Infinity War and a Problem with Moral Idealism

Or, I want Smarter Heroes.

Aaah, I return to the topic of space-rasslin’.

I feel it’s been long enough that I can talk about Avengers: Infinity War without SPOILERS-upsetting too many people who have not seen it. First off, the movie just surpassed Dark Knight in theater sales *golf clap*. This is both a great thing and a terrible thing (tongue-in-cheek See Zero-Sum below), partially because I loved watching Infinity War, and because I love Dark Knight so much more than Infinity War. Second off, Infinity War continues the long-running Marvel strategy of creating strong-looking characters with weak philosophical motivations. I’ll touch on the philosophical (now, with definition links!), but my focus wasn’t on the Trolley Problem.


This post is about the phrase, “We don’t trade in lives,” and the plot-devicification of the Trolley “Problem,” and how in utilizing this decision over and over in the same movie creates a perceived (or realized) weakness in our Flag Five. Yes, I did just plug The Tick in a vague parallel between the Avengers and the lampooning super.

Note: I put the word problem in quotes because it’s more of a dilemma with two outcomes (or if you read Reddit, many speculative iterations and outcomes). While I hope nobody has to make such a decision in their lives, I often see this dilemma show up in action/thriller/superhero movies.

TrolleyimageFirst! A primer. The Trolley “Problem” says an unstoppable trolley is rolling toward five (5) unsuspecting people on the tracks. There is a switch that you can pull, where the trolley is then rerouted to hit a single (1) unsuspecting person and therefore saves the others. If you don’t touch the switch, you are not murdering anyone because you simply observe the deaths of five people. If you switch, you save five (and murder one person) people. Observation means you have an absolutist perspective on morality: thou shalt not kill evar. Action means you are, essentially, utilitarian. Or, to quote Hot Fuzz, you are for The Greater Good. There is no “right” or “wrong” choice to this: just damage control.

Actually, Infinity War and Hot Fuzz have a lot in common, philosophically. Protags in both are fighting with a deontological perspective (coined and helmed by Immanuel Kant), and also a form of absolutism (in contrast to relativism), i.e. killing is wrong. Now I’ll have the phrase up to our balls in crusty jugglers stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Note: I approach this discussion assuming full personhood for Vision.


A LOT of people are tweeting about the so-called “Trolley Problem” and how it is used by the cast of Infinity War. Thanos’s plan is to kill half the universe’s population because, well, there aren’t enough resources in the universe to support exponential growth. Zero-sum (and note the “loss of utility” example in the definition). His theory is, because his home planet of Titan went extinct, the universe will end up the same, and he’s presenting a “merciful,” randomized result, and he is the “only one capable of understanding” its implications. His theory is realized, or at least rationalized, when he kills half of Gamora’s home planet, and identifies how her people now thrive in comfort (his words), psychological damage be damned.

In order for Thanos to get the tools for the halfpocalypse, he needs Infinity Stones to power a gauntlet. Two are owned by Avengers, one is owned by Thor’s fam, one is under The Collector’s oversight, one is hidden, and the power stone is in Thanos’s control at the beginning making for six stones. Anyway, the point is, every stone is accounted for save one, and every guardian of the stone has a decision to make (along with, directly, Gamora, and indirectly, Star-lord): give over the stone to kill half the universe, or don’t give over the stone and watch someone they care about die. It’s literally posing a variation of the Trolley “Problem” to every hero: in some, it’s “if you don’t pull the switch to kill half the universe, you will lose a friend or loved one.” In others, it’s “if you don’t pull the switch, you will watch your city crumble.” Still others, “if you don’t kill your loved one, you won’t save half the universe.” Examples of people in these positions include: Loki and Thor; Vision and Wanda; Dr. Strange and Iron Man; Vision and Captain America (and the line We Don’t Trade in Lives is spoken with as much gripping force as The Matrix Reloaded‘s line of Some things Change. Some things don’t.); the list could go on for the entire movie. This is also a pretty straightforward writing trope for movies, and prevalent in conflict across the board. The best way to get someone to do something is to appeal to their morality, their vested interest in those they care about, and nobody gets hurt. I’m tired of seeing it.

I want intelligent interactions, and a lot of these series don’t have it. I hear some of my friends now: maybe I shouldn’t be looking toward superhero movies for this level of intelligence and simply enjoy the damn movie. Spoiler: I loved the movie. ALSO Spoiler: I will always want more intelligence in movies, regardless of genre. Period.

thanosSo why is Thanos touted as “one of the best villains to come out of Marvel”? Because he has actual decisions to make, and repercussions to be had, and actually loses a lot. But he sticks to his beliefs. I guess that’s one thing Marvel took from Batman v. Superman: make your characters sacrifice for what they believe in, instead of just working toward a goal. Zing! I managed to plug the movie in another vague parallel between superhero perspectives.

