The Marvel Cinematic Universe made movie history in 2012, bringing all of the characters from their solo franchises together in the shared-universe extravaganza The Avengers. (And every other movie studio has been trying to play catch-up and duplicate it ever since.) The MCU will try to make history once again as the size of the team-up and the danger of the conflict both escalate dramatically in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. Inspiration for this major movie event will (most likely) be drawn from 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, a story as epic as it was anxiety-producing. At least it made me anxious!
Written by Jim Starlin with art by George Pérez, the story sees the Mad Titan Thanos trick Mistress Death into helping him attain the Infinity Gems, giving him complete mastery over the Soul (with the green gem), the Mind (blue), Time (red), Reality (yellow), Space (purple), as well as unlimited Power (pink). What does he do with such omnipotence? Well it turns out Thanos is in love with Death. For real. Wrap your head around the existential issues manifested in an unrequited romantic longing for Death. He worships her. He adores her. And in an effort to win her pleasure and her love he literally wipes out half of existence with the snap of his fingers.
This act certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. Under the leadership of the mysterious cosmic wanderer Adam Warlock, Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer begin gathering forces to oppose this newly minted god and to defend all of reality and existence from his machinations. The first line of defense is (of course) earth’s many heroes. The second, the cosmic entities Master Order and Lord Chaos, Epoch and his champion Quasar, the Stranger, Love and Hate, the Celestials, Lord Kronos, and Galactus. The ensuing battle would ravage reality across an anxiety-inducing six issues. And I couldn’t handle it!!
As Kalie can attest (especially from watching The Walking Dead with me), I tend to invest myself heavily in my fictional characters. In real life, I’m a pretty optimistic guy. I see no spiritual, emotional, or physical good that can come from dwelling on the negative and I do my best to always be as positive in my outlook as possible. But when it comes to the fictional characters I love, I always find myself fearing the worst!! (I literally pace around the house during every commercial break on The Walking Dead, imagining the worst possible fate that may befall Rick and his crew.) This is not a new trait and I remember often being so invested in the characters that populated the comics I read as a kid that I’d regularly fear for their lives and their world. And here’s what made The Infinity Gauntlet so difficult to read – there was no possible way I could imagine them winning.
I say often that my suspension of disbelief is pretty solid. (I mean, it has to be to enjoy comic books and Star Wars as much as I do!) But I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that earth’s mightiest heroes had any possible chance against someone wielding as much power as Thanos was in this series. In a quest to always find a BIGGER challenge for the superheroes to come together and face, Marvel dramatically upped the ante here. But this one always felt a little too big to me, even before I could actually articulate that fact. Thanos. Was. OMNIPOTENT. Hell, using the full power of the Infinity Gems he was also quite literally OMNISCENT and OMNIPRESENT too. So the major characteristics theologians attribute to God (or God as we regularly conceive of God when we use the phrase “God”) were at the disposal of Thanos, the villain in the miniseries. What the heck?? What the actual heck?!? HOW COULD THE SUPERHEROES WIN?!?!?
So reading these comics, while exciting on the large scale team-up front, made me uncomfortable. Any chance the heroes had at victory seemed too farfetched to believe. And I first read this when I was ten! In fact, when I’d play with my superhero toys (whether with the action figures we had or the LEGO versions of Spidey and co. my brother and I would create (note, this was waaaaaay before LEGO had superhero or Star Wars sets so we had to figure out how to build them on our own (and I am still in awe of David making his own little Artoo-Detoo out of LEGO blocks that was the right size next to the minifigures))) I tried on several occasions to use Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet as a plot device. I even had a little index card matching the colors of each gem to what it did to keep it authentic (yes, I was nerdy then too…but adorably so!). It never worked! I could never figure out a way for the heroes to defeat Thanos. I’d often have to awkwardly end the battle and move on to playing something else. I could never find a believable and workable ending when I had my superheroes try to battle an Infinity Gauntlet-wielding Thanos.
How could I? Using the terminology I know now as someone who’s studied theology for fifteen years (and now teaches it), Thanos had become transcendent. By its literal definition we as human beings can’t conceptualize or understand the transcendent. If I can’t grasp the concept, how could I imagine a way for my favorite super heroes to defeat it??
Despite our inability to grasp it, we have always been drawn to the transcendent. In her brilliant text The Case for God, religious scholar Karen Armstrong argues that the desire to seek the transcendent is humanity’s defining trait. Other animals have tools, language, art, music, and community – all the things we look to as hallmarks of humanity. But to the best of our knowledge, we alone as human beings contemplate and seek the transcendent. In what always proves to be an exciting and headache inducing day for my World Religions students, we discuss this truth – exploring how ancient societies came to the understanding that there was something large and intangible behind everything. In contemporary philosophical terms we would often call that “Being” or the ground of all existence.
Every thought, word, deed, idea, person, animal, thing, relationship, place, understanding, moment, expression plant, pebble, breath, action etc. that has ever occurred, is occurring, will occur, or could occur in this or any plane of existence in any dimension across the multiverse is a being because it is created. But Being is creation. It is the ground of all existence, both creation and the potential for creation as well as nonexistence. It is is-ness. It IS. The Chinese called this force Tao, or “the Way” of the cosmos. The Aryans who settled the Indian subcontinent (the spiritual ancestors of Hinduism) called it Brahman. And the Abrahamic faiths would eventually take the impressive theological leap to associate Being with God. We have been drawn to this idea of the transcendent, regardless of its name, for as long as we have been recognizably human yet we can never fully understand it.
