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Overthinking Avengers: Movie Poster Edition

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I have not yet seen Avengers: Infinity War, nor have I read any reviews, so this post cannot contain any spoilers. I have, however, seen the poster they have up in theaters and I am going to spoil that really hard.

At first glance, this poster appears to be an incongruous clutter of disconnected characters, a crowded attempt to get every member of a bloated cast into a single image. However, I don’t think the design is in any way haphazard. Choices were made by a skillful artist and there’s much more to it if we look at this thing from an art historical perspective.

Santa Trinità, Masaccio , 1425

The composition of this poster, overcrowded with familiar characters surrounding a central figure with arms held out to form a cross, is a very familiar one. It is a Christian devotional, an altar painting, particularly referencing renaissance paintings such as Masaccio’s Santa Trinità, and murals like The Last Supper.

I cannot imagine this is entirely accidental. If we allow our reading to be informed by that richly developed visual language, what can this poster tell us about the film?

First, and most obvious, Stark is our Christ figure. He is clearly the central figure in the painting and is presented in cruciform. In most narratives that means he is going to need to die so that all of humanity can be saved. However, he will likely be resurrected in some capacity. Note how his head is bowed in acceptance of his fate, though his eyes are open indicating he is seeing clearly his path ahead.

In Christian iconography, the only figure that can stand larger and higher than Christ is God. That means Thanos as being presented to us as capital G God. The glowing otherwordly halo behind him strengthens that position. While equating a death obsessed alien maniac to the Christian God is more than a little fraught, there are some parallels we might be able to draw out: he is all powerful; humanity cannot save themselves; and it requires the sacrifice of a chosen savior to save earth from his judgement.  It does set him in an unusual position for a Marvel movie as not being explicitly evil, but rather someone standing in judgement of the world and powerful beyond reckoning.

Our next figures of interest are the four central men arrayed before Stark. Their position of prominence and number allow us to make a comparison to Christ’s inner circle: The apostles Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da_Vinci, 1495–1498

Peter is the first among the apostles and considered the foundation of the church. He was also said to have denied Jesus. Clearly that’s Steve Rogers (who is called Captain America). He’s the first Avenger, the rock of the team, and has often clashed with Stark.

That places T’Challa, standing with Cap but just behind him in the role of Andrew. This suggests that Cap and T’Challa will be as brothers in the film, and that T’Challa will play a background part relative to Cap. Together they will probably be establishing the “Church,” or the force of those loyal to the Avengers to stand against the Romans, or aliens. Maybe the roman aliens.

“I am Groot!”
– Groot 3:16

Opposite them stand Thor and Star Lord. Both of them rash, confrontational, and sons of gods. That clearly places them as the brothers, James and John who were called the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).  While the apostles were not divine, the title speaks volumes to establish the metaphor. If I’m reading this correctly, those two will share a narrative in the film where they enact a high-stakes, risky plan together.

Next is a question of the women. There two framed prominently in the central scene: Black Widow and Gamora.

Black Widow, I would argue, is a clear analogue to Mary Magdalene. She supports the Avengers with loyalty and devotion after being saved from her ‘demons’ by SHIELD. Her position may mean that she is going to be the one to bear witness to the resurrection of Stark, or at least be the one privy to the emptiness of his tomb, possibly in a post-credits sequence.

That would leave Gamora to stand in place of the Virgin Mary. At first that seems absurd, she is definitely not the mother of Tony Stark and she’s awfully violent when compared to typical depictions of Mary. However if we pull from other parts of her narrative, the comparison can be made less tenuous. She is chosen by Thanos for a great purpose and put through many trials in service of that. Also she seems inexperienced in love. If you’re not convinced that argument, have a look at the visual. If we take the green space lady and palette rotate her to a more human skin tone, her unnatural red hair becomes a familiar blue shawl and her passive, tilted head a very familiar pose. What does that mean for her story? I’m doubtful of an immaculate conception narrative, perhaps instead it will involve her wrestling with the life that has been forced upon her by powers far greater than her.

Most of the rest of the clutter of characters around the bottom can easily stand in for the apostles and we can spend all day arguing about who might map to whom. The only really relevant apostle that might be worth looking into is if there is a Judas character. My first instinct would be to put Loki in that roll, who is absent from the devotional poster. But he would be better described as the serpent or satan character, the deceiver rather than the betrayer. If Judas were int the poster, the Judas equivalent would be standing separate from the other Avengers, looking with guilt or disdain at the Stark figure rather than in the same forward direction as the others. With that reading, our Judas appears to be Rhodey, War Machine.

That sounds unlikely, Rhodey is a patriot and loyal hero. However he was badly wounded in the last film following Stark’s guidance. Perhaps he harbors bitterness, and could be bought into betrayal with promises of a healed spine.

So far we have carefully ignored the characters not standing in the central grouping. In the artistic tradition we are drawing on, these would typically represent people not described in canon, often patrons, nobles, or church officials.

“I AM Groot!”
– Groot 10:10

If my reading is correct, which clearly it is, Dr. Strange is here being positioned as the Marvel Pope. While he is not a saint himself, he holds halos in his hands, implying he is a conduit through which sainthood can be achieved. This holds also with his position as the Sorcerer Supreme, the knower of the secret truths of the universe. It may mean that his role in this movie is to provide wisdom and guidance for others, and to make the actions of Thanos legible to the layman.

Opposite Strange is the Scarlet Witch and Vision. The read on her isn’t as clear, but my guess would be that we are to see her as a queen: powerful, noble, and separate from the common folk. In this it appears that she is the legitimate heir to the throne, where Vision is her Consort, being smaller and in the background. That would put their role in the film as either leaders of the people, or as an obligatory inclusion. Given their diminished position in the poster, my guess is that they are there out of obligations of the artists to their regents. They will be grand and noble and infallible, but ultimately unimportant to the story.

Finally, we reach the figure in what I would argue is the most interesting position: Spider Man. Spider Man is is positioned outside of the frame. That means he is not to be read as an apostle. He is a contemporary figure, yet he is clearly central and therefore important. He is also young, implying both innocence and naivety, someone uncorrupted but in need of guidance. He is also unmasked, his true self laid bare before all of the Holy Avengers and Thanos. This is all to say that Spider Man represents us, the viewer. He is our entry point into this narrative. His role will likely be to have the wisdom of the Avengers revealed to him, and then to ascend to be worthy in the face of Thanos, but only through accepting the help of Stark.

In conclusion, no. I do not know what the angry raccoon represents.

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