Is Thanos The Protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?

As with the earlier post this week about Avengers: Infinity War, I’m gonna buffer in with a metric bootyload of spoiler space in the form of James Joyce, this time in the form of a passage from a significantly less-bullshit book, one of my favorites: Ulysses.

Note that when this passage is over —

THE SPOILERS BEGIN.

Mild fire of wine kindled his veins. I wanted that badly. Felt so off colour. His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins: sardines, gaudy lobsters’ claws. All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground the French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years. If you didn’t know risky putting anything into your mouth. Poisonous berries. Johnny Magories. Roundness you think good. Gaudy colour warns you off. One fellow told another and so on. Try it on the dog first. Led on by the smell or the look. Tempting fruit. Ice cones. Cream. Instinct. Orangegroves for instance. Need artificial irrigation. Bleibtreustrasse. Yes but what about oysters. Unsightly like a clot of phlegm. Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out? Garbage, sewage they feed on. Fizz and Red bank oysters. Effect on the sexual. Aphrodis. He was in the Red Bank this morning. Was he oysters old fish at table perhaps he young flesh in bed no June has no ar no oysters. But there are people like things high. Tainted game. Jugged hare. First catch your hare. Chinese eating eggs fifty years old, blue and green again. Dinner of thirty courses. Each dish harmless might mix inside. Idea for a poison mystery. That archduke Leopold was it no yes or was it Otto one of those Habsburgs? Or who was it used to eat the scruff off his own head? Cheapest lunch in town. Of course aristocrats, then the others copy to be in the fashion. Milly too rock oil and flour. Raw pastry I like myself. Half the catch of oysters they throw back in the sea to keep up the price. Cheap no-one would buy. Caviare. Do the grand. Hock in green glasses. Swell blowout. Lady this. Powdered bosom pearls. The élite. Crème de la crème. They want special dishes to pretend they’re. Hermit with a platter of pulse keep down the stings of the flesh. Know me come eat with me. Royal sturgeon high sheriff, Coffey, the butcher, right to venisons of the forest from his ex. Send him back the half of a cow. Spread I saw down in the Master of the Rolls’ kitchen area. Whitehatted chef like a rabbi. Combustible duck. Curly cabbage à la duchesse de Parme. Just as well to write it on the bill of fare so you can know what you’ve eaten. Too many drugs spoil the broth. I know it myself. Dosing it with Edwards’ desiccated soup. Geese stuffed silly for them. Lobsters boiled alive. Do ptake some ptarmigan. Wouldn’t mind being a waiter in a swell hotel. Tips, evening dress, halfnaked ladies. May I tempt you to a little more filleted lemon sole, miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did bedad. Huguenot name I expect that. A miss Dubedat lived in Killiney, I remember. Du, de la French. Still it’s the same fish perhaps old Micky Hanlon of Moore street ripped the guts out of making money hand over fist finger in fishes’ gills can’t write his name on a cheque think he was painting the landscape with his mouth twisted. Moooikill A Aitcha Ha ignorant as a kish of brogues, worth fifty thousand pounds.

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.

There. We good?

Okay.

Is Thanos the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?

I DON’T KNOW WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME

oh wait I’m the one who introduced the question

uhhh

um

LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN

Is Thanos the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?

The short answer is: nnnyyyynnnmmmaybe?

I mean, okay, first it’s important to know that this shit ain’t math. Like, we don’t have codified STORY MECHANICS where you can rip open the source code and look at the evidence for the thing. It’s all floppy, sloppy theorizing, but I’m down for that kinda floppy, sloppy theorizing, because that’s what makes all this story stuff fun to build, dissect, study, and replicate.

First it requires us to define our terms a little.

What the fuck is a protagonist?

Well, ‘protagonist’ is Greek for ‘professional player of the game of tag,’ which is to say, it’s the person in charge of tagging other characters and since Aristotle invented the game of tag (also hide-and-seek, and also a less-famous game called who-can-drink-the-hemlock-first) —

*receives note*

My Greek may be rusty there.

