By Aaron Wilson
When Marvel Studios first launched their cinematic universe in 2008 with the release of Ironman, George W. Bush was president, the U.S. was in the middle of a recession, and Jay Leno was still hosting The Tonight Show.
A lot has changed in America over the course of a decade, but one thing has remained the same.
The Avengers are still saving the world.
Never have the stakes felt higher in the realm of superheroes than with Avengers: Infinity War, the latest blockbuster and cinematic capstone of Marvel Studios’ 18 preceding films.
Fans aren’t sweating that Infinity War will be a financial success as it opens this weekend. It’s already poised to become one of the most lucrative movies of all time—with Deadline Hollywood estimating earnings of $39 million on Thursday night alone.
No, the real peril rests in the fact that many fans expect this to be the film where some of their favorite heroes meet their end.
I caught a Thursday night showing of the movie and can tell you these aren’t the same Avengers you started watching a decade ago. Infinity War takes some bold thematic turns bound to evoke deep reactions from fans of the series and newcomers alike.
With these emotions come opportunities for Christians to use the world’s fascination with superheroes as a way to talk about spiritual realities—in the same way Paul appealed to cultural realities of his day to present the gospel to the Athenians.
Without giving away too much about the film, here are some of Infinity War’s prominent themes that echo spiritual truths worth discussing around the water cooler.
Warning: minor spoilers follow for Avengers: Infinity War.
Death is a real enemy
The threat of death is woven throughout Infinity War as Thanos seeks to “balance” the world by eliminating half the population. We’re told he can do this with a snap of his fingers if he accumulates six Infinity Stones scattered across the universe.
In the comics, Thanos is in love with a personification of death and attempts to court her through this act of mass murder. While Infinity War tones down the plot from the comics, it still tackles the subject of death head-on.
I won’t give away which characters bite the dust in the movie, but the directors didn’t shy away from insisting there be real repercussions to fighting a villain obsessed with genocide.
This hit especially close to home for me when I had to comfort my elementary-aged daughter who was visibly upset at the death of her favorite character. For a superhero movie—the kind that often presents heroes as bulletproof—this one helps audiences take death to heart.
This can be a good thing, according to Scripture. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart.”
Although Infinity War is packed with humor, it still involves mourning. The theater audience I sat with was noticeably choked up as the credits rolled.
In a world where video game characters regenerate at the push of a button, Infinity War portrays death as a real problem. In this sense, the film can be helpful in raising discussions about the inevitability of death and the need for a Hero who can actually defeat this haunting aspect of the curse.
Waiting for resolution
Infinity War doesn’t follow the plot structure of other superhero movies that neatly tie up story angles and put the world back in order by the time the theater lights come on. It ends with the audience unsure of what will happen in the next installment (think The Empire Strikes Back from the original Star Wars trilogy).
At the same time, Marvel fans know there will be a next installment, with studios having already announced upcoming films such as Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, another Spiderman film, and an untitled Avengers 4.
This puts Marvel fans who are used to following superhero franchises in an odd place—accepting the current state of disorder in their beloved world of superheroes but holding onto the promise all will be made right in the future.
This is similar to the current state of the world as recognized by Christians who live in the already-and-not-yet promises of the gospel—a world where it often seems like Satan is winning and where Christians are instructed to suffer faithfully, knowing a time is coming when wrongs will be properly avenged and the world made right.
Scripture says the world groans as it waits for a deliverance that will be fully manifested when Christ returns. Echoes of this tension can be felt in stories like Infinity War that leave the audience walking out of the theater hungry for future resolution.
Thanos—an inverted savior
Almost all Marvel movies to date have dealt with the theme of personal sacrifice. Whether it’s Captain America surrendering his body to drive a plane into ice or Ironman risking his life to divert a nuclear missile, audiences expect superheroes to demonstrate a willingness to trade their safety for the benefit of others.
Infinity War certainly continues these storylines with its heroes; however, it also explores the idea of sacrifice through the eyes of a villain—one with a disturbing view of martyrdom.
For a big purple monster, Thanos is a very complex character driven more by a sense of mission than a raw lust for power. He believes his intentions are noble and that his mass killings—which he describes as random and unbiased—are inspired by mercy.
Nowhere does this warped idea of sacrifice play out more strongly in the movie than when Thanos seeks to gain possession of the soul stone and learns that the price of a soul is a soul itself.
Through all this, Thanos is an inverted version of Christ—a villain willing to save the world, but only through the sacrifice of others.
Like Jesus in Gethsemane, Thanos sheds tears in the face of sacrifice. He even has his own “it is finished” moment in the movie when he thinks his mission is finally complete.
Thanos tells another character it cost him everything to save the world. However, unlike Christ who emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, Thanos’ “sacrifice” has him seeking ultimate power by assuming the form of a god.
Todd Miles touches on such comparisons between comic characters and Christ in his new book, Superheroes Can’t Save You.
“Superhero creators and writers did not and do not set out to create false saviors who will lead the world astray,” Miles says. “They are writers of fiction whose goal is both to entertain and to teach by making up characters with incredible powers.”
“Isn’t it interesting,” he continues, “that the best they can do is make up a character that looks suspiciously like a deficient view of Jesus.”
Comic book movies can be conversation bridges
For the next several weeks, audiences will be assembling around the Avengers.
While there’s no need for churches to theme sermon series after superheroes, it can be helpful for Christians to recognize underlying biblical themes in popular movies to help build bridges when seeking to share the gospel with friends, coworkers, and neighbors.
The ability to winsomely weave gospel truths into everyday topics of conversation may not be a superpower, but God can use this talent to reach those who really do need saving.
Aaron is associate editor of LifewayResearch.com.