Did Thanos Erase the Iliad?
“Things were going well until Thanos tied a giant gag over Homer’s mouth, and an entire class of epic MCU stories were lost.” Hot takes and spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame
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This is where I rant about mythology and sometimes review movies that most people have already seen. Today, it’s a little of both.
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Superhero stories are our modern mythology. I once edited a magazine, Mythic Heroes, built on that premise, and the genre remains close to my heart.
These days, we’re blessed with more superhero-themed media than I can reasonably keep up with. I’m way late to the party for a timely review of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), but I’ve been working my way toward these two movies in my chronological viewing of Marvel Cinematic Universe for a while now and, having finally reached them, I have some spoiler-laden hot takes. I’ll even find a way to tie these movies back to Achilles.
The Rotten Tomatoes scores indicate that these films were generally more liked than disliked, putting me firmly in the minority. But movie criticism is more than just a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and there’s plenty of room for us to agree to disagree, courteously, as superhero fandoms always do.
It’s just that having watched and enjoyed all of the MCU movies leading up to Infinity War, and becoming enamored by the story world up to that point, I can’t state strongly enough my opinion that these two movies were not only inferior to those that had come before, and that they derailed the prior narrative momentum, disregarded long-established themes, and may have permanently damaged the MCU as a mythology platform.
I wanted to love these movies. I approached Infinity War with my expectations high, perhaps unreasonably high, based on the prior films. They had parsed their universe through many different styles and moods. Some films had been better than others, but all of them built something new upon the existing foundations of the series.
The last major franchise event before Infinity War centered around Captain America: Civil War (2016), which saw the Avengers disbanded and former members divided over the imposition of a new regime of governmental controls called the Sokovia Accords.
Iron Man, representing the pro-Sokovian faction of the former Avengers, believed that Earth needed a strong, united, centralized, and institutional defense against potential world-ending threats. Captain America, representing the anti-Sokovian faction, believed that institutions could be undermined by bad actors, and that individuals of conscience needed the freedom to combat the evils often caused by those who are blindly following orders.
The themes of autonomy vs. control were baked into the MCU from the start, already present in the first Captain America when Steve Rogers insisted on being more than just a government propaganda tool, and seen at the end of the first Iron Man when Nick Fury approached Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative.
In multiple films leading up to Civil War, we saw Avengers form and harden their positions on both sides of this schism. Some went back and forth on the issue. Tony Stark tried and failed to privatize world peace. The Winter Soldier became Hydra’s tool, then struggled against his authoritarian brainwashing. The end of Civil War found the pro-Sokovians (Iron Man, War Machine, Vision, and Spider-Man) enmeshed in a global governmental hierarchy while the anti-Sokovians were either incarcerated (Hawkeye, Wanda, Ant-Man, and Falcon) or on the run (Captain America and Black Widow).
The narrative tensions and interpersonal conflicts from Civil War were left to simmer, unresolved, as the next six films of the franchise dropped bits of worldbuilding and character development, hinting at rising tensions would eventually errupt.
In Black Widow, an anti-Sokovian’s background and motivations were explored while she dodged the authorities and reassembled the family of her childhood.
Spider-Man: Homecoming served as a companion piece to Black Widow, giving us a post-Civil War view from the perspective of a pro-Sokovian.
In Black Panther, we were introduced to the secretive high-tech nation of Wakanda, which King T’Challa resolved to open up to the rest of the world.
Black Panther was paired with Doctor Strange, in which we discover a secretive wizarding world hidden within the MCU.
In Thor: Ragnarok, we caught up with Thor and Hulk, who were off-planet and missed out on the Civil War entirely. By the end of Ragnarok, Thor was leading the remnants of Asgardian civilization on a colony ship to start over anew on a fjord-adjacent parcel that Odin had picked out for them on Earth.
Finally, in Ant-Man and the Wasp, we saw authoritarian government forces attempt to rehabilitate an anti-Sokovian, Ant-Man, through a repressive scheme of forced retirement, house arrest, probation, and dissociation from his former colleagues.