Another blogger, Overby, puts a similar perspective on the Trolley “Problem,” but I don’t necessarily agree with the limited scope of his post; Overby focuses solely on Thanos and his utilitarianism as a way to discuss what the Trolley “Problem” is instead of how all the characters are presented with this “problem” throughout the movie. His post ends by saying if a utilitarian perspective (The Greater Good) was the best, as the audience, we’d applaud Thanos’s dedication. I have qualms with Thanos’s limited scope–couldn’t he just make more resources, indefinitely, to keep a universe’s societies healthy and thriving in a universe that is, as far as anyone knows, infinite? And what constitutes half the universe? Only the intelligent creatures using resources? Or does this cover dogs, birds, planet-eating worms, star-swallowing mylarks, potatoes? Because some enact a far greater toll than others, and maybe if he killed off a specific subset of mindless galaxy-virus the resources would be far improved…?–but that’s for another post I’ll likely never write.

My disagreement with Overby is that, in contrast with his post, I think we do applaud Thanos’s decision. He’s passionate. He’s flawed. He sacrifices. The character has a backbone. He’s getting shit done. On one hand, Earth’s ignorance on the subject of universal sustainability means we shouldn’t be armchair experting anything (love that podcast), let alone assuming a moral high ground. On the other hand, Thanos’s anecdotal, and frankly severely simplified (and biased) evidence of Titan and Gamora’s home world really isn’t enough for me to say, yup, Thanos is right. Genocide this bitch (he’d likely need, like, twenty years’ worth of explaining data even for me to approach the word “yup.”).

Historically, we’ve seen what genocide does. While historical genocide was definitely a targeted genocide, assuming everything is as he says it is, Thanos’s plan has its own shortcomings. I don’t care if Thanos says regardless of affluence or affiliation, everyone’s part of the lottery: mathematically, the odds are that there will be a civilization that gets entirely wiped off the map, and one that isn’t touched by his “randomness.” I call that genocide, and Thanos is at that proverbial switch. Utilitarianism that. (And there are, surely, green-positive civilizations who create far more resources than consume. While Sustainaman might be the most boring antagonist Super in the universe–through severe diplomacy, a tried-and-true directive, and a lot of hard work, your planet will go green–he’s at risk for the lottery as well.)

So now we get to the infamous We Don’t Trade in Lives phrase: Captain America, at first, says this to Vision as a reaction to Vision’s want to destroy the stone in his head, and himself, to stop Thanos’s Final Solution. Then, sandwiched between scenes of slaughter and death, Vision replies with the same phrase to Captain America. Quid Amateur Quo. That phrase is as bad as “You’re killing Martha.” Yeah, I said it. Come at me.

This phrase is interesting, and very wrong. What Capt means is he’s going to fight the good fight for every single life, and nobody’s going to needlessly sacrifice themselves to keep Thanos in check as long as there’s a possibility that casualties are minimized. What he actually says is he’s not going to allow others the decision to improve on the situation on their own terms, therefore removing agency and voice from the rest of the team. This is a classic WASP perspective *laughs in colonizer* that I didn’t expect to see from the Capt. Also my heart goes out to one of the most under-appreciated characters in this movie, Vision, who spent the ENTIRE MOVIE begging someone to kill him to stop halfpocalypse, and nobody listened until, whoops, too late. Stark should have taken the assumed “cannot self-terminate” clause out of his programming.

Essentially, Capt is trying to stop the metaphorical trolley on the tracks, because he doesn’t play by anybody’s philosophical rules and something something planting trees. In ignoring the “Problem,” and then failing to stop the trolley (Thanos) and think pragmatically, Capt caused far more casualties on top of Thanos’s Final Solution. It was The Good Fight against The Greater Good, and yes, it smacks of ignorance. Politics A distant parallel would be what people were saying about the voters who voted for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary: you created this Trump presidency by not following the rules! If Trump was Thanos, this parallel would work way better. But again, greater good utilitarianism in motion. /politics

And in refusing to make a hard decision to sacrifice anything, you have a problem. Because people are trading lives. That’s what war is. Wakandans, dying in droves, while they quip on. This ruthless alien kills anyone in his way to attain five stones to control the universe, and the avengers would rather fight him than destroy the stones under their control. Dr. Strange, I’m looking at you. Captain America, I’m looking at you. Wanda, I’m looking at you. Yes, it makes great conflict in movie-watching. And yes, it makes for more weak superheroes.

Other Blog Posts on Similar Topics: on Trolleys and Supers
Mashable on Marvel’s “Villain Problem”
Reddit on Trolleys and Supers and Blame
Blog an interesting post about religious parallels to Thanos and Le Trolley
Comicsverse on Trolley “Problems” throughout the Marvel Comics universe




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