The Moral Confusion of Avengers: Endgame

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Editor’s note: The following Avengers: Endgame movie review contains spoilers. 

Disney’s Avengers: Endgame is currently shattering domestic and global box office records.  In one sense, this is a very positive sign of our culture’s health. The twenty-one previous entries in The Marvel Cinematic Universe are mostly unobjectionable, laudable depictions of heroic moral virtue, clean humor, and inspiring visuals. The popularity of these movies shows that people still appreciate clear depictions of good vs. evil, self-sacrifice, and responsibility towards those in need. Further, delight in watching these characters exhibit extraordinary and supernatural abilities could be a reflection of people’s innate desire for the glory of the risen body and divinizing union with God.

Unfortunately, Endgame itself is not a particularly inspiring sign of our culture’s moral health. The movie is certainly entertaining, and it also contains several moving, heroic moments. The problem, though, is that Endgame also has multiple scenes that glorify intrinsic evils, and it does not always depict its heroes in exemplary ways. A generous interpretation would say that the didactic value of the movie is a mixed bag. A harsher assessment, to which I am inclined, is that the film does little more than reinforce key principles of our current culture of death. Let me explain.

First, Captain America (played by Chris Evans) congratulates a man for recently going out on a same-sex date, and he encourages him to continue to pursue this homosexual relationship. In order to show how important the gay agenda is to the filmmakers, the homosexual character was played by the movie’s co-director himself. Apparently, Marvel’s plan moving forward is to feature more actively homosexual characters, including some among the main heroes themselves. Now, it must be admitted that the Endgame scene is very brief and completely inconsequential to the plot as a whole, so one could easily choose to ignore it. But nevertheless, the message is clear and effective: Captain America, who is supposedly the embodiment of all virtue, supports homosexual activity.

 

Second, there is a totally gratuitous “joke” about infanticide. Several Avengers are discussing the possibility of going back in time in order to prevent Thanos (the seemingly unstoppable supervillain played by Josh Brolin) from destroying half of all human life. One Avenger, named “War Machine” (Don Cheadle), inquires why they can’t just find baby Thanos and strangle him to death.  The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) immediately reacts with disgust and dismisses the suggestion, and the whole scene is meant to be funny. But the glaring issue here is that a hero has suggested infanticide, and no one explains why this was an awful suggestion. Perhaps the reason no explanation is offered is because many people are not completely convinced that infanticide is a problem. Our country has legally aborted 60 million unborn infants since Roe v. Wade, and lately some pro-abortion advocates have stated that there are circumstances which could justify infanticide. Given these realities, I’m not sure we can dismiss this moment in Endgame as a mere tasteless joke; rather, it seems that the Avenger who brought up infanticide was simply suggesting an option that is logically consistent with this nation’s pro-abortion philosophy.

Third, two prominent characters display a disturbing inability to handle tragedy in anything resembling a virtuous manner. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is deeply troubled by the realization that he failed to defeat Thanos in battle and genocide occurred as a result. He handles his failure through isolated binging on alcohol, food, and video games. Hawkeye is in an even worse spot; having lost his family at the hands of Thanos, he is now roaming the earth as a cruel vigilante who executes criminals without reason, and does so in brutal fashion. Disney seems enthralled by this theme of the hero’s fall from grace; they were even so bold as to recently make Luke Skywalker suffer a similar fate. Why? I cannot speak on behalf of Hollywood’s writers and producers, but it seems that this type of theme just gives people further motivation and justification for throwing in the towel when the going gets tough. If Thor chooses sloth, gluttony, and cowardice in the face of suffering, why shouldn’t I? A better lesson for Disney to emphasize would be the lesson that every crucifix teaches: when the overwhelming power of evil and tragedy is assaulting you, and you have every motivation to violate truth and goodness, choose the good anyway. Now, such a choice would require virtue, and Disney does not seem to understand that virtue is a habitual disposition towards right action. A virtuous person is habitually inclined to do what is right, even amidst difficult circumstances. If they occasionally fall, their falls are minor and quickly repented of. Conversely, Disney seems to define a virtuous person as someone who only sporadically does noble things.

Fourth, Endgame is the second straight Avengers movie to endorse the errors of consequentialism and proportionalism. These moral philosophies were denounced by Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (no. 71-83). A consequentialist maintains that the moral quality of a given act should be evaluated merely by a consideration of the possible consequences which the act could produce. The proportionalist specifies that an act is good if its consequences bring about the greatest good or least evil that is possible in a given situation (VS, no. 75). Rejecting both of these errors, Catholic Tradition has always affirmed that the moral quality of a human act is determined by an evaluation of the object, end, and circumstances, each of which must be good for the act as a whole to be good (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1750).

