The new movie Infinity War has stunned almost all viewers with its challenging ending. This fact gives us a great moment in time to examine why Super Hero movies are so compelling to so many people, and the big risk marvel is taking in doing this. (Spoiler alert: do not read down further for the ending is revealed).
There is a lot in the movie about parental relationships; central to this theme being Gomorah’s conflicted feelings about being the daughter of the powerful, compelling, but delusional Thanos. Also, there is the relationship of Iron Man as the father figure to the young Spider Man. Corollary to this are the several romances: there is the romance between Vision and Scarlet Witch, Starlord and Gomorah, and the Hulk and Black widow. I wont take too much time describing the dynamics of these relationships, but will assume the reader has seen the movie and understands the feeling of each. There are moments of very intense situations and feeling, such as when spider man is dying, and he says to Iron man with total vulnerability, “What’s happeing to me? I don’t want to die, I am too young…what is happening Stark”. There is possibly no greater anguish for a parent to hear than these words. There is also the seen where Thanos must decide whether to sacrifice Gomorah for the sake of obtaining the 5th infinity stone, or let her live. Holding her by the arm he throws her over the cliff and she is shown dead at the bottom on the rocks. All the characters are seeking their identity in relationship to their super powers. Super hero movies provide these profound allegories for us to see our self in, and to work out our feelings about what the characters are going through, such as, feelings towards parents and feelings of abandonment. We see good in them, we hate the bad, we feel sibling rivalries, we project romantic feelings of how to love, and how to protect those we love, and many others feelings.
In the movie several of our favorite characters die at the end, and there is no relief or resolution given to the trauma of it. The Avengers lose! Each of the superheroes are left defeated, and half of them are dead. This is unheard of. At the theatre some people threw things toward the screen, and yelled, “You can’t do this! You can’t end like that!”.
There are two psychological factors that are profoundly disturbing about the end. One is that the characters have no ability to fight what is happening to them, and they have no knowledge or reference to understand it. This is a ‘cardinal sin’ against the psychology of the child. The second is that the evil Father figure wins, and our ‘superhereos’ have no ability to change this. Instilling a finality of despair in the child and giving a child no way to perceive the father figure as good, or getting justice, is traumatic to the psyche. The bad father wins. There is a finality to the ending of the movie that is disturbing and painful.
In the psychology of the child we are always working-out feelings toward the imaginary good and the bad parent, for in the vulnerable world of the child these are a great potential threat, or reward. The feelings of the child go from one extreme to the other. The child uses play-objects and playmates to work out these feelings to try and make the bad father good and the bad mother good. The child needs to feel safe, that when he or she acts out, or uses objects in phantasy to destroy – that they are not really destroying but are doing it as phantasy play to work out feelings. A good parent allows this and helps set borders if they begin to do real damage to significant things. I use the word ‘phantasy’ (coined by the great psychologist, Eric Biddle) and not ‘fantasy’ purposely to distinguish a difference. ‘Fantasy’ implies make-believe in a more escapist or dissociative way; while ‘phantasy’ has to do with the use of creative imagination to resolve inner problems by such things as, working with real objects, by reflection on causes, or by seeing ourselves in stories. This is absolutely necessary for healthy development. In the child’s mind even unhealthy qualities can be made to be good, say for example, a parent that is hyper critical. In her development the child can make this to ‘feel like love’, but as the child grows up and experiences relationships she will tend to ‘not feel loved’ unless her partner is critical. This is the minds power to make good out of bad and survive, but it becomes dysfunction when we get older and must then be worked out in maturity.
Super hero movies and comics have long been a great source that fosters phantasizing about our problems, goals, and self-agency in a safe place. It’s a place to work out our feelings of destruction and our need for healing. Adults need this just as much as children. Super heroes are particularly compelling to our psychology because it is phantasy and it is about power, personal ‘super power’ and conflict with others. Its very significant to understand that as children we are helpless, but on the inside the child feels an illusory omnipotence. The child can only see and feel from them self; for instance, when she cries mother comes, when she goes in her pants someone changes her. She is the center of the universe, and must learn to slowly emerge from the self centeredness. The illusory omnipotence is a compensation for being helpless. The whole ark of life is to see that we are not omnipotent, but to gradually transfer omnipotence to God where it belongs. This process brings genuine self-agency into our soul as we develop skills and learn to express ourselves and give to others. This is a never-ending process through-out life that is worked out in phantasy, work, in the world, and relationships.
The ending of Infinity War is a shock because the fan’s mode of working out their feelings about the Good father is stunted, blocked, and its an awful feeling. The heroes powers are defeated and taken away; they are dead. Thanos, the super powerful father figure (who calls everyone in the movie ‘his children’, and who ‘gathers up’ all the omnipotence for himself) performs acts of evil to his daughter, and all the heroes, that has a finality to it that looks like it can’t be changed. Furthermore, the characters are destroyed in such a way that they have no knowledge of what is happening to them, they have no ability to fight back; they can’t even see it coming. This is very disturbing and disorienting. This is why audiences around the country are reported to sit in stunned silence for many minutes, waiting for the after credits scene to see if there is any relief but non comes from that. Part of the dynamics of the movie experience is that we know it is a movie; that its not real, so it is a perfect medium for working out our phantasy needs, but the story leads our feelings and this story stunts the inner needs I mentioned.
