When the Villain Is More Heroic Than the Heroes

 

The objective of morality is picking the highest quality you can and pursuing it. But that pursuit takes many forms, and sometimes things are not as black and white as they would seem.

One aspect of being moral is kindness. But kindness isn’t everything because sometimes one needs to be cruel to get things accomplished toward a moral end. A father’s first duty to his son is to parent him, not be his friend, and that means discipline when needed.

Another aspect of morality is loyalty to one’s loved ones and sacrificing for them. But sometimes one’s loved ones can do bad things. Thus they need to be turned in or held accountable for the sake of the broader community or innocent people.

A third aspect of morality is to value life. But individual lives, even one’s own, can stand in the way of saving more lives, and the willingness for self-sacrifice is the prototypical example of a heroic moral act, of sacrificing what is dear for a greater cause.

All of this is to say that choosing any smaller manifestation of morality, such as love for your family, service to community, or your own wellbeing, can end up as immoral if it isn’t held accountable to serving a deeper idea of what is moral. It is serving a root idea of morality that makes any one of those things morally worthwhile and imbues it with purpose.

A hero is someone who has an eye on what that deeper moral purpose is and is willing to sacrifice of what is valuable, but of lesser importance, in order to achieve it. The difference between a human and an animal is that a human can sacrifice a part for the whole. So, too, is that the difference between a hero and a normal person. The hero is willing to sacrifice a part — his safety, his happiness, his time, his pride — for the sake of a greater whole — saving a loved one, saving a tradition, upholding the law. The greater whole a hero serves is the fundamental capacity for man to live well physically but also, and most importantly, spiritually and morally.

What is ironic about the new Avengers movie, Infinity War, is that it is the movie’s villain, the mad titan Thanos, who is the most heroic character in the movie — in the sense that he is most willing to do what (he thinks) is morally necessary and make painful sacrifices in order to do what must be done. Thanos is the most dramatically successful villain in Marvel’s movies because he is the most developed as a character and is more relatable in his goals than the usual egoists, mad-dogs, and off-the-deep-end zealots that the heroes and the audience cannot, and is not expected to, sympathize with.

It is said that every villain is just the hero of another story. Though it sounds like a cliché, that idea is what undergirds the structure of Infinity War, which devotes over half its screen time to Thanos himself, including extended scenes without the heroes in them that revolve around his perspective on the story, his motivation, his reasoning, his emotional relationship to his goal and the sacrifices he must bear to achieve it, and the profoundly moral sense of duty he feels for achieving his aim.

Thanos’ motivation itself is a cliché at this point: he sees the overpopulation of life in a universe of finite resources and foresees the inevitable exhaustion of the universe’s ability to support the life within it as a call to action. That call requires that he “balance the universe” by eliminating half the life within it for the sake of the other half that would remain and the future generations that would be able to exist.

This style of economic thought is referred to as the “Malthusian Trap,” named for the economist Thomas Malthus, who predicted that populations will grow exponentially until they reach the point that there are far too many mouths to feed compared to the food or other resources needed to go around; thus a massive, devastating event will inevitably happen that will eliminate enough of the population until it is small enough that it is matched to the resources available to consume.

Thanos’ idea, which is Malthus’ idea, rests on shaky ground. It does not account for the fact that people respond to the relative scarcity of resources by having fewer children, by changing how resources are consumed, by developing new cultural and scientific technologies for how resources are created, gathered, and distributed, and by not just continuing mechanically with the same behaviors they have been practicing regardless of changes in circumstances. As well, and most interestingly, the growth of populations leads to greater wealth because there is greater ability to diversify labor and specialize into the smaller and smaller subfields where new and ingenious discoveries for combating issues of resource scarcity and allocation are to be found.

It is ironic that for all of the advanced alien technology that Thanos wields, as well as the cosmic power he has access to, the idea for which he has sacrificed everything else could have been defeated and shown as unnecessary if only he had read economic works written since 1798. The heroes standing against Thanos would have done well to heed the adage that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

But here’s the thing.

The heroes never rebut his ideas. They just call him insane and fight him. If he is right, and the universe is overpopulated and exterminating half of its population will save it from the inevitable death of ALL life within it, then they are the villains.

