Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) did not mess up the ‘one winning plan’ when he reacted to the news of Gamora’s death by attacking Thanos. This is a common fan reaction, with memes and tweets and all manner of fan reactions blaming Star-Lord for the ending of Infinity War popping up all over the internet within days of the movie’s release.
It’s surprising, because in typical MCU fashion the plot is very clearly spelled out; thinking that Star-Lord ruined some master plan ignores all of the dialogue and action of the 3rd act of the film. Here I’ll explain for anyone who cares (hi, mom!) 1. What Dr. Strange saw in those 14 million+ scenarios he saw through the Time Stone, 2. How Star-Lord’s attack plan fit into the winning scenario Dr. Strange saw, and 3. Why the ending of the movie, and the characters that survived, are all still part of the ‘1 winning scenario’.
14 Million Possible Outcomes
At the beginning of the final act of the film, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange have defeated Ebony Maw and crash landed on the ruins of Thanos’s home planet Titan. The rest of the heroes (later joined by Thor, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon) are all in Wakanda preparing to battle the remaining Children of Thanos and their army, in order to buy Suri enough time to separate Vision from the Mind Stone so that Scarlet Witch can destroy the latter, keeping Thanos from completing the Infinity Gauntlet. On Titan, they know Thanos is coming to rendezvous with Ebony Maw, and Star-Lord and Iron Man argue over their plan of attack. Meanwhile, Dr. Strange uses his mastery of the Time Stone to view over 14 million possible outcomes to the battle; actually battles, since he is also viewing the results and aftermath of the battle in Wakanda.
Of all these possible scenarios, he sees only 1 where they can possibly win. Keep in mind, what constitutes a “win” is known only to Dr. Strange and not limited by our preconceived ideas about stopping Thanos from getting all of the Infinity Stones. Thanos is still the most powerful being in the galaxy with just 4 of the stones, able to manipulate reality, possessed of unlimited power, able to warp space around himself, and having power over life and death itself through the soul stone. Keeping him from getting either the Time or Mind stones, or even both, may not be enough to keep him from wiping out half the universe in the long run, and Dr. Strange is astute enough to realize this; or at least realizes it as he goes through the possible outcomes, seeing defeat after defeat despite their best plans and efforts. Before the beginning of Infinity War he had already decimated Xandar, home of the Nova Corps, while possessing exactly 0 stones (and hopefully creating The Man Called Nova in the process!). It is reasonable, given what we saw in both the battle on Titan and Thor’s final attack against Thanos in Wakanda, that in those 14 million scenarios there were many possible futures where Thanos was defeated… at least temporarily. But the only one that could actually be considered a final win is the one we actually saw, which ‘ended’ in Thanos completing the Infinity Gauntlet and wiping out half the population of the universe, and which will be continued in Avengers 4. We’ll get back to this in a little while.
Star-Lord’s Battle Plan
While Dr. Strange was doing this, Star-Lord and Iron Man were bickering about the much smaller scale but still vitally important battle with Thanos on Titan. The plan we saw played out on screen was actually very effective, very nearly freeing the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos, if not for Star-Lord’s reaction to the news of Gamora’s death. Moments before, Star-Lord indicates that the plan we saw was actually the one he had come up with, proving that despite all of his bungling, he really is a great strategist (a carryover from his more somber character in the comics).
“See, he messed up the plan!” Yes, he messed up HIS plan; but he played right into Dr. Strange’s master plan, which is the one that needed to happen for them to ultimately defeat Thanos once and for all. With all the characters on Titan, there were multiple possible power sets, strategies, and options for separating Thanos from the Infinity Gauntlet, not just the one plan they tried. Consider what Wong did to Cull Obsidian’s arm in the first battle in New York; many have pointed out how simple it would have been to do this to Thanos as well.
In fact, in those 14 million scenarios there must have been some where they used the same plan we saw but Star-Lord DIDN’T freak out and attack Thanos, or where someone had the presence of mind to stop him. But here’s the thing… Thanos is one of the most powerful beings in the entire Marvel universe. In the film it makes it seem as if his powers come mostly from the Infinity Stones, but this is nothing more than a warrior trying out his new weapons for fun; had they succeeded one way or another in taking away the Gauntlet, they would have found out the full scope of a Mad Titan’s powers. Consider; the Children of Thanos, including the incredibly powerful telepath Ebony Maw, followed Thanos out of awe and fear… before he had any Infinity Stones. Or if you prefer to be shown and not told, he EASILY defeat the Hulk without any indication he needed the Power Stone at all. Thanos can project powerful blasts from his hands, is virtually invulnerable, and has strength greater than any other character we’ve seen so far in the MCU. If the heroes on Titan had succeeded in taking away the Gauntlet, they would probably all be dead now (excepting maybe Dr. Strange); regular dead, like Loki, not just ‘I don’t feel so good’ dead.
