stark, Strange, Thor, Captain America, Thanos (yeah he’s purple, but come on): it’s on them to turn the table and make a momentous decision to change reality.
And the fact that Infinity War “killed” Groot, Gamora and T’Challa gives me pause and makes me wonder if the MCU is willing to do what it takes to give actual agency to those who are so eager, not just to win, but to make a difference and change the status quo. To give power to those who were wronged by bad fathers and the patriarchy, those who were cast aside, despite an innate or earned sense of duty, responsibility, and righteousness. When Peter dies, it is meant as a dramatic moment for Tony Stark who made, according to him, the mistake to accept him in this mission. But Peter chose this on his own accord, and there’s something that is not exactly right when Peter, begging to not leave, is back to being a child who is not allowed to appear like he owns up to the consequences. I know. He’s just a kid, Tony would tell me.
To save the MCU and the universe, it’s not going be about the Kevin Bacons and the good father figures. It will take good kids, anxious to take a stand against the old guard and its wrinkled and violent ideology – that guy carries a metaphorical scrotum on his chin, for Pete’s sake.
It takes the (perceived) minorities, it takes Wakanda, it takes Shuri and T’Challa, it takes teenage Groot and Peter. It takes Gamora to fight back against Wrongful Dads and the Patriarchy. The MCU and Infinity War are literally about children watching grownups fighting the good fight against wrongheaded tyrants, and they’re taking so many cues from the previous generations and their heroes, the good, the toxic, the heroic, and the vile! This is about wide-eyed Gamora and Groot, looking at powerful human beings and believing they too can make a difference.
For the sake of these viewers and the kids in all of us. Let’s deliver on that promise, Marvel.