The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to surprise me. The fact that it has, for the past 10 years, created not just a series of blockbuster movies that are often fun and occasionally downright compelling is pretty darn impressive. The fact that these movies actually all join together in serial form culminating with Infinity War is even more impressive. The fact that Infinity War itself manages to tell a coherent story across multiple simultaneous arcs and over a dozen primary characters is amazing.
To me, the biggest surprise was Thanos.
Marvel has not always done well with its cinematic villains. The worst (Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 for example) come off as fairly standard tropes. Their motivations are standard – power, glory, revenge, etcetera. Even the better villains such as Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron) I found somewhat disappointing, as came off to me as another take on the monster who destroys its creators as well as everything else.
Thanos, however was quite different. I’ll say why ahead, but if you haven’t watched the film yet what follows may spoil
some of the film for you. I’m also going by memory (and Google), so bear with me if I make storyline errors.
Thanos has been present in some manner in many of the prior films, appearing either in end-credit scenes or in cameos. We know from all that history that he is bent on obtaining the Infinity Stones, which are the physical representations of Time, Space, Power, Reality, Soul and Mind. Controlling these stones means controlling the universe at a fundamental level.
His motivation is almost altrusitic. His home planet of Titan was on the brink of ecological disaster due to overpopulation, and rather than restrain itself as Thanos urged the populace causes its own extinction. So to prevent this from happening on a universal scale, the population of the universe must be pruned. Screenwriter Stephen McFeely said in an interview that Infinity War is in fact “Thanos’ hero’s journey”:
“…we wanted him to be a rich character. He’s basically the protagonist of the movie. … Part of that is the things that means the most to him. We wanted to show that. It wasn’t just power; it wasn’t just an ideal; it was people.”
Marvel has played with religious themes and ideas before, most notably in Age of Ultron. As I watched Thanos’ character evolve I found more and more that he bore an uncanny resemblance to a presentation of God that has been criticised by atheists as well as some Christians: the “moral monster” God.
The notion of God as “moral monster” derives primariliy from the depiction of God in the Old Testament, but has shades in the New Testament as well. It highlights some of the issues we as finite people find when confronting God’s actions appear profoundly troubling or even immoral. Why would God order the slaughter of entire cities and nations, including innocents, during the conquest of Canaan? Why does He kill people for seemingly harmless infractions, such as trying to catch the slipping ark (2 Samuel 6:6)? Why does He demand worship and sacrifice, when He has no real need of either? Why does He predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation, in each case for the sake of His own glory? The answer typically has been “God’s ways are not our ways. He is good, therefore He cannot be immoral.”
In Thanos we have god (intentional small ‘g’) who is in many ways a moral monster. His actions, as brutal as they may be, are designed to save as many as possible. In one scene he tells his adopted daughter Gamora that after the killing of half of the people on her planet – which was on a path similar to Titan according to Thanos – the remaining population “… have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies.”
“Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe has finite its resources, finite… if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”
“YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!”
“I’m the only one who knows that.”
He sees quick culling as more gracious that a slow death due to war, famine and starvation, which is similar to the argument made that God’s order to kill all of the Canaanite children was merciful in that it was better for them to be dead at the hands of the Israelites than sacrificed to Moloch. He notes that using the Infinity Stones he can simply banish people from existance without any pain or bloodshed, saying “I call that mercy.”
At a key moment in the film, Thanos even experiences genuine loss and grief. When confronted by the necessity to give up the thing he loves most to get the stone, Gamora taunts him triumphantly, saying that he has lost because he loves nothing. Thanos then, with actual CGI tears, sacrifices Gamora. It borrows from the binding of Isaac, save for the happy ending, as well as from the idea that God was willing to empty his wrath on His own Son, which as Thanos stated earlier in the movie is the price one must pay for salvation.
All through the film, Thanos and his heralds the Black Order (who are much more stereotypically evil than Thanos) proclaim that the universe should welcome and be thankful for his intervention. He tells Dr Strange that once his plans are accomplished he intends to “…finally rest, and watch the sunrise on a grateful universe.” The reason they aren’t is because they lack his vision, his insight, his power, and most importantly his judgment. He wounds because he loves. Here is where I found the greatest parallel between Thanos and the “moral monster” image of God. If we say God is good, that seems irreconcilable with passages such as those previously stated that seem to make God’s actions evil or wrong. The solutions to this paradox have been that either God is above our understanding of right and wrong (ultimately Calvin’s argument), that those actions are really the work of men and not God in spite of the text (a more Arminian viewpoint), or that God is not good (the atheist argument).
Interesting enough, a gaping problem with Thanos’ character in the film is also a problem raised by some towards God: if Thanos has the power to bend and shape reality, why doesn’t he just make more stuff for people to live on? Thanos, just like God, could easily solve the problem of evil, or at least solve it in a way that doesn’t require the deaths of countless multitudes. So why don’t they?
Thus endeth the lesson apparently.
The film ends with humanity reeling, trying to understand why people are turning to ash before their eyes. The Avengers as well are devastated, as major characters turn to dust as gasps fill the auditorium. Thanos sits in a renewed world, saddened at first by his loss, but then overcome by an apparent sense of peace. All is as it should be.
Many questions are left unanswered, purposefully so. And so it is with our understanding of God. To be clear, I do not believe God to be a moral monster. I believe that God is good, and that yes God’s wisdom and justice is far beyond our understanding. Yet at the same time, I believe that our concept of “good” and God’s concept of “good” cannot be that far off from each other. To call God “good” has to mean something. If to God is completely beyond our notions of good and evil, I don’t think God can be good.
The question of how a good God can permit evil has perplexed us for centuries, and will still perplex us I believe until we arrive in the Kingdom of God. I hope that when that happens we will somehow be grateful.
§ The question “is the God of the Bible a ‘moral monster'” is a great one but is far too broad for this day. For a great introduction to both sides of the question listen to this excellent discussion between Paul Copan and Greg Boyd.