(I will be quite cavalier about revealing spoilers for both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and so should you rather discover the films’ outcomes by actually watching them, caveat lector.)
In his encyclical Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI refers to the ambiguity of progress and technology; new advances in technology and knowledge offer “new possibilities for good” and also for evil, and so this progress must be “matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation.”
The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame, revolves around this danger; namely, in that the villain, Thanos, who in the previous film, Avengers: Infinity War, used the Infinity Gauntlet to eliminate half of all living creatures in the universe so as to eradicate suffering caused by overpopulation, is opposed by heroes who seek to use that same gauntlet to restore those creatures who were annihilated. The gauntlet, unlike Tolkien’s One Ring, is defined by its moral ambivalence, and the key question is the morality of the person who uses it or his purpose.
The question, therefore, is to determine just what demarcates good and evil uses of the gauntlet; after all, Thanos sees himself as using it for a good end: the reduction of suffering. We might first consider the personal virtue of the gauntlet’s users. However, the heroes most defined by their personal virtue, such as Captain America, do not in fact personally use the gauntlet to save people. Thor, whose initial journey is to become “worthy” of his power, only suggests that he use the gauntlet because of his immense strength and power, not because of his “worthiness,” whatever that might be. Black Widow, who speaks most explicitly of becoming a good person, and of the transformation from evil to good, similarly does not use the gauntlet. Instead, it is the Incredible Hulk who uses the gauntlet to restore the annihilated, merely because he has the strength to withstand the gauntlet’s radiation, not because of any particular moral virtue he possesses.
One might suggest that the relevant virtue involves self-sacrifice, as ultimately, despite knowing it will kill him, Iron Man uses the gauntlet to defeat Thanos; however, Thanos is similarly willing to accept death if he is able to achieve his goal. Therefore, self-sacrifice alone is not enough to determine if the use of the gauntlet is good or evil. Instead, the film suggests that it is the moral excellence of the goal that is the decisive issue. The question is one of consequences.
The problem is that the heroes never propose a coherent philosophy to rebut Thanos’s philosophy, or a particularly specific goal to counter Thanos’s goal. They simply endeavour to do the opposite of what he has done. Thanos believes that flourishing will be best achieved if some are eliminated; the relatively minor suffering of those who remain caused by this loss is outweighed by the suffering that will occur otherwise. One is reminded again of what Benedict says in Spe salvi, this time about attempts to bring about utopia on Earth, which inevitably infringe on the human freedom which is necessary in order to truly love God and neighbour. A philosophy, for Benedict, is not good if it seeks to violate human goods and virtues. Consequentialism cannot be used to justify acts that are in and of themselves evil.
Ultimately, however, the issue is resolved simply by which side is able to physically defeat the other, and not by showing that one philosophy is better than the other. The heroes do not show that Thanos is wrong, such as by proposing a philosophy akin to Benedict’s; they merely cause Thanos to vanish. The gauntlet remains utterly morally ambivalent. The Avengers, therefore, are not in fact representatives of any particular moral order, but participate in an ultimately amoral struggle, not between good and evil, but between one power and another power, and it is only by chance that the victorious power’s goal is somewhat consistent with anything we as Catholics would recognize as moral excellence.
It is useful to continue the comparison between the gauntlet and Tolkien’s One Ring. The Ring is inherently evil, and will corrupt the virtue of good men who seek to use that evil tool in order to achieve good, rendering that good null and void. Frodo and Sam are only able to bring the Ring to the brink of destruction by refusing the temptation to use to as much as possible. It is their virtue in the face of evil that contributes to the defeat of evil, instead of the Avengers’ defeat of Thanos using Thanos’s own tool.
Patrick Malone has a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Saskatchewan. He has written on literature, film, and culture for Catholic Stand and has also been published in Millennial Journal.
Page URL: http://archregina.sk.ca/news/2019/06/10/technology-and-virtue-avengers-endgame