Scientists say it might be far too late to reverse the damage we’ve done to this beautiful planet and today, a June day in New Jersey, the temperatures have soared to record highs. In the house I’m staying in, I’ve turned the window AC to the coldest it will allow and have stripped out of most of my clothing, exhausted from what heat has been trapped against my skin. I’ve sprawled across a bed, almost naked, with an ice cube twirling and shrinking in my mouth.
I’m not certain when it will get worse than this but I know it will get worse. As I’m told often by articles shared on my Facebook timeline, the ice caps are melting and soon, many cities around the world will be swallowed by a bloating ocean. I’m afraid my children will have to face a heat worse than the one that threatens my comfort today. I can feel the danger in the distance growing violent and gaining proximity and yet, I do not know how to give it my proper attention. I press the pedal of a Honda Civic until its engine makes a ruckus and launches me down a highway and, somewhere else, a climate scientist is watching as a number ticks upward on a screen, her hands tugging harder and harder at her hair until a few strands pop loose.
We have been terrible, haven’t we? So terrible that it is rather easy to imagine that there might be a punishment on its way for our sins. It’s easy to imagine the universe herself upset and furious and eager for agency. We’ve seen such scenarios play out before in films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow and other such dreamt-up stories where Earth, all the way fed up, takes its health into its own hands.
Sure, Marvel’s Infinity War is a superhero movie that serves as the climax for a plot that was sprawled over 10 years and 18 successive movies, but Infinity War is also yet another movie about a possibly vengeful universe and what we might be asked to sacrifice if such a universe snaps, if such a universe grows desperate to remedy itself of its affliction, us, by any means necessary.
“When I’m done, half of humanity will still exist . . . . With all six [infinity] stones, I can simply snap my fingers, [and] they would all cease to exist. I call that mercy,” says Thanos, the great antagonist of Infinity War and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large.
Thanos first arrived at this idea of half measured destruction many years ago, when his own planet, Titan, faced a crisis of resources. There were too many mouths to feed and not enough to go around. In an attempt to save his people, Thanos came up with a solution: a culling of half of the population—one that was fair and random across all of Titan’s inhabitants, without care for age or class status. Of course, he was thought to be mad and his ideas absurd, and so, understandably, the society on Titan chose to find another way. But sure enough, Titan did in fact meet a harsh demise. Once rich in resources and lush with foliage, Titan is now a planet that spins a few degrees off its axis—a dizzy world of dust and wind and little else.
As an audience, we are made to believe that this is why Thanos has resolved to succeed with his deadly plan at all costs. He had the opportunity once to prevent the total annihilation of his people and everyone he loved and now he refuses to miss that opportunity again. I imagine he must still see the wreckage on the back of his eyelids. I imagine there may be no worse nightmare calling his name than the one he is living. The film wants me to believe that Thanos has suffered terrible loss, and I do. I think it is true that if you strip a person of everything they could ever hold close, they can be pushed to believe anything.
And so, Thanos is determined to fulfill what he believes to be his destiny: to ensure the survival of the universe; to find what immense power he must to erase half of all life in one instant, with one snap of his fingers. No pain. No suffering. Just a sudden absence of life. A kind of mercy. In this way, Thanos has appointed himself the arbiter of this universe, a personification of this universe’s will. One day, Titan fell and all of his people perished. The next day, Thanos named himself a god.
In the previous Avengers film, Age of Ultron, Tony Stark is shown a dream, a glimpse into an ill fated future where all of The Avengers have fallen and Earth has been ransacked by insatiable Chitauri invaders. Tony sees, with his own eyes, the dead bodies of his comrades. The dream feels close, and real, and it births a terror deep inside Tony’s bones. Black Widow’s eyes are frozen open and her body unmoving. Hawkeye sits upright, beaten and bloodied. Tony wanders slow toward a dying Steve Rogers, who says, “You could have done more to save us. Why didn’t you do more?”
The sequence is a major plot point that moves Age of Ultron forward, but this same dream sequence is referenced in Infinity War. As Tony and a team of The Avengers descend toward a barren Titan, where a bout with Thanos awaits, we watch as Tony is visibly shaken. He fears the worst. He is desperate to do what he must to ensure what he once saw doesn’t ever come to pass.
Infinity War is a film that asks each of our heroes what exact lengths they are willing to go to survive what might be the unhinged will of the universe. Some of our heroes are asked to sacrifice friends and comrades, others are asked to sacrifice lovers. Peter Quill points a gun in the face of his beloved but he pulls the trigger too late. Scarlet Witch is asked to destroy her lover with her own hands and refuses this impossible call for as long as she can until it is too late, until such a sacrifice is useless.
