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Commentary: 'Avengers: Infinity War' is a profoundly sad portrait of an abusive family

Avengers Infinity War logo. Wikimedia Commons

I've seen "Avengers: Infinity War" twice now, and though much of the film's cacophony has faded rather quickly, there's one scene in particular that has stayed with me.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted, brutalized daughter of the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), has agreed to reveal the location of one of the Infinity Stones that Thanos is searching for to stop him from torturing her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). When Gamora and Thanos arrive on the planet Vormir, they meet Red Skull (Ross Marquand, replacing Hugo Weaving), who informs Thanos that it takes more than merely tracking down its location to recover the Soul Stone. He'll have to sacrifice something he loves.

For a moment, it seems to Gamora and to us like this might be the fatal flaw in Thanos' plan: It's not a mighty hero that will stop him but his inability to truly feel love. After all, he has tormented both of his daughters in an effort to forge them into unstoppable fighters, and his plan for the universe involves a form of drastic Malthusian population reduction.

And yet, when Thanos throws Gamora to her death, he is rewarded with the Soul Stone. The implication is clear: Gamora is wrong, and despite all that Thanos did to her, he did love her. He may have even done the things that caused her the worst hurt out of love, or at least love as he understands it.

I've watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfold for long enough to know the score. These are not movies of ideas. The ideas fit a carefully calibrated formula to convince audiences and critics that these superhero flicks are more than trash, and therefore worth debating in a way that extends the movies' relevance, but less than an outright statement of politics. That, after all, could alienate some audiences.

Still, something meaningful does sometimes slip through. Such is the case with the MCU's depiction of the relationship between Thanos, Gamora and Nebula, which has turned into one of the franchise's uneasiest, saddest subplots.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" and its sequel showed us how Thanos had shaped Gamora and Nebula and turned them against each other. Under his tutelage, they became formidable fighters - but Thanos is no Yoda, stern but ultimately loving. He stole the girls, remade them and pitted them against each other, telling Nebula that the cruelties he subjected her to were punishment for failing to live up to the standards set by Gamora.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" showed us just how deadly the enmity between Gamora and Nebula could be. "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" explored their first steps in recovering from Thanos' abuse: learning to forgive each other and to name Thanos as the author of their misfortunes.

"Avengers: Infinity War" does something that requires a high degree of difficulty with this dynamic. It explores Thanos' relationship with Gamora from his perspective without invalidating Gamora and Nebula's understanding of what he has done to them. In making space for the idea that Thanos' abuse of his daughters is an expression of his particular, peculiar love for them, "Avengers: Infinity War" doesn't exonerate him. It makes him a more frightening, plausible monster.

Through flashbacks in "Avengers: Infinity War," we see Thanos encountering a young Gamora (Ariana Greenblatt, quite good in a small role) as he's in the process of killing half the population of her planet. He's tender with her, taking her hand and leading her away from the scene of slaughter, and distracting her with a pretty, deadly toy as the massacre begins.

This monster likes Gamora for the same reasons we do: Though she is little, she is fierce. But Thanos' gentleness toward this little girl doesn't make him reconsider his murderous calling. His ability to spare Gamora the sight of his worst works isn't actually a check on his genocidal behavior, and qualities that we'd like to believe are contradictory turn out not to be in tension after all.

"Avengers: Infinity War" isn't exactly built for contemplation, but the Thanos-Gamora storyline invites precisely that. It's true all at once that Thanos stole Gamora; that he loves her; that even though he loves her, he abused and ultimately murdered her; that Thanos' love is not a kind that Gamora must accept or be grateful for; and that Gamora, despite everything she suffered, can still mourn Thanos during the brief moment in the movie when she believes that she's killed him.

"Avengers: Infinity War" doesn't suggest that Thanos is just a misunderstood parent. Disassembling and torturing your android child to coerce your flesh-and-blood one is clearly different from grounding your teenage daughter for breaking curfew. Rather, the movie suggests that Thanos' parental wrongdoing is a twisted outgrowth of his love instead of some dark impulse in him that the rest of us lack. Though we may not have Infinity Gauntlets of our own, we're not as safe from making Thanos' fatherly mistakes as we'd like to believe.

  

By Alyssa Rosenberg. Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and politics for The Washington Post's Opinions section. Before coming to The Post in 2014, Alyssa was the culture editor at ThinkProgress, the television columnist at Women and Hollywood, a columnist for the XX Factor at Slate and a correspondent for The Atlantic.com.

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