The heroes never articulate a reason why Thanos is wrong, other than that taking life, especially the lives of innocent people, is cruel and shouldn’t be done. That argument implicitly rests on the premise that life is valuable for its own sake. But that premise doesn’t constitute a counter-argument to Thanos’ idea that killing off half of life is morally good if it will prevent ALL life from dying off. At least in Thanos’ argument, he is saving half of all life from what would otherwise inevitably destroy all of it. By fighting him with force alone and not with a counterargument, the heroes of the film implicitly state that ALL of life dying off is worth more than saving half of it because at least no one would be killed — they would all just die instead. That’s all it comes down to as long as the heroes don’t show Thanos’ plan as unnecessary.

“It would be better for everyone to die than for half of people to die by bloodshed.” That’s a position that someone could try to defend, but it is not intuitive, nor is it obvious, and it certainly is not what one would assume to be the position of the heroes, people whose very job description is to make hard choices for what is right.

The issue with the heroes of the Marvel movies is that they have never needed to make a serious sacrifice before in the films. The only sacrifice they have had to make has been of their bodies, of themselves. But that is an elementary sacrifice in heroic stories. The most basic sacrifice to define a hero is his willingness to give up his own body for the sake of something greater. A mature and more compelling sacrifice, because it is more relevant to the real moral trials that the people in the audience, living in the real world, have to face, is a sacrifice of what you have been living for the sake of what supports it that is more morally important, more core, but is also more abstract and that is taken for granted.

The archetypal story of this sacrifice is Abraham and the binding of Isaac. Abraham is called by G-d, the greatest good that could be conceived, the voice of reality, of existence, and the font of morality itself, to sacrifice that which he cherishes most, the most specific manifestation of his moral purpose as he has lived it, his son, for the sake of that which is greater than anything else that could be imagined, but which is more abstract and less real to him than that which he is asked to sacrifice.

What makes Abraham the first religious hero, and the first man to have a covenant with, and therefore an understanding of, the greatest good that could possibly be imagined, is that he is willing to sacrifice the most precious part for the greatest whole. One of the morals of the story is that a willingness to serve the highest moral good can make sacrifice in its name unnecessary, but the moral most important here is that the fundamental act of a hero is to be willing to sacrifice what is important in life for what is so important it gives value to life itself.

Our heroes in the Marvel cinematic universe have never been called upon to make such a choice, to be so heroic. They have been called upon to sacrifice themselves physically, but not spiritually. They have never had to sacrifice what they love more than themselves for what is right. The most that we see is when a hero’s loved one, almost always a father-type character, is willing to die for a greater goal and takes the action to do so and our hero has to fight back the urge not let them do it. But our heroes are never made to pull the trigger on a loved one directly and avoidably. They are never given a genuine moment to make a choice between the loved one and the greater good and allowed the opportunity to choose the smaller good in a way that leads to a greater evil.

Infinity War calls the bluff of the heroes who have never had to be so heroic by requiring them to make such a choice and putting it before them repeatedly, and by matching them against a villain who is far more heroic than they demonstrate themselves to be. Thanos, in his pursuit of the infinity stones, is called upon to sacrifice one he loves in order to gain a particular one of the infinity stones, the soulstone. It is unique among the stones because it requires one who would seek to have to sacrifice that which he loves for the sake of acquiring it.

Thanos, in his quest to save life by cutting off half of it for the sake of the whole, is forced to make that sacrifice in his own life by choosing between his moral purpose to the highest good he can aim at or his love for his adoptive daughter. The moment in the film works somberly and seriously because, unlike past Marvel movies, Infinity War takes time to show Thanos on his own terms in moments of anger, joy, and tender emotion for his daughter. It is not a maudlin or manipulative moment akin to an underdeveloped side-character in a war movie flashing photos of his family just before catching a bullet in order to drum up undeserved dramatic gravitas.

Instead, Thanos has a moment of genuine pathos, of pull with the audience that leads to their understanding of how he views his goal as necessary, as he, with tears in his eyes, admits that he loves his daughter but resigns himself to doing what he must and he casts her from a cliff as the required sacrifice for the sake of what is more morally necessary than even his moral obligation to his daughter and his love for her. He has been asked if he would sacrifice what is more a part of him than his own wellbeing for the sake of a greater but abstract calling, and he has answered the question as a hero would.

The heroes of the film are not as heroic. They can sacrifice their lives, but they cannot sacrifice what they love. Instead, they choose the part at the cost of the whole, over and over. Against a villain who knows the sacrifice that is required but has the clarity of vision and depth of soul needed to bear that sacrifice, they cannot win. Only one of the infinity stones starts in Thanos’ possession.

