The Cull Obsidian and Avengers: Infinity War
Last weekend at the Disney Expo, Marvel revealed that the Cull Obsidian will appear in Avengers: Infinity War (they’re also called The Black Order; apparently in the movie they’re going to be called the Children of Thanos). We also got our first glimpse of the Order, and it’s exciting to see that the Russos have nailed the look of the characters.
The inclusion of the Black Order in Infinity War excites me for another reason. When Marvel announced that the third Avengers film would finally bring Earth’s Mightiest up against Thanos, we all assumed that the main template for the movie would be Infinity Gauntlet––the 90s comic event in which Thanos tries to woo Death by uniting the Infinity Gems and using them to wipe out half of all life in the universe. But at the time, I also hoped that they would draw upon Jonathan Hickman’s 2013 event Infinity. This made sense when Infinity War was first announced because at first it was supposed to be a two-part movie. Since Infinity follows two plots––one set of Avengers have to travel into space to head off a cosmic threat while another set remain behind and have to stop Thanos, who threatens the Earth––it made sense that a two-part Infinity War movie might draw upon Hickman’s story. One of the movies might focus primarily on the cosmic-bound Avengers while the other could focus primarily on the fight to save the Earth.
But since then, Marvel has stated that Infinity War won’t be a two-part movie after all, so my hopes were somewhat diminished. Now the fourth Avengers movie is as yet untitled (and the title is apparently a spoiler for something that happens in Infinity War; my guess is that it will be called Infinity Gauntlet).
So when Marvel revealed the Children of Thanos last weekend, I was stoked. The Cull Obsidian first appeared in Infinity, so there’s good reason to think that Hickman’s story might be part of the movie’s source material.
Not Your Average Event
These days everybody suffers from event fatigue (so much so that Marvel has pledged not to give us any major crossovers for at least eighteen months), but I have a confession to make: I’m a sucker for the big tentpole crossovers. Civil War was my introduction to comics, and since then, I’ve loved most of the crossovers that have come out of Marvel. There are several that I haven’t enjoyed, of course (Original Sin, Age of Ultron, and Axis come to mind), but I generally love a good event story.
Still, I get why people are tired of events. They promise Earth-shattering consequences, but those consequences get undone just months after the event ends. They interrupt people’s favorite series. And, let’s face it, they’re often simply money-grabs, stretching stories that could be told in four issues into eight or ten $4 books.
In spite of all that, though, crossover events often give us great stories, and Infinity is certainly one of them. In fact, I would argue that it’s the best thing to come out of Hickman’s tenure as the Avengers scribe (and that’s saying a lot because from Avengers #1 to the last issue of Secret Wars, Hickman’s run is damn good comics).
The plot is both high-concept and satisfyingly straightforward. The main conflict involves a group of ancient beings called the Builders who claim to be the architects of the universe. In order to save the universe from dying in the collapse of the multiverse (the collapse that ultimately leads to the final chapter in in Hickman’s Avengers run, Secret Wars), the Builders plan to destroy the Earth.
Unlike stories like Civil War, Avengers vs X-Men, and Civil War II (all of which I like a lot) Infinity gives us clear protagonists and clear villains. But instead of giving us cackling bad guys who are merely bent on universal domination, Infinity allows its villains (at least the Builders) to have a real point: the multiverse is on its way to total destruction through a catastrophic domino effect called “Incursions,” and the only way to stop one universe from destroying another is to destroy that universe’s Earth.
It’s a comic book version of a classic ethical problem: When faced with a choice between the few and the many, what should you choose? Do you sacrifice the needs (or lives) of the few in order to save the many? It’s often expressed in the trolley problem, where a bystander has to decide between letting a runaway trolley kill several people or switch tracks and kill only one person. If you answer that you have a moral obligation to save the many, then you’re probably a utilitarian––someone who believes that we must always make the choice that leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Infinity uses variations on the trolley problem in order to ask whether or not utilitarian ethics is truly moral or truly human. For example, Thanos forces a version of the trolley problem on Black Bolt when he demands a “tribute” from the Inhuman king. Black Bolt has to either hand over the heads of all Inhumans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two or face the destruction of his people. As Black Bolt’s brother Maximus observes, Thanos’s demand is much like Herod’s in the gospel of Matthew. Thanos wants his son (who is an Inhuman) dead, and in order to accomplish this, he demands the death of everyone around the same age as his son.
