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Superheroes Who Care: What the Year’s Best Action Movies Taught Us About Empathy

‘Avengers: Infinity War,’ ‘Deadpool 2,’ and ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’ made billions of dollars at the box office. They also suggested a new way to save the world.

Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures/Donners’ Company/Ringer illustration

Wade Wilson, also known as Deadpool, is being beat up—as he is wont to be, from time to time. At this moment, it’s by Russell Collins, a teenage boy who insists on the name Firefist, due to the fire coming from his fists. Russell violently pushes back anyone who approaches him, and this includes Wade. As Russell pleads to not be returned to the Essex Home for Mutant Rehabilitation, Wade comprehends the abuse that the teenager is facing, and turns to fight the abusive headmaster instead, telling Colossus that “you can always tell” when kids are being abused. The literal statement is perhaps dubious, but the implication at its heart rings true. The scene is classic superhero fare—bad guy, hero, lots of punches, some weird costumes—but it is also, quietly, about a superhero protecting and identifying with a traumatized child. In that moment, he’s not saving the world, he’s trying to make one life better than it was.

Three of the biggest, most bombastic (and highest-earning) releases of 2018—Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Mission: Impossible Fallout—shared many action stunts, and a notable theme. Each movie was engaged with defining what it means to be “good.” But instead of equating goodness with action, or even with self-sacrifice, as was the case in previous installments of their respective franchises, each film portrayed goodness as a commitment to empathy toward other characters. The idea was there in Ethan Hunt’s refusal to sacrifice the life of his friend Luther, and in Wade Wilson’s immediate identification with Russell’s suffering and abuse. The duty, these movies find, is to protect life on an individual level, rather than preserving life in the abstract.

It’s rather remarkable that the biggest—and loudest—movie franchise in the world is also its most consistent in terms of theme. The Marvel Cinematic Universe staked its claim early in its attempt to explore, and eventually define, heroism. “Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark?” Yinsen (Shaun Toub) asks Iron Man, as they are held hostage in the 2008 movie that kicked off the franchise’s reinvention. “Or are you going to try to do something about it?” Spoiler alert: He does, shortly thereafter, building the first Iron Man suit with nothing more than a box of scraps. This ethos of heroism despite the odds has carried onward through upward of 20 movies, more than a fair few of which have grossed more than a billion dollars. But the commercial aspect in this context is less interesting than its implication: an almost incomprehensible number of people have seen these movies, which means the MCU has had a hand in shaping multiple generations’ view of what makes a hero.

As Avengers 4 approaches, it’s worth examining the MCU’s final definition, and to do that, it’s most useful to look to the Avengers movies themselves. (They do, after all, include the largest number of “heroes” put into a room together.) Both The Avengers and Age of Ultron figured its definition in terms of self-sacrifice. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you,” Cap tells Tony in the first film as they confront each other over their superheroic credentials; “I think I would just cut the wire,” Tony responds, setting up the final image of Tony’s body free-falling through the sky. The implication is that Captain America was right about the virtue of self-sacrifice, but crucially underestimated Tony. Age of Ultron attempts to deconstruct this narrative of sacrifice with an event that reverberates throughout the next phase of movies: the country of Sokovia is, essentially, sacrificed so that the rest of the world can be rid of Ultron. This decimation is immediately called into question, and it’s certainly not viewed as a victory. It leads to in-universe political legislation, the Sokovia Accords, and the sundering of the Avengers team itself in Captain America: Civil War, as the characters grapple with the ramifications of their actions. The destruction of an entire country is certainly not brushed to the side, even multiple movie installments down the line.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation makes a similar point about seeing the consequences of your choices through when Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) makes her Catwoman-esque plea to Ethan to abandon his duty and escape with her. Of course Ethan turns her down, and of course she returns to help him bring Lane in at the end of the movie. Sacrificing what you want in favor of what the world needs is a pretty standard definition of heroism, and of the Mission: Impossible franchise, too: A large part of the joy of that franchise is watching Tom Cruise do completely mind-bending stunts for our entertainment. But we can’t ask him to be doing HALO jumps into his 60s; that man has given us enough. We are fast approaching the franchise’s ultimate definitions of heroism—both of Cruise’s and Ethan Hunt’s.

“Don’t do it, Ethan,” was a refrain in Fallout. Funny, to be sure, but the line is always said when Ethan is doing something that is not only incredibly stupid, but also incredibly kind, like when he chooses to save Luther over the plutonium in the movie’s opening scene. Rogue Nation had a similar catchphrase—“Desperate times, desperate measures”—accompanied by Ethan pulling a wild physical stunt. The understanding of heroism is moving from physical extremeness to what can be termed as sentimental extremeness: losing plutonium to save a friend, and the like. Even before the reveal that August Walker (Henry Cavill) has been the elusive John Lark all along, Walker is presented in direct contrast to Ethan Hunt: He’s cold, logical, and cannot understand for a single second why Ethan acts the way he does. “Why won’t you just give up?” he asks Hunt as they battle for the detonator on the cliff’s edge at the end of the movie.