There are six in total and four of the other five he acquires in the movie are acquired through some variation of the “Give me what I want or I will kill your loved one” maneuver. The first is acquired from Thor and Loki when Loki gives up his stone so that Thor may be spared. Loki loves his brother too much to allow his sacrifice, but he is willing to die himself for the sake of his brother. His refusal to allow Thor to be killed results in Thanos acquiring a stone.

The second is acquired by Thanos when he is forced to sacrifice his daughter, Gamora, but he is only able to find the location of this stone because Peter Quill, who has been asked by Gamora to kill her instead of allowing Thanos to capture her because she knows that he can force her to bring him to the stone, hesitates to kill her and prevent her capture. Though he wills himself to try pulling the trigger eventually, he has waited until the point that Thanos is in complete control of the situation and nullifies his actions with a thought. Once Gamora is captured, she divulges the location of the stone to Thanos because her sister, Nebula, has been captured and is tortured in front of Gamora until she relents and gives him the information he needs to find the stone, which, as mentioned before, results in Gamora’s death and Thanos acquiring a stone.

The third stone is acquired from Dr. Strange when Thanos has defeated Tony Stark, stabbed him near-fatally, and offers to allow him to live in exchange for the stone in Strange’s possession. Strange relents and gives the stone to Thanos in return for Stark’s life.

The fourth stone is acquired from Vision at the cost of his life. Even though the Scarlet Witch was finally able to be convinced to destroy the stone, which kills Vision, she has waited until the last moment to do so and Thanos is able to undo the stone’s destruction through use of the stone that Strange gave him, which can control time. By undoing the stone’s destruction, Thanos is able to take it from Vision’s head himself, killing Vision regardless and resulting in Thanos acquiring the final stone to complete the Infinity Gauntlet.

Furthermore, Thanos’ wounding of Stark and subsequent ability to coerce Strange into giving him the stone, and therefore Thanos’ ability to undo the Scarlet Witch’s action, was only possible due to Peter Quill losing his composure upon hearing that Thanos had killed Gamora. Thanos was tenuously subdued by the heroes, who were prying the Infinity Gauntlet, which housed the four stones that Thanos had already acquired and which were the source of his power, off of his hand in order to disarm him and thereby defeat him, when Quill reacted to the news of Gamora’s death by attacking Thanos in the same moment. Rather than subordinate his rage, and therefore prioritize the greater good of their mission over his willingness to feel his love for Gamora by reacting to her death instantly, he impetuously attacks Thanos right away and causes Mantis to lose hold of him, stopping the trance she had put on Thanos and bringing him back to full consciousness. Thanos then immediately resumes the fight and defeats all of the heroes just as they had nearly secured an early victory, bringing the story to the moment when Thanos has Stark at his mercy and is able to extort the time stone from Strange.

If the heroes at any stage had the unflinching willingness to sacrifice that which they love most dearly for that which matters most, they could have stopped Thanos. But, because Thanos is willing to do what they were not, and was willing to sacrifice what he loves most for what must most be done, his heroism was greater and he emerged the victor. The heroes fail in their heroism because they have not remained true to what is moral above all. Instead, they failed the question of whether they were willing to bear any sacrifice. They placed love above all, above what is greater and more important than love, and they lost to Thanos, who valued what was greater and was faithful to it in his sacrifices. It is a compelling story because it is so rarely told, the frailty of heroes asked to make a sacrifice greater than their hearts could bear and who thus fail before a villain with a stronger heart and a stronger drive towards the morality of his purpose.

Well done, Marvel.


Jacob William Roth is a law student at the University of Virginia where he is a member of The Federalist Society. He studied Russian Literature at Northwestern University under Prof. Gary Saul Morson. He and his wife are practicing Jews and live in central Virginia.

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  1. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Jacob William Roth: When the Villain Is More Heroic Than the Heroes

    I’ll use your post title (excellent, BTW) as a starting point.

    I my generation (a sure sign I’m a geezer), the movies that redefined heroes and villians were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde.  And yes, back then I was rooting for the bad guys.

    So I guess the left needs to present new movies which do the same thing.  There was someone (a late night host?) who mention how the 9/11 hijackers were “courageous” because they flew planes to their deaths.  No, they weren’t.  If the intent were to guide a crippled airliner away from populated areas to avoid unnecessary deaths, then yes, the pilots would be courageous.  But to guide airplanes into buildings to kill innocent people?  Cowards of the highest order.