My daughter told me, “I don’t belief that Gomorah died, I refuse to believe it.” And we spent hours theorizing on how it is that those that died are not really dead but will come back. This is the power of the mind to heal or create. The movie-makers are taking the risk of traumatizing the fans to such a degree that they reject Marvel for doing this to them. Or, perhaps it is a brilliant move that so goes against the grain that it causes the fan to invest even more in the stories in order to overcome the traumatic effect. Of course the fans know it is phantasy, but still the movie-makers broke the rules, so to speak, and there is resentment. I doubt the movie makers understand the extent of the psychology of all this, particularly about creating a ‘bad’ father that cannot be ‘made good’.
In the short term it would seem ending a movie like this is probably not a good idea for marvel. On the other hand in the long term they may have so severely pruned their fans expectations that they created a lot of room for more growth. The fans are put in a position to have to dig deep in their resources to deal with the problem, – resources that come from other parts of life.
The feeling at the ending of Infinity War reminds me of the deep gloom and loss that filled the people and disciples when Jesus was nailed to the cross. This is felt by Lucy and Susan in Narnia when Aslan is killed on the stone table. At this point in all three stories all seems lost. At the end of the movie there is a sense of despair, hopelessness and gloom, and we don’t know what is going to happen. The disciples didn’t know how the story of Jesus ends when he was on the cross – that in three days Jesus would resurrect and redeem all with the greatest good news of all time. Jesus told them this would happen but they didn’t know how to believe it, and didn’t come to believe it until it did happen. The Story of Jesus is the ultimate resource that resolves all issues of trauma with a promise and a way that never fails, if one will receive it; its not necessarily easy.
At the end of Infinity War My daughter said, “What are they going to do, make us wait to the next movie to find out what happened.” Yes, pretty much. There are signs in the movie that leave the door open for the lost heroes to come back. I think in the next movie the tension of the trauma of so many dead heroes will be resolved around the point that each time a stone was obtained by Thanos a hero was willing to give up them self for the sake of others, AND they valued the life of the one as much as the many! But Thanos, like a coward, gave up the daughter he loved for his own power. I think Thanos will repent of this and use the power of the stones to return the heroes. The willingness by the heroes to value the one as much as the many, and to sacrifice their self or their own interest for the many is straight from the Bible. Luke 15:3-5: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?”. Also, ‘There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your neighbor”. This is exactly the theme in Narnia. When the Witch claims ‘the deep magic’ against Aslan, Aslan understands and lays all on ‘the deep deep magic’ which is that the one who sacrifices them self for another on the stone table will return to life and redeem all. I think this will be the essential theme that restores our heroes in Infinity War.
Here is a very important principle to see. There is a reason why the underworld keeper of the soul stone, (who is Red skull the former leader of hydra), makes Thanos, (or anyone who seeks the power of the stone), go through a trail. In simple terms it means ‘crossing the line’ in ones heart and entering hell. Power for self is hell. Thanos utterly sells himself to the devil. No human or angel can handle the power of the divine; it is impossible, only the divine can do that. The trial, as shown in the movie in allegory, is a threshold. There is an evil force which propels one to cross the barrier, and an inertia not to. Once crossed there are consequences. In reality, as long as we are alive we can return to humility, repent in heart, return omnipotence to God where it belongs, and be redeemed. But if we die in this state – hell is eternal. Once we die the basic constellation in the form of our soul can’t be changed, and we remain in hell forever. (People may not know this ‘theologically’, but we have inner intuitions of it and I think this is also part o the shock of the end. As much as we may resent the bad parent, we don’t want them to go to hell as Gamorah felt.) Thanos was shown to cry when he thought Gamorah had betrayed him, (but she really did the right thing). Also, when Thanos killed her he was in great anguish over it.
On a grand scale this is like the devil tempting Jesus to sin after his 40 days and 40 nights of fasting. In an immediate way in life this means that we sin when we choose to act from our own will to commit an act that has intent to hurt, inflict harm, and destroy others. The reward is a feeling of power, and satisfaction of dominion, but it is illusory, and becomes emptiness, and in order to fill the emptiness one must pursue more and deeper evil. As long we are only thinking of doing evil acts in mind it is temptation, but not yet sin; but once it inters our will, wether we do it or not, it becomes sin because it enters our soul as a love from hell. Then we must truly go through the process of repenting of it to be redeemed from it, which is also a threshold, or process to pass through. This, I think, will be an essential theme of the next movie.