Spoilers ahead.

Consider yourself warned.

For ten years now Marvel has been patiently building a universe, populating it with heroes and heroines equal parts human and super-powered, propelling all of them towards a titanomachy we imagined they could be prepared for but in reality are largely powerless against.

Avengers: Infinity War offers our protagonists (and, sympathetically, the audience) various electives of sacrifice—not to elect between sacrificing and not-sacrificing, but to opt for one of the alternatives in a series of cruel binary determinations. Infinity War requires the surrendering of one or another of our heroes’ convictions to perhaps save the universe, but holds out no promises their sacrifices will guarantee that outcome.

In the short time since Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony Stark has won Pepper Potts back and proposed to her, closing a wound that has colored his judgment since Avengers: Age of Ultron and exacerbated the ordeals the team has undergone from Captain America: Civil War on. But within moments of our first encounter with the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Stark, Tony is yanked away by Dr. Strange. Bruce Banner has returned to Earth with the news that Thanos, a tyrant from the further reaches of space, is making his move to collect all of the infinity stones and wipe out half of all life in the universe. Bruce has arrived by way of Heimdall onboard the Asgardian refugee ship, a transit that Heimdall paid for with his life. Prior to that he witnessed the film’s first demand for sacrifice, in which Loki surprisingly surrenders the Tesseract to Thanos in exchange for Thor’s life. But Loki, too, is killed after he attempts to assassinate the mad Titan. The remnants of Asgard are in disarray and Thor is lost. The Avengers are all that stands between the mad Titan and the genocide he intends to unleash.

But this war against Thanos will not be like any they’ve fought before. The toll it will exact on an already demoralized team is heinously different this time. What we’ve not had to witness thus far in their chronicle is the necessity of sacrificing others so as to secure victory, but that is the calculus Infinity War forces upon them.

Many of our heroes have demonstrated their readiness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Tony has: in the Battle of New York, he redirected a nuclear missile through the wormhole the Chitauri assault launched from and briefly flatlined when his life support system failed. Steve crashed the Red Skull’s bomber into the Arctic to prevent weapons of mass destruction from launching and killing millions, leaving him frozen and forgotten for seventy years. There are probably no other Marvel characters as acquainted with the high cost of duty as these two, and the overwhelming cost of their encounters with personal extinction informs and impels their drive to defend Earth.

But in another corner of the cinematic universe, Dr. Strange is arguably the Marvel character most familiar with Christlike suffering. In his confrontation with Dormammu in his solo film he submits himself to death after death after death ad infinitum to exhaust Dormammu’s wrath by means of the Time Stone. His ruined hands anchor him to the reality of the world’s need, breaking the power the fear of suffering held over him. “Pain’s an old friend,” he taunts; “I can lose again. And again. And again. Forever.” Dormammu relents in the face of this incorrigible death-bearer.

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Thanos, however, is not like opponents they’ve squared off against in the past, a mastermind that simply needs to be outmatched through the right application of strength and wits and conviction. As becomes clearer over the course of the film, once he takes up his mission to gather all of the infinity stones, his already enormous power seems to congeal into near omnipotence. Victory in this case begins to look more like neutralization, finding a way to keep the stones beyond his grasp. But every stage of this effort necessitates a choice between the death of one or the death of many.

This sounds like an impossible choice, a moral compromise one should never, on principle, make. But this smacks of cheap sentimentalism to Thanos. He understands himself as a tragic hero who alone possesses the will to act upon the universe’s greatest need. “This universe is finite, its resources, finite,” he explains. “If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” Life, in Thanos’ estimation, is an irresponsible force desperately in need of regulation so as not to collapse under its own ungoverned weight. He has witnessed it firsthand on his own homeworld and experienced the crushing futility of trying to halt the catastrophe he saw coming. And he alone is capable of harnessing the elemental powers of the universe to bring order to life itself.

Thanos’ trajectory throughout the film parallels Abraham’s path to Mount Moriah to offer up Isaac. But whereas Abraham’s course was laden with fear and trembling, Thanos’ is supercharged by a hubris that suppresses any consideration that could distract him from accomplishing his destiny.