    But back to modern movies.  Heroes with a flaw has always been a plot staple of books, movies, and so forth.  But how many flaws does a hero have until he becomes evil?  It sounds as if this movie suggests the villian is a hero because he believes in what he is doing.

    Wrong.  Look at this from your post:

    ” . . .the movie’s villain, the mad titan Thanos, who is the most heroic character in the movie — in the sense that he is most willing to do what (he thinks) is morally necessary and make painful sacrifices in order to do what must be done. “

    In other words, there is no absolute good or evil.  It’s what Thantos thinks he is doing that is morally necessary, not anything tied to a moral absolute.  How much evil has been done in the name of good?  I don’t know how this movie deals with Thantos in the end, but unless he realizes the error of his ways, the movie will lead another generation of kids to think being bad is cool – like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde.

    • #1
  2. Dorrk Inactive
    Dorrk
    @Dorrk

    It’s a bit of a stretch to call Thanos a “hero” just because he believes there’s a greater purpose to what he’s doing. Your points about the all-brawn Avengers are well-taken and provocative — come to think of it, why couldn’t Dr. Strange at least implore Thanos to look ahead using that stone to see all of the future possibilities and whether or not his plan was really necessary/successful — but a lack of rhetoric does not mark a lack of heroism any more than a sense of purpose denotes a bounty of it.

    • #2
  3. Umbra of Nex, Fractus Inactive
    Umbra of Nex, Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Most of history’s greatest villains sincerely thought they were making the world a better place. Lenin, Mao, Castro, even Hitler truly thought they were making the world a better place. That doesn’t excuse the millions who died at their hands. That they had good intentions and sincerely believed them doesn’t make their actions any less monstrous.

    The part you leave out of your Hot Take ™ is that he heroes are right; Thanos is insane. He is a psychopathic monster. His goals are evil. They don’t explain why? This shouldn’t need explaining. Killing trillions of people without even having the courtesy to look them in the eye is evil. It is the very definition of evil. It’s the sort of thing that would make Lucifer himself say, “Damn, that’s cold hearted.” So what if the heroes don’t “sacrifice” anything; their objective is to prevent a sacrifice no civilization should have to make, never mind have forced upon them by an egomaniac trillions of light-years away.

    • #3
  4. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Jacob William Roth:

    This style of economic thought is referred to as the “Malthusian Trap,” named for the economist Thomas Malthus, who predicted that populations will grow exponentially until they reach the point that there are far too many mouths to feed compared to the food or other resources needed to go around; thus a massive, devastating event will inevitably happen that will eliminate enough of the population until it is small enough that it is matched to the resources available to consume.

    Thanos’ idea, which is Malthus’ idea, rests on shaky ground. It does not account for the fact that people respond to the relative scarcity of resources by having fewer children, by changing how resources are consumed, by developing new cultural and scientific technologies for how resources are created, gathered, and distributed, and by not just continuing mechanically with the same behaviors they have been practicing regardless of changes in circumstances. As well, and most interestingly, the growth of populations leads to greater wealth because there is greater ability to diversify labor and specialize into the smaller and smaller subfields where new and ingenious discoveries for combating issues of resource scarcity and allocation are to be found.

    There’s a simpler explanation of the logical flaw of the Malthusian trap – it ignores the fact that People are also a resource, because they have brains and creativity.

    • #4
  5. Gil Reich Inactive
    Gil Reich
    @GilReich

    This is excellent.

    But the biggest conflict here is NOT the practical question of the Malthusian trap.

    It is the moral question of do we kill innocent people for the greater good. You stopped your telling of the Binding of Isaac story before the final dramatic twist. While God praises and rewards Abraham for his choice, He also stops him from carrying it out. He establishes that this form of God worship will no longer be acceptable. In Deuteronomy God’s greatest description of evil is idolaters who will sacrifice their children to their gods.

    I happen to think a recently deceased Israeli leader took your view of heroism to its natural conclusions, and perpetrated all sorts of evils for the greater good. A host of crimes ranging from kidnapping thousands of Yemenite children and redistributing them to Kibbutz members, to assassinating the prime minister and framing his political opponents, to architecting the Iran-Contra scandal, to negotiating a treaty with terrorists possibly without the knowledge and approval of the prime minister whom he later had assassinated. He also smuggled arms for Israel’s War of Independence, built Israel’s nuclear program. Maybe I’m wrong on some of these, but that’s irrelevant to the question of principle.