Let’s more hastily define ‘protagonist’ as the ‘main character.’

Except wait —

*receives note*

That’s not it, either.

As I noted in an earlier discussion of Fury Road, the ‘main character’ is Mad Max because, his name is in the damn title, but he’s also not the protagonist, which is Furiosa. She’s the one with an effect on the plot. She’s the one with the problem to be conquered, and the one with the arc, and the one whose point-of-view we’re largely with — or at least the one we engage with most often. The film is her story, but Mad Max is still the ‘main’ character. (Though in a sense he’s also literally a supporting character, in that he uses his body as a support for her rifle.)

Usually, I like to define a protagonist as the ‘agent-of-change,’ and the antagonist as the one who opposes that change — either with change of her own, or in an effort to uphold the status quo. Villain ends up being something different altogether, as is hero, because then you’re dealing with the standard (and occasionally boring) duality of good guys and bad guys. Can the villain be the protagonist? Sure. (See: Maleficent or Reservoir Dogs or The Grinch or, or, or.) Can the good guy be the antagonist? Sure. (The Fugitive!) But where does that leave us with Thanos?

Is Thanos the POV character in Infinity War? Not necessarily — we are not proxy to all the beats of his story. The film doesn’t follow him, mostly — it assumes he’s Off Doing Thanos Shit, and we’re not with him. Is he the character with the problem to be conquered? Nnnyes? Mostly? Probably? He has a mission, though a spectacularly dull-headed one — one that is either a plot-hole if you believe him to be noble or one that instead confirms that he’s actually just a giant genocidal dildo (and a purple one to boot). Is he the one with the arc? Probably. Most of the heroes are either nudging forward their arcs from the past several movies or have no notable arcs to speak of — his is the most complete one, in that we get the full scope of it from the start of the film to its conclusion.

Is he the agent-of-change?

Definitely.

But if he’s the protagonist…

If he’s the agent of change…

That means the heroes, who oppose his change…

Are the antagonists.

Which, if you interpret again as a value-free narrative term — meaning, they oppose his change but are not necessarily ‘villainous,’ then that actually works. Are they also the bad guys? Well, no, obviously not. You can interpret Thanos’ mission as loosely as you like, but there’s few moral codes that assert his dipshit plan is actually the noblest one — he wants to kill a lot of people, randomly, in pursuit of some autocratic magnanimity. He’s a dick. A giant, bloated jerk. He’s the bad guy, and there’s really no way of wiggling out of that, unless you’re also a horrible monster.

It does however reveal the slightly problematic part of the movie which is, for me, the characters are playing defense for nearly 90% of it. Even when Tony, Spidey and Strange opt to “take the fight to Thanos,” they’re just doing what would have happened anyway — going where he’s going. It’s still not active, but reactive, which is the hero mode in this film. They become slightly more active with the intro of Cap, who — using the help of his Secret Avengers — opts to work on Vision’s bling and Shuri it out of his head in order to destroy the stone. They become more active in that, though they ultimately fail, and are forced to a fallback position of reactive. (And it goes toward my argument that, despite filmmaker assertions, this damn sure isn’t a “complete movie” unless you really, really want the movie to positively identify with Thanos as protagonist, main character, and Actual Good Guy. Given that the midpoint of a story like this is usually the All Is Lost turning point, and that point in this film happens moments before the credits, it’s pretty clear this is just one half of a larger story.)

So, again, is Thanos the protagonist?

Maybe? It’s an argument, and one you can support. Is he the villain? Also, probably yeah, unless you’re a dictator and a murderer, in which case, hey, he’s aspirational. It’s a fun way to think of the movie, and maybe intentional on the parts of the writers — the question now becomes: was that effective? Was that the best choice? That is left to you, and to the passage of time, to decide.

(Casual reminder now: if you like this sort of narrative dissection, you can find a whooooole lot more of it in Damn Fine Story, which also unpacks stories like Die Hard, Star Wars and… wait, Gilmore Girls? *checks notes* Yep, Gilmore Girls. Grab in print or e-book.)