At this point in the franchise, with the Wakandans and Asgardians rebalancing Earth’s political landscape, with the sudden emergence of new technologies and magic, with Earth now in regular contact with spacefaring civilizations, with the imminent arrival of extraterrestrial refugees, with Stark and Rogers still at each other’s throats, and with two release slots set aside for summer blockbusters in a pre-COVID world, the stage was set for the ultimate Sokovian showdown.
The plot seemed to be leaning hard into the resumption of the Civil War conflict. The cliffhanger scene of the last movie before Infinity War had been the end-credits sequence from Ant-Man and the Wasp, in which Hank, Hope, and Janet are apparently vaporized without warning, trapping Ant-Man in the quantum realm.
In the MCU continuity, Ant-Man had just thwarted the Sokovian system, thumbing his nose at the terms of his house arrest, hanging out with anti-Sokovian vigilantes, making a public spectacle of himself, all while leaving insufficient evidence to justify any further punishment. The natural implication of the cliffhanger was that someone on the pro-Sokovian side meant to make an example of Scott by killing off his closest allies. A preemptive strike had been launched, and the Infinity War was on.
Except that it wasn’t.
Instead of a bigger, badder, better Civil War erupting from the apparent murder of the Pym family, we got a goofy Bruce Banner returning to Earth across the Bifröst Bridge to unite the wizards, pro-Sokovians, anti-Sokovians, Wakandans, and miscellaneous space folk against…Thanos?
Seemingly out of nowhere, completely derailing the Civil War and its ongoing fallout, a space villain with cartoonish motivations was assembling a set of McGuffins to address a Galactic overpopulation problem that only he was crazy enough to perceive.
Thanos was absolutely obsessed with issues of sustainability and resource allocation. As such, he would have made a great villain in a world built upon such issues. However, the MCU has never been that world. Not unless my mind is blanking on a bunch of movies in which the Avengers addressed world hunger.
The MCU, a collection of movies that had previously focused on the clash between authority and freedom, had to take a major pivot to handle a villain who dreams only about farming the land and feeding the children. Well, farming all of the land and feeding half of the children, actually, but not otherwise addressing the MCU’s hot-button issues of authority or freedom, leaving those to fade into the background for two entire movies.
Doctor Strange calculated over 14 million ways the Infinity War could have played out. All of these 14 million potential movies, had they been made, would have included cool character interactions, funny jokes, interesting callbacks, and lots of eye-popping visuals. All would have leveraged a talented cast, a massive budget, and twenty movies’ worth of continuity. But somehow the Infinity War we got, “the one where we defeat a thick-chinned farmboy,” feels like the dumbest and laziest variant in the bin. And while the occasional disappointment in a movie franchise is forgivable, this Infinity War wasn’t just a bad movie. With its refocused theming and escalated threat level, this movie that retroactively damaged its predecessors and proactively ruined the universe in which it was set.
By the end of Infinity War, the heroes failed to stop Thanos and trillions of people were Snapped out of existence. The powerful image of three major characters from the Ant-Man franchise being burnt to ash with apparently malicious intent was thereby recast, in a Snap, into just another in a series of indiscriminate and ultimately temporary effects. Where Ant-Man and the Wasp once centered one man’s struggle against an authoritarian system that ultimately crushed his dreams, the entire movie was repurposed through a Thanosian lens of resource allocation, becoming a salvage heap for time machine components.
Likewise, every movie in the Civil War era was retroactively damaged by a failure to address the underlying tensions that had led to the Sokovia Accords.
“What would you call a group of U.S.-based enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned about what they leave behind?”
That rhetorical question, asked of our heroes after a relative handful of people died from Avenger operations in Sokovia and elsewhere, had meaning when the MCU was focused on issues of authority, safety, control, power, and freedom. Those issues made the MCU relevant to our 21st Century world, and that relevance formed the stories into a modern mythology.
After the first Snap, when half the world seemed permanently lost, folks in the old MCU wouldn’t have just been calling for a greater level of oversight anymore. They would have been calling for blood. And yet, because Thanos swept issues of authority and control under the rug, we never see or hear any post-Snap reference to the Sokovian Accords.
