After watching Avengers: Infinity War for a second time, I was struck by the last third of the film and sought out other films to help bring nuance to my understanding of Thanos' victory. As I did a lot of soul-searching, I realized the two perfect films to complement Infinity War were Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
Why these two films? Specifically, I think they add context and understanding to what is going on in Infinity War and we can take the feelings from these films and bring them into Infinity War, enhancing that experience.
To start, let's look at The Phantom Menace. One of the central themes of The Phantom Menace is that everyone is interconnected, even when they don't want to admit that. In the end, they live or die together despite their differences. At the beginning of the film, the Naboo and the Gungans are at odds and dislike each other so much the Gungans hide in their cities and ignore the surface dwellers, much like the Wakandans in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the events of Black Panther, T'challa finds that the isolationism of his people has been a detriment to his world the same way the Gungans find that they cannot survive without participating with the rest of society.
To that end, both the Wakandans and Gungans, with their superior shield technology, take to a literal field of battle to face off against a superior foe in hopes of buying time for the real mission to be accomplished. In The Phantom Menace, this comes in the form of Queen Amidala capturing Nute Gunray, the leader of the Trade Federation. For the Wakandans and heroes of Infinity War, this comes in protecting The Vision while his Infinity Stone is removed so that he can live and they can thwart Thanos' goal of getting the Mind Stone. It's awe-inspiring to watch a people as proud as the Wakandans or the Gungans put aside their differences for the rest of the world and take up arms in a desperate, self-sacrificing battle to defend all that is good in the galaxy.
The Phantom Menace has a broader theme of helping those in need even though it might not directly benefit you. This is why Qui-Gon helps Jar Jar. It's why Anakin helps Qui-Gon by volunteering for the pod race. It's why the Gungans and the Naboo unite to defeat the Trade Federation. In Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, he wrote about how a world couldn't be united unless the people of that world had a common enemy, and that's what the Sith and Thanos provided for the residents of Naboo and Earth, respectively.
And, like The Phantom Menace, the heroes of the MCU appear to win at the end, only to be defeated by the superior machinations of their foe. In Phantom Menace, the battle ends with a Sith Lord elevated to the Chancellorship of the Republic, thereby controlling the galaxy so that he might create a slaughter as thorough as Thanos'.
Not only are there thematic similarities, there are many visual ones as well, most notably the image of the all-encompassing shield over the battlefield. Then, on a more focused scale, you have the front line of Wakandans bearing the same shield technology the same way the Gungan Grand Army does as the battle droids break through the shields. Although the Phantom Menace version of this is much more kid friendly, the similarities are apparent.
While there are visual and thematic similarities between Infinity War and Phantom Menace, the real emotional core of feels inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
In Seven Samurai, a small village is alerted to the presence of a group of bandits who pledge to pillage their home once the harvest has come in. Instead of begging for their lives when they come to be looted, they decide to hire samurai to defend their village. When the bandits come back, they'll be ready for them.
It could be said that the first attack on New York in the first Avengers film is that promise of Thanos coming back. And instead of sitting back and letting him take Earth, we have samurai in the form of The Avengers. In Infinity War, this is the bandits coming back and the samurai thinking they're ready for the bandits.
But they weren't. Not by a long shot.
There are other visual and story flourishes Seven Samurai had to offer Infinity War as well. In the 1954 film, the samurai know they can't defend the entire village, but they need to lure the bandits to attack at one specific point so they might hold their defenses. To this end, they leave one front of their defense open, filtering the bandits to that point and preventing them from attacking in another direction. This is the decision Captain America and T'Challa make when dealing with the hordes invading Wakanda. The shield holds well enough, but some aliens get through and they begin to scatter, risking a rear assault that could offer the children of Thanos the Mind Stone. To stop this, T'Challa orders the gate to open. The monsters will take the path of least resistance and come right through the front, just like in Seven Samurai.
In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura plays the leader of the samurai, Kambei Shimada. He's quiet and reserved and he's fighting a fight that he's not sure he can win, but will do everything he can to do so. With the sparse amount of dialogue Captain America has in this film, it wouldn't surprise me to find that his quiet stoicism had been lifted directly from Kambei. But T'Challa offers a similar role as well. Both could be seen as that powerful leader in Infinity War.
At the end of Seven Samurai, Kambei looks out at the farmers enjoying the bounty of their harvest, playing music and enjoying the life the blood of the samurai bought them. "We've lost yet again," Kambei says solemnly. "The farmers are the victors, not us."
Then, he looks back to the windswept graves of the fallen samurai, with the sun beating down against it, regarding everything they lost to offer that victory to the people.
As Infinity War closes, we see Thanos on his own small farm. Beaten and battered, having lost everything, Thanos looks out over the galaxy and considers everything he gave up in order to give the people of the galaxy what, in his mind, was a victory. It was this moment that got me thinking back to Seven Samurai, and it's what made me realize that Thanos was the protagonist of Infinity War, rather than the antagonist.
The Kambei Shimada of this story isn't Steve Rogers. Or T'Challa. It's Thanos. The film begins with his quest to balance the scales of the galaxy. The heroes of the galaxy who align to oppose him are his antagonists. He grows through his own character arc, giving up his daughter and everything he held dear in order to do what he thinks is best for the universe. In the end, he's that last samurai, watching the sun rise on what he hoped would be a grateful galaxy, wondering who really won. He lost everything to balance the scales for a universe still opposed to him. And then, on that windswept sunset, the film ends.
And, there in the silence of the ending credits, we're left to wonder who really won, too.