In last summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, consequentialism and proportionalism are displayed on several occasions. First, out of “love,” Chris Pratt’s “Star Lord” promises, and then actually attempts, to kill his girlfriend Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in order to prevent Thanos from prying information from her that could lead to mass genocide. To this end, Gamora eventually attempts to kill herself, but is thwarted by Thanos. Later on in the film, Paul Bettany’s “Vision” begs Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch” to destroy the infinity stone lodged in his head so that Thanos cannot extract the stone and use it to commit genocide. The problem here is that the stone is thought to be an organic aspect of Vision’s being, and so it is essential to his existence. Hence, destroying the stone would be a direct attack on Vision’s being, and so would be an act of direct killing (Evangelium Vitae, no. 57) and a violation of the principle of double effect. Both of the sequences in Endgame display a similar logic: in order to prevent genocide, it is prudent and noble to kill an innocent human being. A third, and even more blatant, example of proportionalism is when Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Dr. Strange” voluntarily hands over an infinity stone (a weapon of mass destruction) to Thanos, though unfortunately a fitting analysis of that scene is beyond the scope of this article. Now, a case could be made that the film does not necessarily glorify the decisions of these characters. Star Lord and Scarlet Witch both make their decisions under extreme duress, and Captain America explicitly challenges Vision’s wish to be killed. Thanos even seems to praise Star Lord and Scarlet Witch’s actions, which could be seen as a subtle critique of consequentialism and proportionalism by the filmmakers.

Alas, there is no such ambiguity in Endgame, which blatantly glorifies the consequentialist decisions of its heroes. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) find themselves in a magical situation where they are told they will be given an infinity stone (and thus prevent Thanos from getting it) in exchange for one of them jumping off of a mountain to their death. The logic is: if one person commits suicide, then half of humanity will be saved from genocide. In a gut-wrenching scene, the two “heroes” literally battle one another over who will jump off of the mountain first. Apparently, this is what heroes do. Ultimately, Black Widow wins the contest and performs the “heroic” act of jumping off of the mountain to her death. At the end of the movie, when all is set right in the world, we are told that the dead Black Widow is in a better place and is looking down with joy upon the world that she helped to save through her “sacrifice.” This is the only reference to an afterlife in a movie in which half of humanity is dead.  The message: killing yourself is a legitimate and even noble option if you think it could lead to positive consequences for other people, especially widespread life-saving consequences.

Among the many problems with consequentialism and proportionalism, a glaring one is that they both deny the reality of intrinsically evil actions (see VS, no. 75). Such an attitude allows for the possibility that any type of human act could be chosen in a morally “good” way if the circumstances justify it. Infanticide is not unconditionally off the table. Even genocide could in theory be chosen if it would bring about a proportionately greater good than it destroyed. The denial of intrinsically evil actions thus blurs the distinction between good and evil, and it ends up making everyone unsafe. If a consequentialist can show that your existence and good is perceived to be a threat to the greater good, they could justify eliminating you. Is this the type of moral culture that we want to live in?

Conversely, the Church emphatically acknowledges the reality of intrinsically evil actions. As the Catechism teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behavior that are always wrong to choose” (no. 1761). This is because their objects are inherently evil, and as John Paul II made clear: “The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will” (VS, 78). Acts such as idolatry, murder, and adultery are intrinsically evil due to their object, regardless of the possible consequences that they may produce or the ultimate end for which they are chosen. Such actions are incapable of being chosen out of charity; they cannot be ordered towards the good of oneself, one’s neighbors, or union with God. A moral vision which admits of intrinsic evils is liberating; it saves a person from the daunting and ultimately impossible task of calculating all of the possible consequences of their every action, and it ensures the protection of the innocent and vulnerable. Infanticide, genocide, eugenics, euthanasia, and all other forms of human sacrifice are never options in the Catholic moral vision. Catholicism promotes a culture of life.  Catholicism unconditionally advocates for the protection of every innocent human life. Here’s hoping one day the Avengers will as well.

Allow me to conclude this critique of Avengers: Endgame on a more hopeful note. Despite its many serious flaws, the movie’s climax features a genuinely heroic, prudential act of self-sacrifice. Additionally, the epic final battle sequence features a plethora of Avengers showing off their supernatural abilities in an awe-inspiring fashion. If viewers are flocking to see Endgame because they enjoy the depiction of those two elements (i.e., heroic self-giving love and supernatural life), and not because they approve of the various moral flaws we discussed above, then it could be a sign that our culture is more open to the Kingdom of God than we sometimes think. In any event, we would be wise to follow the advice of St. John Paul II as we engage with the people of this culture: “We must not be content merely to warn the faithful about the errors and dangers of certain ethical theories. We must first of all show the inviting splendor of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself” (VS, 83). Ultimately, the most effective remedy for consequentialism and proportionalism is a living faith in Christ.

(Photo credit: Marvel Studios)

Daniel Waldow

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Daniel Waldow earned a Master’s in Theology from Ave Maria University. He is a former youth minister and high school theology teacher, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at Duquesne University. He has been published in the Heythrop Journal and The International Journal of Systematic Theology.

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