In 14 million other Endgames, Doctor Strange must have watched some heart-wrenching scenes. Meanwhile, our sustainability-focused Endgame faded to black, jumped five years ahead, and presented the tragic news that the Mets games had all been canceled. And then, in a fitting tribute to resource allocation, we found ourselves in a storage unit where a rat strolled across a panel and, yadda-yadda-yadda, time heist. For the entire second act, the Avengers stepped into the equivalent of a clip-show, that thing a TV series does when it runs over its budget and needs to recycle an episode’s worth of footage. Because recycling is what you do when a space villain uses his magic gauntlet to refocus everyone into being sustainable.
By the rules of the movie itself, the time heist shouldn’t have worked. We’re told that Thanos used the Stones to destroy the Stones. There’s no way to otherwise destroy the Stones because the universe, as originally constituted, required them. But also, the Stones could be used to change the properties of the universe. Therefore, with his Second Snap, Thanos must have changed the physical properties of the universe from one that required the Stones to one in which the functions formerly provided by the Stones were provided in a different way. Perhaps the stones became diffused throughout the fabric of the universe itself. The pre-Snap and post-Snap timelines were essentially different universes, operating under different rules and having different properties. The Stones that had been an essential part of the former universe were no longer linked to the follow-on universe, which had been crafted with an intentionally Stone-free set of physical laws. So when the Stones were brought from the past universe into the future universe, they should have been exactly as functional as colored bits of glass.
The main lesson of Endgame is that the power of the Infinity Gauntlet pales before the power of Plot Contrivance, which the Avengers had within them the whole time.
With Infinity War and Endgame behind us, it might have been possible for the MCU to have returned to something like its previous trajectory, had these movies not poisoned the story world with a dangerous legacy.
While the pre-Infinity War MCU often included powerful artifacts that were useful in creating quests, threats, and origin stories, the post-Endgame MCU traded these individual McGuffins in for a McGuffin collection powerful enough for a maniac to disrupt all of reality on a whim. Once the stakes have been raised to that level once, there’s no scaling them back down, and I worry that the impulse going forward will be to endanger additional universes, dimensions, and timelines. As a result, individual lives in the MCU will seem less and less meaningful.
Also in the post-Endgame MCU, time travel isn’t just for wizards anymore. At first, quantum time travel was deemed entirely impossible, because the quantum realm was a an inescapable prison of madness. Then, with great difficulty, the heroes found a pathway that required a vial of Pym particles and a special device drawn from the brain of Tony Stark. Finally, Nebula modified Stark’s rig to transport thousands of warriors and an entire alien flagship through time without any Pym particles or Stark devices whatsoever.
As of now, the only rule of time travel in the MCU is that there are no longer any rules of time travel in the MCU. Any loss can be turned into a win, any choice can be remade, and any mistake can be undone. Every conceivable problem just became insignificant, and the MCU is now a poorer environment for telling impactful stories that matter.
Mythology is the set of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, so does Infinity War and Endgame count as mythology? Did these two movies tell us something important about ourselves, or were they merely distractions and empty spectacle?
Here’s where mythology comes back into play for me. The MCU’s Captain America was presented to us as a modern-day Achilles. Given a choice to fight a glorious battle or settle down for a lifetime with Peggy, he initially chose glory, and felt the weight of that choice with every subsequently passing moment. He even carried a photograph of Peggy to remind himself of the sacrifice he’d made for the world. But with time travel, Cap got to go back for a redo. He no longer had to settle for the classic choice between kleos and nostos. He got to eat the cake and have it too, and the next Achilles to face a similarly agonizing choice in the MCU will know that “actually, I’ll take both” is now a viable option.
In a world where Achilles receives multiple fates, Homer no longer sings the Trojan War.
That’s where we are. Things were going well until Thanos tied a giant gag over Homer’s mouth, and an entire class of epic MCU stories were lost to us.
There are still movies and entire TV series in the franchise that I haven’t seen yet. I’m curious about how these issues will be addressed, and I remain hopeful that some future piece of media will repair the damage these two movies caused. I’ll keep watching, and I will almost certainly have more thoughts in the future.
If you want more essays of this kind, or even if you don’t, feel free to drop a comment. Thanks for reading!
--Greg R. Fishbone, Mythology Disruptor
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Well put. I just didn't feel the Infinity War films but couldn't put my finger on it. It feels cheap to drop all of the developed, ripe conflicts with a 'they band together to avoid world destruction' trope.