Walker can’t understand that what is driving Ethan is the knowledge that his friends are relying on him to retrieve the detonator, and the only way for them to save the world is for each member of the team to trust one another implicitly. The final act spends the same amount of time on Ilsa and Benji’s struggle with Lane, and on Luther and Julia’s attempts to prepare their bomb for disassembly, as it does on Ethan and Walker. The act of heroism at the end of Fallout isn’t the act of a man, but of a team, and the sense of trust shared between them. “Every time something bad happened in the world, Ethan would think: ‘I should have been there,’” Luther tells Ilsa about his marriage to Julia. Mission: Impossible recognizes that there is a moral imperative to helping others, but that coupling this sense of duty with a compassion for individuals is what creates a hero.

This emphasis on the individual is echoed in Infinity War, as Vision, who is in possession of a crucial Infinity Stone, suggests that the rest of the team kill him to prevent Thanos from obtaining it. Steve Rogers emphatically shuts this down: “We don’t trade lives.” The franchise’s ultimate villain, Thanos, has constructed his entire evil plot around sacrificing others for what he perceives to be a greater good; the Avengers are positioned against him, and against mass sacrifice of any kind. This contrast comes into play repeatedly throughout the movie; time and again the heroes are faced with a choice of letting someone die to protect an Infinity Stone, and each time they refuse. Doctor Strange begins by telling Tony that, should it come down to a choice between saving him, Peter Parker, or the Time Stone, “the fate of the universe” depends on him choosing the stone. Yet by the end of the movie, Strange does the opposite, relinquishing the Time Stone for Tony, telling him “it was the only way.” Granted, because it’s 2018, fan theories abound as to what that line could tell us about the plot of Avengers 4, but it’s worth taking the choice on its own merits all the same. Like Fallout, Infinity War posits that there’s a greater value at stake than emerging victorious from a battle; there is a moral victory, and one of personal loyalty, to consider. The only valid choice in the face of Thanos’s all-consuming “logic”—obvious fallacies about resource management aside—is to act to save the person in front of you, to help whoever you can.

For all of the wildly successful blockbusters about saving a universe, humans don’t experience life on that grand scale; it’s the individuals we care about, which Deadpool 2, for all its nonsensical tangents and dick jokes, recognized. Whenever Wade is close to death, the ghost of Vanessa tells him, “Your heart’s not in the right place,” meaning that his attempt at suicide is futile—he’s thinking only of his own pain. It’s when he saves Russell, and gives his life so that the teenage boy doesn’t have to become a monster, that Wade is able to achieve closure. It’s not that he sacrificed himself; it’s that he did it for the love of another person. Cap was right to draw a distinction between the two.

These movies are fantasies, which means they’re made up, but also that they are opportunities to show what the world could be. Superheroes don’t have to function according to some “realistic” logic by which the Avengers should just kill Vision. One person holds as much value as the world in these movies because, in an ideal reality, that’s the way things would be. We’d treat each other with the same respect and compassion we treat our abstract ideals.

There’s been a shift in the last couple of years in the themes and ideas at the heart of blockbuster storytelling, an accumulation of a thousand factors (political, economic, over a decade of “morally ambiguous” white, male antiheroes), that have led to a reimagining of what it means to do “good,” and these movies are made to appeal to as wide a base of people as possible. They’re a useful litmus test for how we feel about heroism, and goodness, and duty—and right now we feel like all of those things are hard, and risky. With Infinity War, Fallout, and Deadpool 2, we watched three different stories about how much harder it is to act with kindness and empathy. Deadpool 2 and Fallout imply that it’s both karmically and personally rewarding to do so, and Infinity War is, really, just the first half of a larger story. Infinity War shows that choosing empathy carries consequences and risk; the heroes undoubtedly “lose,” Ethan Hunt ends Fallout in a hospital bed, not telling the others how close they came to nuclear annihilation, and at the end of Deadpool 2, Vanessa is still dead. But there’s still hope, and an acknowledgement that, because of the heroes’ actions, life continues. It’s suggested by these movies that acting with empathy isn’t our default, it’s not the easy option; it requires work. But it’s worth doing anyway.

Hannah Searson is a U.K.-based writer who enjoys thinking far too much about action movies, ghost stories, and our collective cultural dismissal of romance novels.