Spoilers are going to follow. By now most people interested in seeing Infinity War have seen it at least once, so maybe that isn’t as big of an issue?
I know many of you looked at the title of this article and sighed or rolled your eyes. Your minds went back to high- and middle-school English classes, where you tried to find justification for some theme that your teacher or some old book says an even older book was about. I understand; I was there! The English curriculum I’m familiar with was terrible at explaining why I should have cared about anything they taught. But then, in college and beyond, I came across a variety of online creators<sup>1</sup> who helped me understand what they were trying to teach.
To summarize the lessons I have gleaned from these sources as best as I can: Fiction is communication, and themes are what it communicates. Whenever an author tells a story, they end up sharing more than an account of what happened in the story. They also share a worldview associated with that story, and lessons derived from it. If the world is one where the proper authorities are bought off by the bad guys, violence is the only solution, and a happy ending comes to those who take the initiative (and the SMG), this story tells a message about how violence is an effective solution to problems the authorities won’t solve, whether or not that was intentional.<sup>2</sup> This is a theme.
So with that out of the way, let us examine a major theme in Infinity War.
The theme in question is sacrifice. There are many sacrifices through the film; Loki and Dr. Strange sacrifice their Infinity Stones to spare their friends, Gamora gets Peter Q<sup>3</sup> to sacrifice her to stop Thanos from getting one of the Stones, Vision sacrifices his own life for the same reason. Even Thanos makes sacrifices, most obviously of his beloved daughter Gamora.<sup>4</sup> With this many sacrifices, Infinity War couldn’t avoid saying something about sacrifice if it tried. So what does it say?
Well, we can start by grouping sacrifices into two categories. First, we have the ones where the sacrificer sacrifices themselves—Vision and Gamora (trying to); second, we have the one where the sacrificer sacrifices something else—Loki, Strange, Thanos, and Peter Q. (Yes, the same sacrifice shows up on both lists. I will get to that.) Are these two categories treated differently by the narrative?
Well, the sacrifices in the first category are treated as noble, and as if they would have indeed saved the day (had they worked). Heck, trying to prevent Vision from needing to sacrifice his life plays directly into Thanos’s hand, since it means Thanos is right there when the Time Stone is destroyed.<sup>5</sup> The second category is not portrayed so fondly; one is outright villainous (duh), and two others ultimately do more harm than good and fail to even protect many of the people they were intended to. As for the fourth…Peter Q tried to go through with it, but only after much deliberation. And Quill is no Peter P; Q is probably the most self-centered, antisocial, morally-gray hero in the MCU, and even he isn’t sure this is right. This is something that Infinity War says about sacrifice, and that is how you find a thesis statement for your theme.
But I think there is something else going on here, too. After all, even the seemingly heroic sacrifices are ultimately irrelevant or worse; the sacrificed person ends up dead and Thanos still gets the Stones. We should also reconsider Thanos’s sacrifices, which are by far the most effective at achieving his goals…but his goals are motivated by a desire we can understand and agree with (minimizing misery in the galaxy) up until he says “Therefore, kill half the universe”. Finally, we have the sacrifices made by Loki and Strange, where they gave up their Infinity Stones to save their friends and loved ones. Many have argued that Thanos could not have succeeded if these heroes had not made these sacrifices, if they had not endangered the universe for the sake of those close to them.
To summarize: The sacrifices in this movie are either ineffective, counterproductive, or committed for questionable reasons. In short, Infinity War forces us to question whether its sacrifices are really heroic after all. This is an unusual stance for modern media to take, as modern culture<sup>6</sup> tends to idolize sacrifice.
This is most obvious in the nearly Messianic “Heroic Sacrifice” (which exists in this movie only in the form of the noble but pointless attempts by Vision and Gamora to keep Thanos from taking their stones). The two “Infinity Stone for friend” sacrifices also parallel a common sacrificial trope, the “Hostage for MacGuffin” scenario. In both of these cases, the sacrifice is nearly universally portrayed as positive and heroic, and usually allows the hero to get everything they want (defeating the bad guy, saving their friends, and usually recovering from any trauma sustained<sup>7</sup>). No such luck in Infinity War. Sacrifices fail to make things better, and often make things worse.
