Avengers: Infinity War is a strong superhero movie that makes a lot of dubious choices in its relentless drive to get everyone lined up for that shock ending. Of all the plot decisions that I could pick apart, the one that remains most glaring—and freshly brought to mind as of late—is Infinity War‘s callous treatment of the Asgardian refugees.
In the finale of Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is totally destroyed by Surtur (with some assists by Thor, Loki, and Hela). The remains of its traumatized populace who did not fall to Hela’s reign of terror manage to escape on board the Grandmaster’s purloined ship.
Ragnarok ends on a bittersweet yet hopeful note: with Thor taking the throne as King to this makeshift kingdom, ready to drive his ship to new lands, to paraphrase that movie’s oft-used “Immigrant Song” from Led Zeppelin.
Yet in the opening moments of Infinity War, we go from “Immigrant Song” to the genocide of refugees. The movie begins without the usual Marvel musical overture and instead, we hear silence—then a desperate distress call, voiced by original Thor director Kenneth Branagh:
“This is the Asgardian refugee vessel Statesman … We are under assault. I repeat, we are under assault. Engines are dead. Life support failing. Requesting aid from any vessel within range … Our crew is made up of Asgardian families, we have very few soldiers here. This is not a warcraft. I repeat, this is NOT a warcraft.”
The Guardians eventually receive this wrenching S.O.S. and come to investigate, but by then it is far too late. The first scenes we see after the ship under attack by Thanos’ warship Sanctuary II (the name feels like an ironic kick in the teeth) show Statesman on fire, its interior now a charnel house.
Members of Thanos’ Black Order step over the freshly slaughtered bodies of men, women, and children, preaching about how the dead should rejoice, for they are now saved. The Order members pause to kill those who are already wounded, driving their weapons deep for good measure. It is a brutal and horrific scene that was not necessary to show without deeper context, especially in 2018.
Here’s the thing: if Avengers: Infinity War had interesting things to say about refugees, and sought to make commentary on the many crises of that nature that are currently happening worldwide, I could almost understand why this plot element was thought crucial to include. Every day, in many parts of the globe, desperate families make terrifying journeys in an attempt to find a safer place to live, often encountering horrific violence.
Infinity War does not have interesting things to say about refugees. They are not mentioned after that scene, even in passing by Thor. The movie may be chock-full of personal heroism and grieving the loss of what you love best, but it is practically apolitical compared to other Marvel properties.
At its worst, Infinity War‘s politics revolve around Thanos’ junk theories about sustainability, repeating them again and again as justification for the actions of a villain the directors call “very interesting and complex,” “compelling,” “the wisest character in the movie,” and state that “in a lot of ways, this is his movie.”
Beyond extending undue sympathy for this monster, the messaging here that we absorb from Thanos is extremely troubling: that there are not enough resources to go around, so “wise” villains can justify extreme measures in order to better regulate those resources for the lucky few. And in Infinity War, we don’t even get to see Thanos proven wrong. The strongman spouting pseudoscience and his brand of radical religiosity wins this battle of the war. As Solitaire Townsend writes in Forbes:
[Thanos] had promised “not suffering, but salvation,” and in the final shot a tiny smile is playing on his face after a job well done. Ouch.
We’re meant to be disgusted by what Thanos and his henchpeople do at the beginning of Infinity War. I’m not suggesting that the audience is set up to celebrate it. Those scant scenes exist, however, simply for the purposes of establishing the extremes the villain will go to, while not taking in the true impact of what he has done to Asgard’s few survivors. It reads to me like Marvel Studios creatives not realizing that this cartoonish comic book bad guy also reflects on our real world, as comic books ever have, especially in times of war and civil strife.
Back in December 2017, I speculated that the opening of Infinity War would indeed deliver the sacrifice of the Asgardians, in response to Marvel Studios co-president Kevin Feige’s comment that “within the first five minutes of Infinity War, people will understand why Thanos is the biggest and baddest villain in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
By killing the Asgardians, whom the audience knew and liked from Ragnarok and prior Thor movies, Thanos would make a “bigger and badder” first impression than, say, attacking a passing freighter or a random city. Sure. I can see how that storyboard meeting went. But this is uninspired and lazy storytelling, especially since it was so predictable months prior to the movie’s release. The logic here seemed to run: lots of known innocents wiped out by villain = villain is big scary bad.
“We’ve been teasing him for years,” Feige said, “and the trick is when you tease something for that long you have to deliver.”
Why did delivery have to mean such a loss of life dealt to a diaspora of people who were already suffering, fleeing a brutal ruler, and had just watched their homeland destroyed? You can’t convince me there was no other way to do it.
The audience would have received the same shock and angst from the violent murders of Loki and Heimdall if all of the principals had simply been abducted and taken to Thanos’ warship while the rest of Asgard fled. (Some few survivors escaped, Valkyrie among them, but Loki could have used the Tesseract to open a wormhole and send the rest away—there, problem solved, no genocide.)
Thor would have experienced the same grief at the loss of his brother and his best friend and embarked on his quest to get Stormbreaker the axe. Perhaps he would have been even more motivated in his drive to succeed by the idea that he could help to save his people again, rather than simply carry out an act of revenge.
But the main problem is that while Marvel shows us those awful sights, they do not have any follow-up. They are using refugees as props that are easily cast aside. Marvel knew where they were heading for a long time: the events of Infinity War were plotted before Ragnarok, which means they intentionally placed an entire race of people on a refugee ship in order to destroy them. This was a missed opportunity for Infinity War to say something important on the subject; if they did not have something important to say, they should not have created this scenario where the Asgardians are so savagely eliminated.
What we see in the movies matter, and those sights have resonance in our society whether the filmmakers intend them to or not. Marvel cannot succeed on the one hand with such important parallels like the social issues explored in Black Panther while ignoring the politics of its biggest tentpole film. It’s not good enough to present something like the subjugation and inhumane treatment of refugees as half-baked set dressing. This is really happening, and our world has no superheroes.
(images: Marvel Studios)
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