[Spoilers for both Infinity War and the Bible]
Last night, I watched Avengers: Infinity War. There were some really amusing moments — the relationship between Rocket and Thor was pure gold — but overall I left the theater a bit shaken. No only did way too many people die with cold dispassion and lack of closure, but I found myself inexplicably drawn to the character of Thanos. I felt myself wanting to defend his reasoning and justify the “mercy” he claimed to bestow on the universe, despite how obviously terrible and insane his methods and motives were.
This really bugged me. Why was my first reaction to his character so positive, and why was this feeling of conflict so fucking familiar? Turns out: Thanos has some pretty stunning similarities to the God I grew up believing in. (Caveat: I am not a reader of Marvel comics, but I am well aware that Thanos has alternate origin stories and motivations across iterations. This post will only be discussing what is portrayed in the films.)
Saving the Universe: A Moral Absolute
Thanos is on what he calls a mission of mercy. He and (most) of his children are utterly convinced that this is the moral thing to do, that he is the savior of an ungrateful universe who paints him as a villain because they cannot understand his logic.
There is obvious regret that not everyone can be saved, that so many people have to die or cease to exist in order for order to be restored. It hurts Thanos on an emotional level to exert such widespread destruction, but he knows what will happen if he doesn’t fulfill his destiny as the most powerful being in the universe.
This concept of an all-powerful being with incomprehensible logic whose mission of mercy includes the sad but necessary winnowing of the chaff from the wheat felt very familiar to me. Can anyone else see the similarities there?We cheer Gamora when she calls Thanos “insane” but judge or fear those who say the same about the motivation of God.
An Uneasy Alliance with Radicals
Thanos uses radical terrorists to enact his will through questionable methods across Marvel films. Whether that’s with Loki in the first Avengers movie or Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy, he is not above using others’ bloodthirsty political agendas to push his own motives forward. Granted, he might not be on the same page as them half the time, but they are still committing “necessary evils” in the name of his mission.
Whether we’re talking about the multiple radicalized sects of various Abrahamic religions or the acts of violence condoned by God in the Old Testament to ultimately bring about a better covenant, the comparison isn’t much of a stretch here. Anyone as powerful as Thanos or God who doesn’t immediately wipe out terrorism in his name is effectively forming an alliance, however uneasy.
A Loving But Vengeful Father
Perhaps the most chilling attribute of Thanos was his ability to be both doting father and willing torturer. His treatment of Nebula in this film alone is proof that his love is conditional; to breach his trust or lose faith in his mission was enough to get you locked in a cell and suspended by your very atoms for years of agony. The fear that Ebony Maw has of failing Thanos also supports this.
Could we call Thanos a good father, if he is willing to go to such lengths to exact revenge upon those who ceased to follow him? Still, this is a concept that is rampant in many versions of Christianity, where God is simultaneously all-loving and also supportive of unending torment of those children who disobey. Why we praise God and boo Thanos for the same qualities is mind-boggling.
The Mercy Of Nonexistence
For those Christians who dislike the concept of a vengeful God who sends people to Hell, they generally espouse the idea that: “Oh, you don’t get tormented. You just cease to exist.” Like that is somehow better or more merciful. Guess what, Thanos thought so too!
One of the main reasons he wanted to gather all the Infinity Stones was so that he could merely snap his fingers and cause half the population to cease existing. It would be merciful in comparison with slaughtering them. Yet, as we see in the film, it’s anything but… it’s traumatic and terrifying and absolutely cruel to inflict nonexistence onto anything against its will.
The Sacrifice Of A Child
Probably hands down, the most horrible thing Thanos did in the entire film was sacrifice his daughter, Gamora, to claim the Soul Stone. It hurt him, he grieved throughout the rest of the film, but he did it for the greater good. He lost that which he loved, the only child he truly cared for, willingly.
The parallel between this and the Christian narrative of the crucifixion is undeniable. God created a world that could only be saved by the death of his own child, and somehow that is to be celebrated. Unless Christians are willing to laud Thanos’s sacrifice as well, I’m not sure how they avoid severe logical dissonance.
Why God Is Ultimately So Much Worse
Here’s the kicker: As powerful as he was, Thanos was still operating under a constraining set of laws that governed the universe he was in. He didn’t create the problem, he was merely trying to posit a solution within an imperfect, preexisting framework. Yes, his methods were cruel and his motives were questionable, but he was just a symptom of a greater disease.
Imagine how much worse it would be to have a character who created the diseased universe to begin with, choosing out of infinite options to commit to a version of reality that ended with trillions of peoples’ deaths (not to mention the death of his own child). This would be the Ultimate Villain, who created innocent people as playthings to be discarded in a sweeping act of violence called mercy.
So that sick feeling you felt as the credits began to roll and the lights came up and you realized that — at least until May 2019 — your favorite people in that universe were cowed by the whims of a capricious overlord? That’s a good feeling. That means you have a sense of what’s right, just, and compassionate.
That sick feeling is also why I will never become a Christian again, even if someday I stop being an atheist. To worship someone that depraved, however benevolent he claims his unknowable logic to be, would surely be the most amoral thing I could do.