Then we have Thanos’s sacrifices. Obviously, killing someone else is a rarer form of sacrifice in modern media<sup>8</sup>…but it is not unheard of<sup>9</sup>, and one can easily see Thanos sacrificing his own daughter as an example of “sacrificing” (suppressing) emotion, which is played as positive with some regularity. But by having the clear villain of the film perform such sacrifices, this too forces the audience to question if “the greater good” is always actually good.
In short, Infinity War portrays sacrifice as not being inherently heroic. This is another thesis, another thing Infinity War says about sacrifice. Works of fiction generally have multiple themes, and often have multiple theses per theme. This is because, as previously noted, everything in a film can say something, and themes are communicated through trends and worldviews present or implicit in the story. With so much bandwidth, transmitting multiple signals is an inevitability.
This is all well and good, but who cares? There are a variety of reasons why themes are important<sup>10</sup>, but they all tie back to fiction being communication. You may be trying to communicate a feeling or a journey, but the way you do so will also convey a message (unless you convey it through extremely abstract means). If this message is constructed intentionally, it can strengthen the story; if it isn’t, the story can easily feel disjointed and messy. Or, worse, it might have a strong message—but one which nobody making the story intended or desired, which might counter the intended reaction (ie, inspire sadness or confusion in what was intended as a clear happy ending), draw criticism for decisions never consciously made, etc.
But why are Infinity War‘s themes in specific important? Well, to begin with, we need to note the context of the film. As noted, modern media tends to idolize sacrifice, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in specific has done so in the past. In moderation, this is no problem; after all, cooperation does require some level of sacrifice from everyone. But as with all things, sacrifice turns bad without moderation. This is why subversive media—media that subverts common trends—is important; it provides that moderation. Infinity War, being a high-budget Hollywood film produced by one of the biggest media companies in the world, isn’t something you would expect to be subversive at all<sup>11</sup>; one would expect them to play it safe, stick to what they know audiences like. Including subversive themes indicates that the movie’s story was crafted by an artist with intent, not by an executive with approximations. I feel that is something worth celebrating in and of itself.
But the theme of sacrifice does more than signal that the author planned things; it strengthens the story itself. For example, contrast how Peter Q. and Thanos react to being told they have to sacrifice Gamora. Peter is reluctant, even though Gamora begs him to; Thanos is willing, even though Gamora begs him not to. This characterizes both Peter and Thanos. Peter may be an a-hole, but he’s not 100% dick; he has some lines he won’t cross without being dragged there. Meanwhile, Thanos suggests that some people are 100% a dick (or at least close enough for non-semantic purposes), which establishes that—principles aside—he is definitely in the wrong. This contrast feeds into Peter being as furious at Thanos as he is when he screws the pooch; Peter cannot understand how Thanos could be so callous, and he doesn’t know how to express this except with blind rage.<sup>12</sup>
We can also compare Gamora’s request that her love interest sacrifice her to Vision’s request that his lover sacrifice him, or compare Loki and Dr. Strange sacrificing Infinity Stones to save others<sup>13</sup>, etc etc. Each of these parallels helps the movie feel cohesive. To paraphrase George Lucas, it’s like poetry; lines within the stanza rhyme. We have similar kinds of sacrifices; people asking loved ones to kill them to stop Thanos from getting a Stone and people giving Thanos Stones to stop their loved ones from being killed are both common. The fact that the former consistently fails and the latter consistently succeeds helps make Thanos feel more unstoppable and, hence, imposing. Moreover, this consistency emphasizes any breaks from the “rhyming scheme,” such as the aforementioned case where Thanos is the only character in the film who easily sacrifices a loved one, which in turn emphasizes the single-mindedness and callousness which lead him to make that choice.
