I re-watched Avengers: Infinity War today, and enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. I firmly believe that it is one of the greatest pieces of populist entertainment ever produced – and that history will judge it as being so.
But why is it such a wonderfully satisfying film? In my opinion, you can answer that question with one word.
Every story needs an antagonist – a baddy against which the heroes must struggle in order to produce drama. The better the baddy, the better the drama; the better the drama, the better the story.
But what makes a compelling baddy?
This is where many films fall flat. The baddy is bad just because he/she/it needs to be so in order for the film to work on a dramatic level. They are normally driven by a combination of negative characteristics – greed for money or power, a desire for vengeance, or plain simple hatred – which have all been used so many times that we, as viewers, simply accept their “badness” and focus our attention on the heroes .
Thanos is different. He possesses that rare quality that makes for truly dramatic drama: a baddy driven by a desire to do good.
The technical name for this is Noble Cause Corruption: the person is so convinced that their ideals and motives are honourable and justifiable, they become blind to the effects of their actions. In the case of Thanos, he wishes to destroy half the population of the universe – not because he hates them, but because he believes it will improve the standard of life for the remaining 50%.
This is the genius of the character: to possess an objective that is utterly monstrous . . . but is underpinned by a cold, hard logic which blinds Thanos as to how far his moral compass has become skewed.
This allows the writers to make Thanos a sympathetic character: he often speaks gently and kindly to other characters and displays a world-weary resignation towards the burden (he feels) destiny has placed upon his shoulders. When forced to sacrifice the only person he truly loves in the universe, he displays genuine sorrow, a sorrow the audience cannot help but share.
All of which serves to make him one of the most credible and satisfying baddies in film history.
The final shot of Thanos – after the film reaches its truly stunning denouement – is perfect: having become the most powerful being in the universe, Thanos is not depicted celebrating upon a throne or surrounded by cheering minions.
Instead, he is shown in a peasant hut, slowly sitting down as if after a hard day at work, looking out over a green valley and a vibrant sunset – a weary man finally at peace with himself.
If you like superhero films – or action films with a bit of intelligence and emotional heft – I cannot recommend Avengers: Infinity War highly enough.