While our language for God has had to continually evolve our seeking of the Divine has always been a part of our species. Each time we’ve dramatically changed, our ideas of god/God or the divine/transcendent/all have changed with us. For example, between 10,000-9,000 BCE, the Agrarian Revolution changed everything about life as our prehistoric ancestors transitioned from being primarily hunter-gatherers to being landed, agrarian farmers. Their belief in the gods of the hunt faded…only to be replaced by their belief in the gods of the harvest. So as we’ve evolved as a species and as our societies have undergone dramatic changes, we continue to seek the transcendent in a way that fits where we are mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Even if we can never fully know it the quest to know is the whole point.
As if this wasn’t enough of a brain teaser now let’s imagine we attribute alllllllll of this to the villain in a comic book miniseries. AAAARRGGGHHHH!!!! Gah…I can’t take it! THAT makes for some serious headaches. To Starlin’s credit, he brings elements of this ontological reality into the story. The first issue opens with Mephisto (Marvel’s version of the devil) telling Thanos, “There can be no denying it: You are supreme. Anything you wish to be, you are. Anything you wish, is. Nothing in the universe dares challenge this claim. There be only one word to describe you…GOD.” In an intriguing bit of theological symbolism I won’t be exploring here, it’s interesting to note the devil is the first to call Thanos “God.”
Thanos assures Mephisto, “The moment is upon us, when the stars must come to realize the absolute truth of your words. None shall deny me my righteous place in the pantheon of the cosmic gods. I claim a seat at the head of the table.” Yet Mephisto wonders, “So much power in the possession of one who has barely reached the status of godling. The very thought boggles the mind. Thanos could destroy even me with but a thought, yet his basic soul remains on the edge of mortality. Is he capable of managing the forces now under his command? Or will his fragile heart be his undoing?” So, the maddening paradox at the core of this story is addressed, if not with the full weight and implications it truly carries. But I don’t fault Starlin for this. It’s to be expected. To fully embrace the idea of transcendence is to make the narrative impossible on any level.
But “impossible” has never been in the vocabulary of earth’s mightiest heroes. So they marshal their forces for an attack on Thanos. I have to take a moment to note everyone is there…even Spider-Man. Um…what?? It’s no surprise to anyone who’s casually read my blog that I love Spidey. He’s always been my favorite. (In fact, as I write this I’m wearing a t-shirt featuring eighteen different versions of Spider-Man!) But the guy has no business tangling with a god. What in space can he even use to web-swing from?? And he does web swing!! Due to Spider-Man’s popularity, he’s always a part of these mega-crossovers. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, he really shouldn’t be in this one. It makes NO SENSE. As my friend Theresa brilliantly puts it, “He’s your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man! The big, world ending crises are what the Avengers are for. Spider-Man protects the neighborhood. He handles bank robbers and muggers and the lower level super villains. He shouldn’t be saving the world. He should be saving the neighborhood, or maybe the city.” Amen! I bring this up only because, as I re-read The Infinity Gauntlet the other day this seemed even weirder to me see Spider-Man there than it did when I was a kid and because I’m sure he’ll be suiting up alongside everyone else in Avengers: Infinity War.
Returning to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, I can’t help but wonder – how will they navigate all of these deep, theological paradoxes on film? How do you emotionally, visually, narratively, and practically tear the cosmos apart in combat while having your heroes battle a foe who’s grown to a level where he literally can’t be conceived? And there are only about twenty superheroes in the MCU to join the fight! Granted, the Infinity Gems we have seen on film (or Infinity Stones as they are called in the MCU) appear to be slightly watered down in their power level when compared to their comic counter parts – all we’ve really seen them do is deliver some big power blasts along with some specific side power. But if the story was tricky to navigate in a comic book it’ll be ever harder to do in a film. Now I’m not saying I think the idea for this movie is a mistake. Far from it! I can guarantee I’ll be first in line when Avengers: Infinity War comes out, eager to see how it’s handled. And I cannot wait to see Tony Stark and Peter Quill take tandem snarky sarcasm to a whole new level on the big screen. Still…it’s a tall order to depict the unknowable at all let alone use it as the force for our heroes to battle.
But in many ways it’s because of, not in spite of, its ambitious nature that I was always intrigued by The Infinity Gauntlet as a kid. Sure it gave me headaches and anxiety but I would never stop wrestling with the story. Yes, I could never find legitimate answers to the questions it raised for me but that was still exciting in its own way. Who knows? Maybe my interest in The Infinity Gauntlet was an indicator that I was meant for a life of studying/teaching/discussing theology and considering the unknowable face of the Divine :). However you look at it, The Infinity Gauntlet is a classic comic tale reaching for unfathomable heights and forcing the reader to consider the impossible nature of the transcendent. And the MCU is going to try and turn all that into a summer blockbuster for mass consumption! Ahh, I love it :). To reuse their classic catchphrase from my youth, this is why I’ve always said “make mine Marvel!”