In succession, their answers fall like dominoes, one into the other, slowly accumulating until the movie arrives at its ending, its terrible rapture. Thanos, in possession of all the powerful infinity stones, snaps his fingers and half of the sentient life in the universe does, in fact, disappear. Half of our heroes fall, one by one, and their bodies turn to ash. Each death seems painless and quick and unstoppable once it has been set in motion. Mercy, as Thanos has described it. Mercy, as Okoye watches T’challa, her king, dissolve into smoke. Mercy, as Scarlet Witch watches her lover die once, and then again, before she is handed over to death herself. Mercy, as Tony Stark, who entered the film dreaming of children, is forced to watch helplessly as the closest thing he’s had to a son crumbles to dust between his fingers. Mercy, as Tony disappears into the mouth of grief, his worst fears now realized.
Dreams can act as a kind of premonition. The brain, free of the now sleeping conscience, can concoct images of what we have once been in proximity to—maybe ideas from the past week, or the past month, or maybe ideas that haven’t surfaced since our childhood. The brain can mix and match and render it all into a ridiculous theater, inside of which we are granted a glimpse of a life that feels close but probably impossible. Wings, perhaps suddenly. Or, if we are most unlucky, the brain can render a swell of our fears. Our worst case scenarios made into a kind of reality. Everything we’ve left behind in our past can come reaching for our throat or a threat can come beckoning at our doorstep, a challenge that we cannot possibly survive. In this way, dreams are a kind of practice. A trail run. We can perhaps be more prepared to survive what we think is coming if we get to face the threat here, where the stakes are low. This way, no matter whether the dream ends in triumph or defeat, whether or not we are made to shed blood, we will wake up whole in the morning with blood still left to give and a battle still left to fight.
If we are to believe that most of Infinity War’s death and destruction will be undone in the sequel (as we should probably, most definitely believe), then this movie is a kind of dream for all of our heroes—a harsh glimpse into a reality where they have failed and a massive amount of lives were lost. Perhaps, by overcoming the monumental, they will somehow manage to reset time and all of our heroes will charge into the conflict again, this time knowing the full weight of what is at stake. Or perhaps, by some small or massive miracle, they will obtain the stones themselves and, by the end of the next movie, someone will snap their fingers and everyone will come back—dust gathering back into a body; the body, again, gathering breath. Perhaps then, Tony Stark will wake up with his hands clean, and he can begin dreaming of children once more.
Scientists say it might be far too late to reverse the damage we’ve done to this beautiful planet and I’ve had such trouble sleeping. In my dreams, everyone is drowning or on fire. In my dreams, the streets are first flooded with the blood of my kin before they flood again with the wide body of the Atlantic. New Providence, the Bahamian island I grew up on, becomes a new ocean floor and everyone I have known since childhood is buried beneath the weight. I scream my mother’s name and it begins to rain. I scream my mother’s name and the trees grow ravenous faces. They beg for what they have always been owed. I scream my mother’s name and their leaves ignite. The sun pulls us in close and every block spins into an inferno. Before it all turns to ash, against all odds, my body finally jostles itself awake. I find myself safe in my bed. The sun remains far away in the sky and the birds are still singing their terrific songs. Despite what I have seen, I am held proper, yet again, by another bright and quiet dawn.
Infinity War was released in theaters during the part of the year that the seasons finally begin to change, if they haven’t changed already. After watching the film’s difficult ending, I walked out of the cinema and into the warm Midwest air. In Minnesota, the trees had begun showing small, glowing bulbs. The Mississippi had thawed itself loose and its waters were galloping loud. The landscape was flickering back to life. That night, the sky was free from the weight of any clouds. The blue had stretched its body above everything I can ever hope to touch.
God of The Reckoning, I know you are on your way. I know we have been terrible and reckless with this planet and what it affords us but I wish you grant us a better mercy. I do not wish the ones I love an empty space where their lovers once were. Tell me what I must offer as penance. Tell me what I must offer to keep your hands away from what I cherish.
Soon, I will sit on a porch somewhere with the woman I love closeby, my fingers interlocked with hers. A few months ago, she and I emerged from a winter we thought would never end, a winter that sank into our bones and forced us to reach for each other’s warmth in a way we never had before. She’s asked me, once or twice, if I think I ever want to have children, and I haven’t yet been able to give a proper answer. I’ve only diverted my gaze and shifted uncomfortably in my seat while I considered the many dark and treacherous paths this world might wander through in the next decade or two. So far, I’ve only been able to respond to this question of offspring with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” But right now, Minnesota is still drenched in summer. Outside of my house, along the porch, there are flowers whose petals are bursting with new light, their lips open and drinking the sun’s bounty—gradual, and with perfection. I think, if she were to ask me again, I may just promise her everything.
God of The Reckoning, I know we’re in the end game now but I will settle for no ending that is unlike this. I will settle for no ending that doesn’t have us both walking out of here alive.
Bernard (he/him) is a Bahamian poet and essayist living in New York. He is a contributor and collaborator at Button Poetry, a two time Pushcart Prize nominee, and has writing featured/upcoming in numerous journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets 2017, The Adroit Journal, Winter Tangerine and The Rumpus, among others. Bernard is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at New York University. He is excited to convince you that fall is not that great of a season.