In opposition to an enemy beset by a self-imposed illusion of who and what he is, our heroes entertain no illusions of themselves. Cap, Widow, and Falcon are visibly the worse for wear after two years of covert operations, criminals on the lam with no permanent home base. James Rhodes (War Machine) knows that his broken spine is the price he paid for aligning himself with the Sokovia Accords that tore the team apart. Bucky has awoken from cryogenic sleep but knows that intense cognitive recalibration was necessary to remove the murderous conditioning he received from HYDRA decades before. And Bruce has been in exile for so long, both from Earth and even from his own self, locked away somewhere in the Hulk’s unconscious, he is only now learning of the disintegration of Earth’s mightiest heroes. They have no pretensions of innocence or grandeur—they are going to fight because that is what they are given to do in this crisis.

Thanos, on the other hand, is going to fight to bring to fruition the partial-truth he has enshrined as the great truth. He sincerely believes that the only mercy worthy of that name to be administered to the universe is to dispassionately eradicate half of its living beings. He views any objection to his logic as hopeless optimism and vastly more cruel than his own modest proposal. His irrefragable conviction binds him to a sense of purpose but blinds him to that purpose’s horrifying consequences. Like Thor, he speaks often of the burden of his destiny and vows that nothing will stand in the way of the salvation he means to deliver.

This is why, in the second demand for sacrifice, Gamora begs Peter Quill to kill her if Thanos should move to take her prisoner. Gamora has discovered the location of the Soul Stone and kept it secret, but Thanos will assuredly find a way to get what he wants. On Knowhere the Guardians of the Galaxy find themselves outmatched by Thanos who by this point has retrieved three of the infinity stones. When Thanos takes hold of Gamora she pleads with Star-Lord to honor his promise, and in agony he point blank pulls the trigger of his gun. But Thanos deprives him of the opportunity by means of the Reality Stone and escapes with Gamora.

Aboard his flagship, Thanos forces Gamora to divulge the location of the Soul Stone by torturing her sister Nebula. In this third sacrifice, Gamora is unable to consign the sister in front of her to Thanos’ pitilessness in exchange for even the greatest good abstractly considered. Thanos and Gamora scale a mountain on the planet Vormir to retrieve the stone only to find that anyone who would obtain the stone must sacrifice what they love most to do so; “a soul for a soul,” the stone’s custodian icily intones. At first Gamora explodes with disdainful laughter as she believes Thanos is already defeated. “The universe has judged you,” she tells him. “You asked it for a prize and it told you no. You failed. And do you wanna know why? Because you love nothing. No one.

But Thanos’ titanic will is already locked in gear and the decision is as good as made. His resolve to bring balance to the universe is so unflagging, so resolute, it is as if he is already bereft of his daughter. Weeping, he tells her, “I ignored my destiny once—I cannot do that again. Even for you. I’m sorry, little one,” and hurls her from the cliff onto the rocks below, the third sacrifice. The parallels to Abraham are unmistakable, and yet they are disastrously warped. The obedient Abraham, possessed of a faith that Isaac will emerge from this ordeal somehow alive, can recognize and respond to the logic of the command, “Do not harm the boy!” interrupting his obedience (Genesis 22:12). Thanos, however, is bound, and nothing can sway him from his course.

“Logic,” Paul Oppenheimer writes, “is not the same as the ability to choose. A blinding personal need, plus an astuteness crafty enough to satisfy it, may only eliminate most, if not all of one’s emotional freedom to refrain from appalling acts” (Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior, 111). Thanos’ shrewd strategizing bespeaks his awareness of options, of choices ranging from more to less immediately advantageous. Yet one choice evades him: the choice to renege on his genocidal destiny. “The fanatic is not mentally incapacitated,” Oppenheimer continues; “he is simply unable or unwilling to question his premises, or even on occasion to remember them.”

Abraham’s mission to Mount Moriah is a type of God’s giving up of his own Son, but the refraction of it we witness in the sacrifice of Gamora points up how far short he falls of both Abraham and God. For in the one God both offering up (the Father) and self-giving (the Son) are one and the same: one will surrenders on behalf of all. But on Vormir, a life must be negated to appease the vainglory of another. For Thanos, one more life taken is simply the key to unlocking his destiny. He is more Agamemnon than Abraham, but he deserves no tears.

