“Where do you look when you want to understand the other side’s perspective?” my friend asked me as we sat down and waited for the movie to start.
As I reached into the popcorn bucket, I thought about the people whom I often consider “the other side”—the family members who make offensive comments over holiday meals, the high school friends who post political memes on Facebook, the preachers who seem more inspired by talk radio than scripture. Where do I look when I want to understand their perspective? Do I ever do that?
Before I could respond, the lights went dim. It was Friday night and we were sitting in a sold-out crowd eagerly awaiting the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War.
Making a Villain
Infinity War, the nineteenth entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe (MCU), is the long-anticipated consummation of a story Marvel has been telling over ten years, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man. The movie has dominated the box office over the past three weekends and recently became the fastest film to make $1 billion. This newest addition to the MCU raises the cumulative box office earnings of the universe to over $15 billion, making it the highest-grossing film franchise of all time.
Despite its obvious commercial success, the MCU has critics. One common critique of the Marvel movies is that their characters lack any real depth. If you have seen Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther, you know that Marvel undoubtedly loves its heroes. But, if you have seen Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, or Guardians of the Galaxy, you might forgive the average moviegoer for forgetting even the name of the antagonist in less time than it takes to leave the theater.
Marvel’s cinematic villains often suffer from underdeveloped character arcs, unclear motives, and nonsensical plans. Many of them merely mirror the heroes themselves with twisted motives and slightly different costumes (e.g., Kaecilius, Yellow Jacket, Abomination). Often they desire nothing more than simple vengeance, a vague sense of power, or the meaningless destruction of the entire cosmos.
In preparation for Infinity War, however, it seems a shift occurred in the writers’ room, starting with 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. In the film, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) gathers immense sympathy with his understandable motivations, and who gets a lot of time to develop on-screen. His opposition to Spider-Man stems from wanting to support his family rather than simply wanting to dominate the world.
Black Panther (2018) continued to raise the bar on Marvel villains, giving us Michael B. Jordan’s brilliant portrayal of Erik Killmonger. Killmonger elevates the empathy factor higher than any villain previously seen in the MCU. At times, the audience finds itself questioning which side is “good” and which is “bad,” a remarkable achievement in genre loved for its clear-cut heroes and villains. Even after the credits roll, there is room to find yourself in either camp.
Thanos, the Emotional
Those two villains, however, set the stage for Infinity War and our first true introduction to Thanos, the ultimate bad-guy who had only appeared briefly in previous films. In culminating eighteen previous movies, Marvel faced a gargantuan storytelling challenge. Thanos had to be more powerful than Dr. Strange’s Dormammu yet as engaging as Thor’s Loki. He had to be more threatening than Ragnarok’s Hela while remaining as empathetic as Killmonger. The future of the Marvel was riding on their ability to execute a villain as complex as the MCU itself.
Once again, Marvel seems to have achieved the impossible with Infinity War. They took a giant purple CGI alien who longs to wipe out half of the population of the universe and somehow made him an utterly fascinating adversary. Thanos unites the most sinister of intentions with the most poignantly developed character arc of any MCU villain—maybe of any Marvel character period.
How did they do it? How did Marvel shift from delivering predictably shallow bad guys to provoking true empathy for their most murderous master villain?
When I left the theater that Friday night, one phrase resounded in my mind: “Love your enemies.” Jesus issued the challenge in the Sermon on the Mount. He noted that it’s easy to love those you perceive to be good; it’s much more difficult, and therefore all the more important, to love those you perceive as the opposition.
Which brings me back to the conversation I had with my friend before Infinity War started. Where do I go when I want to empathize with the other side, with someone that I perhaps even see as “the enemy”? How do we find a way to cross the chasm and fight for empathy toward one another? Here’s what we can learn from the MCU.
Character is best understood in the context of relationship.
Weak villains rarely have deep relationships. They may have fearful sidekicks they intimidate into obedience or hordes of faceless drones that serve as fodder in a climactic third-act battle, but we never see them on-screen loving and being loved.
However, like the Vulture and Killmonger, much of the story showcases Thanos in a parent-child relationship. Though this relationship is clearly strained, it is remarkably tender in moments as well. Josh Brolin’s motion-capture performance dazzles us with a full range of complex emotions.
One way to overcome our shallow villainizing of “the other side” is to follow Marvel’s lead and invest relational time and energy into those we dislike or disagree with. People are more than what they post on Twitter. They are more than their voting record. When we see our “enemy” taking care of their kids, loving their roommates, and honoring their employer, the scales may fall from our eyes and we can begin to imagine the bridge across that which divides us.
It is the means, not the ends, with which we disagree.
Weak villains have goals that are themselves problematic: chaos, power, money, vengeance. The Vulture wants to provide for his family. Killmonger wants justice in a world of historical and present oppression. Thanos wants balance and flourishing in a universe with limited resources. What makes them enemies in need of heroic intervention is not what they want; it is how they go about getting it.
In our divided world, the cheapest way to marginalize “the other” is to caricature their desires as opposed to criticizing their methods. It is easier to sell the idea that those with whom you disagree are merely after power, status, money, or some other disreputable end. Subtle dehumanization may score us points with our tribe but it will not bring reconciliation.
The truth is that we all want life to be protected; we simply disagree on the means for how to do it. We all want people to have enough resources to flourish; we just think differently on how best to accomplish this goal. If we are willing to acknowledge the unpopular reality that we are all looking toward the same horizon, we will discover that the chasm between us is not really so wide after all. Perhaps we will even find a way to get there together.
With Infinity War, Marvel has appeased many of those who have criticized their previously one-dimensional villains. They have proven that, although they love their heroes, they can also love their villains.
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