Thanos is one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe. Black Bolt has no reason to doubt that the Mad Titan can back up his promise to destroy the Inhumans, so a purely utilitarian moral calculus might say that he should give in to Thanos’ demand. The choice becomes even clearer when Thanos arrives at Attilan and says that he will be satisfied if Black Bolt only hands over Thane. The king’s choice seems obvious, but he doesn’t make that choice:The Inhuman king’s voice is his superpower. A mere whisper can shake the ground. So when he screams “no” to Thanos, his answer is definitive. He will not sacrifice the life of a single Inhuman, even when the stakes are so high. Some people would say (echoing Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron) that “there’s no math” in Black Bolt’s choice. When set on a balancing scale, the life of the entire Inhuman race seems worth far more than the life of one, but Black Bolt believes otherwise. He might risk the life of everyone, but he knows that it isn’t enough to save lives if you lose your (In)humanity in the process.
The Trolley Problem Writ Large
The choice that Thanos forces upon Black Bolt is magnified in the choices that the Avengers and their allies face. They have joined forces with the Kree, Skrulls, Imperial Guard, and others in order to oppose the Builders, but from the beginning their efforts look completely doomed. The Builders outgun the allied races by far. And as the Supreme Intelligence says, fighting the Builders almost certainly leads to death, while bending the knee to them might allow most of the races to survive. The math seems to demand surrender and appeasement.
This is what the Spartax and the Kree decide. Once their losses are too great, the Kree
Supreme Intelligence recalls all Kree forces to Hala to bend the knee to the Builders, reasoning that there is no future in opposing them. Meanwhile, J’Son of the Spartax secretly tries to bargain with the Builders and betray his allies. Like Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, he thinks that it is better to be on the side of the strongest than on the side of the right.
What interests me most about all this is that the truly good characters in the conflict are the ones who are willing to die rather than decide that some lives are more valuable than others, while the villains (Builders, Thanos) and the people who are weak but think they are strong (like J’Son) are the the ones who decide what to do based upon a utilitarian calculus. Captain America, the Avengers, the Skrulls, Ronan the Accuser––all the heroes in Infinity are willing to die rather than give in to what the Builders want to do. They all know that if they give in to the temptation to chose survival over honor and righteousness, then their survival means nothing. Captain America sums up this idea beautifully in another Hickman issue:
This scene occurs in Avengers #34, several issues after Infinity, but it’s also written by Hickman, and there can be no doubt that the same philosophy motivates the heroes who fight against the Builders. When we decide what is the moral thing to do based upon risk analysis or a similar utilitarian thinking, when we decide that some lives are more worth saving than others, then we run the risk of losing our humanity.
I think it’s probably safe to spoil it at this point: the Avengers defeat both Thanos and the Builders by the end of Infinity. That might suggest that Hickman’s point is that if you try hard enough, you’ll win. But that strikes me as too simplistic an interpretation (and it certainly isn’t true to life). The Avengers and the Inhumans have very good reasons to believe that they’re going to lose, so there are compelling reasons to give in to the demands of the Builders and of Thanos. But they also understand that you have to fight some battles––even when you know you’re going to lose. Sometimes the fight itself is the victory, even if you lose everything in the process.
Are You Listening, Russo Brothers?
All of this is why I think that Infinity is one of the best Marvel books of the last decade or so. It does everything that comics are best at: it tells a compelling and exciting story; it lets some of Marvel’s greatest characters shine (this is especially true of Captain America, Black Bolt, and Thor); and it explores important questions about what it means to be human (or Inhuman). Here’s hoping that the inclusion of the Black Order in Avengers: Infinity War is a sign that Marvel and the Russos will draw more from Hickman’s story.