A Thematic Analysis of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War,Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Black Panther.

Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced character-driven narratives that weave in themes of colonialism, racism, immigration, imperialism, abuse, and existentialism. Marvel has begun to use their platform to say something more than “superheroes fighting aliens from space is cool!” They have embraced social commentary by critiquing xenophobia, bigotry, and genocide by endorsing open borders, understanding, and empathy.

Most importantly, these movies look at the past through a critical lens. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tackles familial bonds, showing that some relationships can be mended, despite individual flaws. Thor: Ragnorak and Black Panther detail the flawed histories of civilizations and their relation to post-colonialism. Infinity War showcases selfish violence and revenge as detrimental to the entire galaxy. The newest installments in the MCU are not dark, dreary and brooding meditations on these concepts, but lavishly colorful, entertaining comic book stories with underlying themes that transcend a strict binary of good versus evil.

There are more movies within Phase Three of the MCU than the ones I mentioned above, but I am focusing on the ones that I believe play with the idea of monsters that are created as a result of society rather than a solitary event; the antagonists are complex reflections of the heroes because despite living in the same universe, their purpose is based in bitterness, nihilism, and well, ego.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 presents family as an unconventional web of dynamics woven from the roles protagonists take in their kinship. Star-Lord searches his entire life to find his biological father, only to realize the man who raised him, Yondu, was more of a father to him than his real one ever was. Juxtaposing Star-Lord’s idealized fantasy his father with the horrible realities of Ego and Thanos emphasizes his eventual acceptance of Yondu as his father, and a semblance of closure that his search came to an end.

Similarly, Nebula and Gamora attempt to salvage their relationship for the first time despite their abusive father, Thanos, ruthlessly pitting them against each other as children. Yondu becomes a father figure for Rocket as well, seeing in Rocket the same fear and anger he feels in himself. The pop culture references, iconic soundtrack, and ‘bunch of a-hole’ protagonists are not what makes Guardians of the Galaxy compelling, which is why copying the formula is transparent in execution. Guardians of the Galaxy is compelling because of how its characters deal with their own traumas. Their constant deflection or lack of emotional honesty stems from how they were raised and confront the world, distancing themselves from forming meaningful relationships with those around them while forming their own dysfunctional family.

Thor: Ragnorak is practically a soft reboot of Chris Hemsworth’s trilogy, utterly changing the tone from the previous movies to be more whimsical, and upbeat. The movie explores Thor’s relationship with his siblings as he takes off the rose-tinted glasses and learns that Asgard was a ruthless empire under the rule of Odin and Hela. He is no longer a Shakespearan anachronism on Earth whose entire gimmick is culture shock; he is earning his godhood by making sacrifices for his people. Thor: Ragnorak is essentially a story about a bloodthirsty imperialistic villain that wants to steamroll the universe in the name of Asgard, and a prince coming to grips with the fact that all of his royalty and privilege was made possible by the death and destruction of countless lives.

He resolves to destroy the civilization that caused all of that pain by welcoming the apocalypse and gathering his people to start with a clean slate elsewhere. On the surface, Ragnorak is flashier, funnier, and more entertaining than its predecessors, but it has the darkest and most poignant theme of all, even going as far as exploring Loki and Thor’s fractured relationship and eventual acceptance of one another. Thor and Loki work together to save the people of Asgard, only for Thanos to murder all of them in Infinity War. Loki, in a moment of true redemption, chooses to be an Asgardian, and dies defending his brother.

Black Panther is a film with an importance that cannot be understated. It is a movie with an all black cast whose antagonist was created by the exclusionary policies of Wakanda in conjunction with the United States’ history of racism and oppression.  By meeting Killmonger, T’Challa realizes this man was a monster of their own making and a product of his environment, so he bears some of the blame. T’Challa not only questions the authority of his ancestors, but literally goes into the ancestral plane and tells the previous incarnations of the Black Panther they were wrong to hide Wakanda and its resources from the rest of the world. Wakanda is a nation built upon harboring its wealth and technology to sustain itself; T’Challa’s arc is realizing isolation is neither productive nor ethical, and Wakanda has a responsibility to reveal itself and give aid to other countries. While Kilmonger’s goal is to use Wakanda’s resources for revenge, T’Challa recognizes that hiding is not the answer, despite the risks that come along with revealing themselves.