And so on. Themes provide a dramatic framework for your story; they make events in a story feel more connected than they would without a consistent theme to them. Does this mean that a story needs a solid theme to be worthwhile? No, but in most cases it helps—especially if the author is trying to convey more than a simple emotion. Inspiring laughter or awe or fun<sup>14</sup> can absolutely be done without a thematic throughline, and even watching fictional characters go about their daily life can be enjoyable. But if you are trying to tell a story, you handicap yourself by not providing such a framework for yourself. Otherwise, you risk having your hero, their motivation, their quest, their villain, and so on never quite click together. Themes provide that click.
Themes are why Batman fits so well with the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman but not quite so well with Orca or the KGBeast. Themes are why the climax of Frozen works and why Prince Hans is memorable despite being pretty generic. Themes are why choosing to fight or kill Saren feels better than choosing to destroy, control, or merge with powerful robot monsters. Themes are not the only reason this is the case, but they are the least-appreciated. The general trends is to ignore the themes and focus on the superficial elements of a work, or just to say we don’t know why we like one movie over another. Let’s subvert that trend.
1: I‘m not even sure who all contributed and who I‘m watching because I now care and so on, but two I am confident were big steps in the process were Extra Credits (especially their Propaganda Games episode and all their videos on game mechanics having meaning) and GoT Gifs and Musings (particularly their series on sexism in season 5 of the show). So if you think you might be interested in that sort of thing, um…click the links?
2: While I’m on this point, I’d like to go on a tangent.
Lighthearted, fun action movies have as one of their core conceits that they are lighthearted fun despite the fact that they generally involve extreme levels of violence. I don’t think the implications of tone are themes, per se, but they’re definitely something…and I don’t really know what that something is called. I guess you could call it cinemanarrative dissonance, but that term presupposes that all implications of tone are dissonant with the narrative presented and that the tone comes entirely from cinematography (and not the narrative), which it doesn’t.
3: Starlord; As opposed to Peter P, aka Spider-Man. For some people, the presence of two Peters in one movie who share many of their scenes would get them to refer to everyone by their codenames…but apparently not me.
4: There are also smaller sacrifices, like Thor risking his life to forge Stormbreaker and Gamora giving Thanos the location of an Infinity Stone to save Nebula, but I am focusing on the big ones.
5: He might or might not have been able to get the Mind Stone through time screwery even if Vision sacrificed himself the first chance he got, but I doubt that is an important detail. At the very least, Thanos would definitely not be able to get it so easily.
6: Particularly in regions of the world where a certain martyr is revered as literally being God…which, thanks to colonialism, is most of them.<sup>15</sup>
8: Though it shows up in many classical works, from the classical play Iphegenia to, again, Jesus. (Yes, Jesus is both a sacrifice of self and sacrifice of another. I blame the Trinitarians.)
9: See also Sadistic Choice, a trope which can apply to anything from “one death or another” to “loved one or entire city/country/planet“. Not that that changes anything; the general trend is for sadistic choices made by heroes to end with the heroes finding a way to save their cake and do whatever they “needed” to eat the cake for regardless.
10: One of the big one being Cultivation Theory, which essentially says that the worldviews present in media we consume can influence our own worldviews. This isn‘t as crude as saying “violent video games cause school shootings”; media is bad at influencing actions, but competent at influencing beliefs and potent at influencing values. (In fact, media of various sorts is where we acquire many of our beliefs and most of our values.) But there are other factors, such as how having a consistent, well-constructed theme helps the story “feel” more cohesive even if the audience does not consciously recognize the theme.
11: Particularly after the…controversy over The Last Jedi, which was subversive towards many of Star Wars‘s most beloved tropes.
12: Obviously, this isn‘t the only reason he lashed out at Thanos; I‘m not saying it is. But it contributes to making the audience feel, on some level, like they understand why Peter Q screwed everything up (even if they still think it was stupid of him).
13: Or contrast who needs to be in danger before they do so.
14: Here meant in the sense that both dumb action movies and dumb action games can be “fun,” ie the relatively shallow form of engagement provided by a visceral je ne se quois.
15: Though not the most <i>populous</i> regions, which managed to preserve their pre-colonial cultures better than three and a half out of the six inhabited continents.