In his will to power and the murdering of his daughter, Thanos embodies the despotism of the Titans of Greek myth. The sons of Uranus, the Titans overthrew their father and ruled the world during the mythological golden age. Hesiod writes that Uranus cursed them with their name, for “they had strained…to perform a mighty deed” and “vengeance” would be their destiny in due time. (“Strain,” titaino, and “vengeance,” tisis, form the semantic field in which these creatures are named and judged.) Even human hubris was thought to stem from the Titan biology from which our bodies were composed.

The Titanic sin is to worship the will in such a way that acts of monstrous audacity are recast as the good and necessary courses of action no one else was courageous enough to opt for. The Titanic sinner manipulates the facts to narrate oneself as the undervalued champion burdened with glorious purpose. In reality, however, they are embroiled in a war of attrition against the public esteem of the living God whom they believe they have rendered superfluous; they aim to supplant God in order to “do what must be done,” to deliver the outcome they will not wait for God to enact. “The hardest choices require the strongest wills,” Thanos proudly pronounces. And so the Titan moves to become the god he believes the universe really needs and sloughs off every weakness he sees as an obstacle to achieving deity.

But that conception of deity is poisoned. The God who is is no voluntaristic force of pure, arbitrary will, capriciously causing this to be so for no better reason than he felt like so doing. Nor does he self-aggrandize and revel in pointless impositions that have no connection to the flourishing of creatures. This is a shadow version of God too many have embraced in settling for a definition of God derived from maximum “power.”

But Philippians 2:5-8 doesn’t frame God’s being in anything even remotely resembling these terms. These verses demonstrate that humility and self-donation are basic to what the referent “God” means. Subsisting as he does in the essence that God himself is, Jesus never entertained the notion of clinging to his privileges as God and leaving humans in their predicament. Instead, Jesus surrendered every such privilege in order to assume the same nature we had disgraced and brought to ruin. Verse 5, contrary to some translations you may read, does not contain a concessive “although” or any such equivalent. What Paul is saying is that precisely because Jesus is a partaker of the one divine identity he therefore submitted himself to humiliation and death on behalf of fallen creatures. There is a substantive link between Jesus’ divinity and the shape of his life, and these verses drive home how the pattern of that life is the only course of action consistent with being God.

With his dying breath, Loki promises Thanos: “You will never be a god,” and, like Caiaphas he’s more right than he realizes (John 11:49-51). Thanos is a parody of the God of Abraham, better reflecting the counterfeits we concoct whenever we esteem ourselves too highly or imagine our righteousness to exceed that of our maker. Thanos’ single-minded pursuit doesn’t reflect the Creator of all things—his messianic delusion cannot give without taking away. Would-be messiahs can only aim at redistribution of what already exists. There is no feeding of the five thousand, no Cana forthcoming: victory, for Thanos, means the erasure of beings, a redaction which he rationalizes as an elevation. His quest will set nothing right: it reeks of the insatiable lust for power of Satan and every derivative rebel, however noble their original aims may have been.

In this way, Thanos mirrors Tony Stark’s motivations over the course of the last several Marvel films. Tony’s own titanic will has cost the world dearly. In the battle on Titan, Thanos recognizes the man who repulsed the Chitauri invasion. “You know me?” Tony asks him. “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge,” Thanos tells him. And he is.

In the wake of the Battle of New York, bending under the weight of post-traumatic stress and the sudden knowledge that he is not the apex of ingenuity or technological craft, obsessively set to amassing dozens of new armors capable of withstanding any imaginable threat, curving in on himself in the process. Afterwards he obsessed over designing an artificial intelligence that could defend Earth from future alien invaders, only to unwittingly create Ultron with one of the infinity stones. Then, broken by the price of the campaign against Ultron, he pushed the team to submit to an outside authority, leading to the rift between him and the individual he has stood within the shadow of his entire life. Cap’s intractability adds to his heroic stature, whereas Tony’s tends to make matters worse.

