Dr. Strange's Infinity War Prediction Is Ethical Trash
An hour or so into Avengers: Infinity War, Doctor Strange says, "I went forward in time to view alternate futures. To see all the possible outcomes of the coming conflict." He viewed 14,000,605 possible futures. How many of these saw the heroes win? Just one.
Every time this scene comes up in discussions—and if you're surprised this comes up often, you severely overestimate the quality of my conversations—I point out it doesn't mean the gang had just one way to win. Strange didn't manage to see all possible outcomes, he just saw 14 million of them, and 14 million isn't that many futures compared to infinity. They could have said he viewed infinite futures, since he's a wizard, and that would tie into the movie's title, but they didn't. One out of 14 million odds isn't even that unlikely, compared with how crazy probability can get. Many unremarkable, highly specific things that happened to you today were actually less likely than that; that's how chaos theory works.
And yet the movies do telegraph to us exactly what most people think they do: The gang had but one path to victory, the one that eventually unfolded. They talk about the prediction again in Endgame, and right before Tony dies, Strange holds up a single finger, as though to say, "This future here, where you do what you're thinking of doing, is the one possible way we win." And if that's true, every single decision in the movies loses its significance.
Infinity War is the rare movie where the heroes fail. It's a huge failure, and even resurrecting the dead five years later does not undo all the suffering they could have prevented. They fail not just because their opponent is better than them but because of their own mistakes.
The Avengers broke up earlier, and as a result, they're unable to face the threat together and win (don't do the math to calculate if they could have won together; Endgame declares that this is so). Loki reveals the Tesseract to Thanos, thinking this is step one in his latest cunning plan, but this is a miscalculation, and Thanos immediately kills him. Strange refuses to destroy his own gem, and so Thanos gets it and wins—and Thanos ends up destroying it anyway. These are all actions with consequences. But if we're told there is only one possible future in which the heroes ultimately triumph, these bad decisions, which rightly have bad results, suddenly become good decisions, nonsensically.
Those examples happened before Strange's prediction, but the mistakes continue afterward. Quill messes up their plan to knock out and disarm Thanos, and this is a good scene. He acts poorly, consistent with his character, and they all suffer the consequences. Later, after traveling through space to build a weapon to defeat Thanos, Thor screws up the killing blow so he can deliver a final quip before Thanos dies. This is another in-character mistake that gets weight and consequences.
But Strange tells us there's only one path to victory. That's bad logic (if Thor beheaded Thanos before he could snap, Thanos would have won?) and bad story. Suddenly, Quill choosing wrath and Thor choosing hubris over victory become the right decisions because both do lead to victory eventually, even though the opposite deserves to be true.
"Hold on," says me from six paragraphs ago. "Surely, Quill and Thor acting correctly would have also led to victory, but these just weren't within the 14 million futures Strange examined!" Okay, but it's hard to see how Strange would have examined the finale of Endgame before examining the much more predictable immediate possibilities of Thanos getting degloved or axed. No, the movie is telling us the smarter choices would have failed ... somehow.
Reducing the significance of our heroes' choices hurts how we perceive their bad choices and also hurts how we perceive their good ones. I'm talking now about the choice most directly connected to Strange declaring that they're in the one winning future—Tony's sacrifice.
We at Cracked have lots of fun calling out heroic sacrifices as dumb, but narratively, a heroic sacrifice needs to be a little irrational to work. If it's the inarguably correct choice with no downside, it's not a sacrifice at all, nor heroic.
The way it usually plays out, the hero is thinking of dying. A friend/their beloved screams at them, "Don't do it! There has to be another way!" And perhaps there is another way. But the hero isn't sure that way would work, and they so value others' lives over their own that they aren't willing to take the chance. So they sacrifice themselves. Even if their decision was the wrong one in hindsight, it was the heroic one.
In Endgame, on the other hand, if we buy Strange's predictions, this is the choice Tony faces. He can use the stones and die now. Or, in five seconds, he'll die anyway when Thanos definitely destroys the entire universe, Tony included. Well then, that's not really a choice at all now, is it? It's like a version of the trolley problem where you're on the train and can either drive it over a hundred trillion innocent people then fall off a cliff or drive it over no innocent people and fall off a cliff. Of course, you switch to the empty track, but that decision's hardly an example of moral courage.
Which is fine if we're supposed to come away thinking Tony died just due to bad circumstances, but they're trying to sell this as the ultimate heroic act. Are we to believe that Tony in his younger days, before he leaned altruism, would have chosen to let the universe vanish with him, if that were certainly the only alternative? Even the biggest asshole in the world would choose to die on their own terms and win, if only because that way they leave behind a universe that venerates them.
Above all else, however, the Doctor Strange prediction is criminally unethical because the screenwriters are trying to fend off all possible nitpicking. "There are no plot holes here," it says. "Everything that happens, no matter your complaining, is the only way it all could happen." Nitpicking is how I make my living, screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. When you make these pronouncements, you're taking food out of my children's mouths.
Top image: Walt Disney Pictures