Everyone who knows me knows that I am not prone to anger. I have a very easygoing temper, and although I might get sad or upset at the drop of a hat, I rarely succumb to full-blown anger or hatred. I was angry when I left the theater after seeing Avengers: Infinity War.
***SPOILERS FOR INFINITY WAR (and Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2, I guess)***
No, it wasn’t because half of the Avengers were killed off (although I did feel for poor Peter). I understand the desire to raise the stakes for the next film. What had me fighting the urge to yell at the screen (and muttering violently at thin air as I left the theater) was the relationship between Thanos and his “daughter” Gamora.
What’s especially frustrating is that while it’s blatantly obvious to me what’s wrong about the depiction of that relationship, most people who see that movie won’t even notice – and therein lies the danger. So I’ll do my best to lay out what’s going on and why it’s so wrong.
First, let’s get this out of the way: Thanos undeniably abused and manipulated Gamora (and Nebula, of course). This is clearly established in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Nebula appears to have received the brunt of the physical abuse, but both she and Gamora were emotionally and psychologically abused at the hands of their father (pitting them against each other, withholding attention, generally isolating them from other people…). Even within Infinity War, there are plenty of signs of abuse if you care to see them – Gamora would rather die than aid her father, she’s willing to kill her father but still feels anguish when she thinks she’s accomplished it. Actual Thanos abuse in Infinity War: Torturing one of his daughters to get information from the other, putting Gamora through said scenario where she kills him so that he can prove she really does care about him, genociding Gamora’s people (and presumably Nebula’s) before stealing her away to train as an assassin/secret agent/whathaveyou, and y’know, killing Gamora.
I hate that I have to explain what makes Thanos an abusive father, but this is a huge part of why I hated his characterization in the first place: If you go into the movie with your brain turned off (which is kind of expected for a Marvel movie), it’s surprisingly easy to dismiss this evidence of abuse.
Next, let’s explore framing. “Framing” is about the methods a story employs to let the audience know what to focus on. Music is one of the simplest forms of framing in a film – a scene might be instantly transformed from epic to frightening to sad to humorous just by providing the appropriate soundtrack, no other changes required. But the writing itself can just as easily contribute to framing.
The framing of Infinity War places the focus squarely on Thanos, especially his philosophy of “balance”, his motivation for genocide, and his feelings. The whole story revolves around Thanos – the whole universe revolves around Thanos, for crying out loud! Now, if a story presents its villain as a complex character with compelling reasons for his beliefs and actions (like in Spiderman: Homecoming, for instance), I’m usually game for that – some of my favorite stories involve exploring the internal complexity of the antagonist as well as the hero. Here’s the issue: Most of Thanos’ feelings have nothing to do with his philosophy or methods. Had the filmmakers chosen to focus on the downfall of his planet and people, I wouldn’t have much to complain about. But that just ends up being window dressing. Instead, they chose to focus on his relationship with Gamora, his feelings toward Gamora. They barely even bother to address his relationship with his other daughter (which is much more obviously abusive), just Gamora.
And now we finally get to the point. Thanos loves Gamora. It’s really real love, because the universe says so, and he’s so sad when he’s forced to kill her in exchange for the Soul Stone. Maybe he hurt her in the past, but he loved her, and it’s all for the sake of bettering the universe anyway, so that makes up for everything, right?
I sincerely wish I could say, “That’s not how abuse works.” Unfortunately, abuse frequently DOES work just like that, and that’s exactly what makes this presentation of abuse so problematic. Victims of abuse frequently justify staying in abusive relationships because “deep down [abuser] really loves me”. Who cares if Thanos abused and took advantage of you, Gamora? He LOVES you, and he probably hates himself for hurting you, so just forgive him. After all, you’d probably be dead if he hadn’t rescued you from your horrible overpopulated planet. He might be misguided, but he loves you.
Are Gamora’s feelings about being abused and killed by her father depicted? Yes. Are those feelings given more narrative weight and focus than Thanos’ feelings about abusing and killing her? Nope. Even Starlord’s feelings about her death are given more weight than hers.
That is the danger of a narrative like this: It tells victims of abuse that their voices and their feelings don’t matter. It’s either incredibly irresponsible or downright despicable.