    The US may be about to deal with bombshell revelations about top level people engaged in criminal activity to stop their political opponents. Some will call this treason. Others will call it heroic actions for the greater good.

    In my view, when God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, He also established that part of a heroic and moral life is accepting limits on our actions. The Book of Judges centers on the theme “In those days there was no king [IMO we should read: law] in Israel, everybody did what was right in their eyes.” This is presented as inescapably leading to tragedy. The Torah is a book of laws. Jews value the law. The law must contain some flexibility, but we see totalitarian and lawless pursuit of a greater good to be the stuff of villains, not heroes.

    I don’t know where all the lines are. I accept the idea of civil disobedience, and even sometimes revolution. And “when is collateral damage acceptable?” is a difficult moral question for me.

    But I’ll be disappointed if Marvel stops Thanos by showing him the flaws of his Malthusian logic. The argument in which they need to engage him is that we do not engage in mass-murder for the greater good.

    On a side note, I think you’re wrong about Strange. He did act heroically. We just don’t know how yet.

    • #5
  6. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

     It is a long standing pet peeve of mine that the villain grabs the girl and tells the hero “Drop your gun or I’ll kill her,” and the idiot hero drops his gun.  And I’m shouting at the screen, “No, you moron!  If you drop your gun he’ll kill her anyway, and you along with her.  Take the shot, moron!  Take the shot!”  I think this happened about three times per episode in that stupid Kevin Bacon series, The Following.  (Until I quit watching, which was pretty quick.)

    Thank God real cops are trained better than movie heroes.  A real cop would never drop his gun in that situation.  Personally, I like the answer from Speed:

    Harry: Alright, pop quiz. Airport, gunman with a hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re one hundred feet away.
    Jack: Shoot the hostage.
    Harry: What?
    Jack: Take her out of the equation. Go for the good wound and he can’t get to the plane with her. Clear shot.
    Harry: You’re deeply nuts, you know that? 

    • #6
  7. Roderic Fabian Coolidge
    Roderic Fabian
    @rhfabian

    There is an old adage about science fiction that all the aliens are just different aspects of humanity.  Real aliens, if we ever meet any, are likely to be so alien that we can’t understand them at all.  

    The operative descriptor of Malthus, Ehrlich, Hansen, and all the rest of the doomsday mongers is that they were and are wrong.  They have been proven to be wrong repeatedly, and yet they are still hailed as profits by a certain political/cultural segment of society. 

    There is something deeply wrong, deeply sick about people that cling to doomsday scenarios.  It think that Roth might have touched on it when he mentions moral trade offs.  Adherence to a doomsday scenario relieves people of certain moral obligations, obligations that they probably chafe at in the first place.   It gives people an imaginary moral high ground to stand on.  It enables them to make claims on wealth and other resources that they have no right to have.   

    As Thomas Sowell wrote, public intellectuals create a crisis and then tell everyone they have the solution to it.  And it works!  How many billions have been sunk into the bogus claims about the climate crisis, all of that money going for nothing?  I haven’t made a study about the resources wasted on the overpopulation crisis, but I’m sure it has been considerable.  And in the end the problem is solving itself in terms of lower birth rates and improvements in farming and foot technology, and whatever happens to the climate mankind will adapt, will have to adapt, since there is not one effective thing mankind can do about it other than adapt.   In the meantime all this serves the true purpose, which is to provide certain intellectuals with a full rice bowl.

    • #7
  8. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    Does a story always have to demonstrate empirically that the villain’s assumptions are incorrect?  Is it never enough that the heroes believe that the villain’s assumptions are incorrect?  Can the audience never simply trust the heroes’ judgement on the basis that they are the heroes?

    See: The Empire vs. The Rebellion. See also, the Israelites in Canaan, the Greeks at Troy, the Spartans at Thermopylae, etc.

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy, Joke Pending Member
    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending
    @Misthiocracy

    Larry3435 (View Comment):
    It is a long standing pet peeve of mine that the villain grabs the girl and tells the hero “Drop your gun or I’ll kill her,” and the idiot hero drops his gun. And I’m shouting at the screen, “No, you moron! If you drop your gun he’ll kill her anyway, and you along with her. Take the shot, moron! Take the shot!”

    Also, what makes this girl so dang special?  There are plenty of other girls out there.  If this girl was so special, she could save her own dang life.

    [Ducks the flying flowerpots thrown at my head…]

    • #9
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