As of Spider-Man: Homecoming Tony is finally wiser, humbled by the catastrophes he is responsible for, and tasks himself with mentoring Peter Parker to be a better hero than he ever was. But he is still desperate, and all the more so as he is without his friends. “For six years I’ve had Thanos in my head,” Tony laments, reflecting on all the mistakes he’s made only to come to this moment after all.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 envisions the benefits of camaraderie and sets them in opposition to the lonely hardships that are the norm in our world:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

These verses depict the way it ought to be, the way it was during the team’s prime, when each member intuitively moved with a graced, unspoken coordination, complementing each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies and shortcomings accommodated, counterbalanced, and stitched together by the world’s and their own needs, one rippling torrent of might focused upon Earth’s greatest enemies. But that time is past.

One of the most heartbreaking things about Infinity War is that, for all the reunions that do take place, the Avengers never properly recombine, and though they no longer want it to be so, there is still a rift between Tony and Steve. New alliances are forged, but the team remains fractured and we sense the loss as we watch Tony lead one faction on Titan and Cap another on Earth. Steve and his rogue Avengers join T’Challa and the Wakandan army to fight a desperate rear guard action. Their only objective is to buy enough time for Shuri to remove the Mind Stone from Vision before Thanos’ legions can claim him. If Shuri can separate the stone and reconnect his neuron interface then the stone can be destroyed and Vision’s life spared. It’s a desperate gamble, but the only odds Steve is willing to stake. “We don’t trade lives,” he promises, diametrically opposing his vision to Thanos’.

Both men lead well and fight furiously but their efforts come to naught. But that should probably come as no surprise as everything that is worthy about the team is summed up in Tony and Steve, but only in both of them together. Their combined vision and ethos is what knits these troubled individuals together into an indomitable fighting force and family.

Ironically, though, it is Tony’s visions which we see coalesce, and it is heartbreaking to witness. When we meet Tony at the beginning of the film he is narrating a dream to Pepper in which she is pregnant with their child, comparing it to the sort of dream in which you have to use the bathroom because in reality you actually have to use the bathroom. But his calling as Iron Man sunders him from Pepper yet again within minutes of this hopeful exchange and sets him on a course lights years away from Earth in one of Thanos’ ships with Dr. Strange and a stowaway Peter Parker. Tony is grieved to see Peter aboard and explains, “This is a one-way ticket.” He doesn’t want his protegee there because there is only one outcome possible. “Is he your ward?” Dr. Strange asks Tony, but their relationship is more than this now as Tony and the audience discover in the awful climax of the film.

There is another vision Tony once had: under one of Wanda’s spells in the initial sequence of Age of Ultron, Tony sees his teammates dead and an endless stream of Chitauri ships streaming towards Earth. “You could’ve done more,” the nightmare-version of Cap whispers to him before expiring. This vision compels Tony to take the foolish step of using Loki’s scepter to complete his Ultron project to ensure that future never came into existence. But here at the climax of Infinity War it seems that nightmare has finally absorbed the real world.

Back on Titan, Dr. Strange consulted the Eye of Agamotto, which houses the Time Stone, to concoct a plan for stopping Thanos. Out of over fourteen million possible futures, only one envisions his defeat. He, Tony, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, and Mantis ambush Thanos when he arrives and successfully swarm him and, with Mantis’ powers, incapacitate him. But while they are removing the infinity gauntlet from his hand, Star-Lord learns that Thanos has murdered Gamora. Tony pleads with him to suppress his passions until the plan has succeeded, but to no avail. Exploding with grief and rage, he spoils the plan by attacking Thanos, drawing him out of his trance. Thanos dispatches each one of them save Tony, who strikes with total self-abandon, unloading the full power of his latest armor. But it isn’t enough: even Tony’s most ingenious designs are no match for the raw power of Thanos. He smashes apart Tony’s suit and stabs him through with a shard of its wreckage. “I hope they remember you,” he tells Tony with begrudging respect.

But it’s at this moment that Dr. Strange offers the next sacrifice: in complete opposition to what he has declared before (that he would protect the stone before any other being) he offers the Time Stone in exchange for Tony’s life. Tony stares in horror and astonishment as Dr. Strange exchanges the lives of trillions to save him. With a smile, Thanos takes the stone and vanishes for Earth— the location of the final stone. “There was no other way,” Dr. Strange sighs to a disbelieving Tony.