Infinity War is ambitious because it is a sequel in a shared universe that builds upon eighteen previous installments, but Infinity War also challenges its audience. It is a movie full of existential dread. It is brutal and powerful. It is non-stop action for two hours and forty minutes that only slows down in its startling conclusion. Quintessential Marvel jokes are played as gallows humor. The Avengers watch as their friends fade from existence, knowing there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. Thanos is complex, sociopathic, and introspective. He, from experiencing poverty, is also a monster created by society—the product of a warped perception of how society “should function” so people, in theory, “suffer less”.

He is not an audience POV character or a villain that we are supposed to relate to. He is a well-spoken, albeit genocidal maniac that could have just zapped away poverty with his McGuffin glove or created a new ecosystem with unlimited resources if he wanted to, but instead chose to snap his finger and destroy half of life in the universe. It is possible to empathize with the nuance of Thanos’ character and his drive to succeed, and even argue that he is a protagonist within the structure of the story, as his path follows that of the Hero’s Journey. However, it is Thanos’ mentality that he is a sole savior and the only one with the drive and capability to do “what needs to be done” is what makes him so frightening and compelling as a evil presence on screen.

Throughout Infinity War, Thanos confronts the Avenger’s emotional attachment to one another. He pushes them to make life-altering decisions, only to showcase how meaningless these decisions are in the grand scale of the indifferent cosmos. Gamora makes Peter promise that he will kill her if she is captured by Thanos because her knowledge of the Infinity Stones is dangerous in the hands of her father. When Gamora is captured by Thanos, Peter, through tears and against his will, pulls the trigger, only for Thanos to use to the Reality Stone to turn his ammo into bubbles. He trivializes Peter and Gamora’s agency, rendering both of them powerless to a seemingly pre-destined fate.

And although Peter makes a mistake because of his anger and immaturity that costs the Avengers the Infinity Gauntlet a few scenes later, I felt as though his character arc was completed when he made this promise. When we meet Peter, he is an immature womanizer that views women as distant objects and as coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his mother, largely because he was raised by Yondu, an overtly masculine figure who shunned emotional connection. Peter Quill promises to kill Gamora and keeps that promise, regardless of his fear of losing the people close to him. And it didn’t even make a difference.

Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of a multiplicity of these threads laid bare; a movie filled to the brim with ambition and stakes raised higher than ever before. Looking at the end of the movie, it seems unlikely all of the characters who died will stay dead; I mean, this story is based on a comic book, after all, and they wrote in magic stones that defy time and space. However, I think that even if looking at the MCU metatextually takes away the illusion of these characters being defeated, it doesn’t erase their development or the pain that was caused by their loss.

Thanos killed all of Thor’s people, but that doesn’t mean Ragnorak no longer makes sense or loses its impact. Wakanda opened its borders to let in hoards of alien monsters run rampant, and T’Challa dies, but that doesn’t mean that the societal issues that created Killmonger are irrelevant. Gamora, who I honestly think could stay dead due to being killed before Thanos snapped his fingers, still led Thanos to the Soul Stone to save her sister from being tortured. Rocket Raccoon’s development throughout Guardians of the Galaxy is not erased, and I doubt that if Groot comes back he’ll ever be able to shake the feeling of loss that he experienced. Star-Lord still pulled the trigger to kill the woman he loves. If you didn’t feel anything when Spider-Man clung to life, I’m sorry to say, you might be made of metal and wires. Bringing all of the Avengers back will not take away the pain felt by these characters in the interim, and I think the consequences of the fight with Thanos creates interesting storytelling avenues to explore.

I understand the inclination to view Marvel and Disney as corporate overlords just slogging through these movies to make cash. Cynical as it is, there is a validity in that argument. However, I find that interpretation of the MCU disregards the creative directorial work of James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and the Russo Brothers. All of these creators bring with them a different take on what it means to be a superhero and the emotional weight that goes along with that. Their work deserves to be viewed in synchronicity as smaller parts in a larger whole—not a blob of shameless franchise installments to be shelled out to the masses.

These movies aren’t perfect; sometimes the jokes don’t land and they can give the movies tonal dissonance. You don’t need to watch all of the movies, and the mere existence of the scope of the MCU is impressive and has never been seen before on this scale. And yet, I understand that nineteen films is an overwhelming commitment to some. Infinity War, along will the aforementioned films in Phase Three of the MCU, challenge the audience’s perceptions of characters’ dynamics and their interactions within the world as superheroes. The possibility of what happens next is only speculation, but regardless of where they choose to go from here, these movies have a level of depth and complexity that adds to the cultural discourse.