A universe away, for one brief shining moment it seems like Cap’s faction has triumphed. They’ve routed the army Thanos dispatched to Earth with the help of a newly arrived Thor, armed with a new god-killing hammer. But suddenly Thanos arrives and everyone knows that everything that has preceded is ultimately meaningless as he is nigh unstoppable now. He dispatches each hero with ease—Falcon, War Machine, Black Panther, all are dismissively defeated without a break in Thanos’ step. But then Cap charges at him and hope reignites. Steve habitually ignores any signal from his ego to relent and spare himself: he unhesitatingly hurls himself into engagement with any opponent, no matter the strength differential, because, quite simply, they are there, and so is he. In Avengers: Age of Ultron he briefly battles the titular villain single handedly despite Hawkeye’s protests. “You’re not a match for him, Cap,” Hawkeye objects from afar, but that makes no difference—Cap is the only one present who can fight, and therefore, fight he will. He can do no other.

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Defiant to the very end, he grips the infinity gauntlet and halts Thanos’ advance momentarily. Thanos is surprised by this but Cap can’t do this all day. Thanos lays into Cap with renewed vigor and sidelines him as well, leading to the final sacrifice to be made: Wanda must destroy the Mind Stone. “It shouldn’t be you, but it is,” Vision tells her. “It’s all right. You could never hurt me.” Holding Thanos back long enough to obliterate the stone, she collapses, sobbing, as Thanos arrives at Vision’s corpse. But then, sickeningly, Thanos uses the Time Stone to reverse time and undo Vision’s death. He then rips the stone out of Vision’s skull, effectively forcing her to witness his death all over again. With a flourish he adds the final stone to the gauntlet, and in spite of an attack from Thor, snaps his fingers.

The destiny Thor was banking on seems to be null: he didn’t strike to his full advantage, leaving Thanos capable of exploiting the combined power of the stones. In a single second, everything has changed. The would-be god, though wounded, has fulfilled his destiny.

Within moments of the snap of Thanos’ fingers, people begin to disappear. They disintegrate into thousands of pixels of dust and dissipate into the breeze before their friends’ eyes: characters we’ve come to love over the past six years blow away like chaff, leaving a dismayed and bewildered remnant behind to process their defeat. Tony witnesses all he has toiled for disintegrating around him, witnesses the ultimate futility of all his schemes and engineered solutions. His own titanic will could not stop what was coming, and both of his dreams have become reality. He and his friends are defeated and Thanos’ purge has swept through the cosmos.

But in a final, excruciating shock, Tony holds a doomed Spider-Man close, trying to console him as he comes apart at the seams. Tony had thought he would have to sacrifice having a child to prosecute this final battle but he instead finds a son in Peter Parker as he clutches the terrified teenager’s disintegrating body. Tony has lost everyone now.

What’s going to happen now? It’s difficult to say. “There was no other way.” This all may be a part of Dr. Strange’s gambit, but how confident could he be that he and Tony’s group had followed the future outcome he foresaw sufficiently closely to bring about their eventual victory? Even Jesus despaired of the route he was committing to the night before his crucifixion; how great must Stephen Strange’s disquiet be before he himself disintegrates? Can he be more assured of his gamble? How can defeat be the linchpin of victory?

Nothing seems fixed anymore as people by the thousands begin to wink out of existence. Even the customarily pious Cap staggers to the ground and exhales two words: “Oh God.” But perhaps there is more of the resigned faith of Abraham in these three men than ever manifested in Thanos’ callous murder of his daughter.

If it is true that God is not imaged by an ironclad will ready to sacrifice absolutely anything in order to accomplish its ends but instead by self-giving to the uttermost for the lives and the flourishing of others, then it may be that the machinations of the diabolical would-be god can only be overcome by the image of God in deeply flawed human beings assembling in self-renunciation to soak up the forbidding, mathematical logic of Titanic will.

Our heroes will have to anchor themselves all the more in the logic of grace that refuses to trade lives and surrender themselves to vicarious suffering that the universe may live. When our champions at last reconcile, the mad Titan will see his retribution, and what appears at this moment to be defeat and Godforsakenness may reveal itself as the instrument of his defeat. As Tony prophetically warned six years ago: “If we can’t protect the Earth, then you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it.”