So then, why the elaborate battle plan? It’s more or less a coincidence that THAT plan, and Star-Lord’s freak out, were part of the series of events that lead up to the 1 winning scenario. It could easily have been any other plan that happened to fall into the scenario Strange saw, but it was this one; so he had to play along. And there is ample evidence for this.
Let’s take a few moments here, before concluding with the explanation of the ending, to talk about the evidence for everything I’ve said so far. There is ample evidence in the film, and none of it is subtle (it is Marvel after all. Maybe phase 4 will try out all that subtext and foreshadowing stuff).
-Dr. Strange says he saw only 1 possible winning outcome in 14 million when he used the Time Stone. He can’t be referring to the battle on Titan alone, because after they LOSE that battle, Strange tells Stark, “We are in the end-game now.” This implies they’ve reach the last branch point that they can control, but things are still on track at that point- AFTER they had already lost the battle on Titan.
-Benedict Cumberpatch is a great actor. So why does it seem like he is phoning it in during his dialogue with Thanos before the surprise attack by Iron Man? Does he hate this movie, was he having an off day and they didn’t re-shoot? Go back and watch the movie again; it looks like he’s just running lines. Why? Because he IS running lines. This is Benedict Cumberpatch playing Dr. Strange acting. Strange is being very, very precise in what he says, with the air of someone reciting newly learned lines (or reciting the Krebs Cycle before a USMLE exam). Due to the nature of foreknowledge, he knows everyone else will fulfill their parts naturally; but he has to be careful, lest he flub a line or an action cue and divert into another possible future where they ultimately lose. He’s trying to stay perfectly on script with the 1 winning scenario he already saw (and maybe watched a few extra times for good measure).
-Watch Dr. Strange during the few moments where Star-Lord is losing his cool. Strange isn’t really doing much, other than holding down Thanos’s right arm, but while he’s already half under Mantis’s sleep command. Strange could have easily spared the power and attention to silence Star-Lord, or teleport him to the other side of the planet, if he had wanted to. He didn’t want to, because the freak out itself was also part of the 1 winning scenario.
-After Thanos defeats the other heroes on Titan and prepares to kill Iron Man, Dr. Strange bargains for Tony’s life in exchange for the Time Stone. This is in direct contradiction to what Strange said he would do if faced with that choice, and with no indication that in the brief time on Titan he had gained some love or respect for Iron Man that made him change his mind. It was just part of the plan (notice also that Thanos actually HONORS this agreement even when he snaps his fingers at the end; Tony Stark is part of the half of the universal population that lives. This is very important for Avengers 4).
-At the end of the film, as Strange is vanishing along with half the population of the universe, he tells Stark “I’m sorry, there was no other way.” He is the one character, besides Scarlet Witch, that doesn’t seem perplexed or upset by dying in this way; and for very different reasons. He already knows who lives and dies when Thanos snaps his fingers; he is telling Tony because he already knows Tony will live. And probably, he is apologizing for all the work and sacrifice Tony still has to do in Avengers 4, and not just for the emotional pain of seeing Spider-Man die in his arms (and maybe, also, for Pepper’s death back on Earth that he won’t find out about until later).
There’s more, but that’s enough to be going along with.
The End Game (and what happens next)
At the end of the film, roughly half of the lead heroes and supporting characters are dead. These deaths aren’t permanent of course; we know that based on who already has confirmed sequels (Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther) and renewed contracts, etc, and most of us realized this even as those characters were dying on screen. It hurts the dramatic moment some, but that couldn’t be helped; and the effect is still good from a narrative stand point. So we know in Avengers 4 a few things are going to happen: the remaining heroes are going to be joined by Captain Marvel, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and the Wasp (and hopefully Nova?! Maybe? Please!?), they will defeat Thanos, some of the original Avengers will die (and some just retire), and the other heroes killed by the Infinity Gauntlet (and Gamora, trapped inside the Soul Stone) will be brought back to life along with that half of the population that died with them.
Here’s the kicker; Dr. Strange has seen 14 million different versions of Avengers 4, and only one of them has a happy ending. There was NO way to win Avengers: Infinity War; what he was seeing was past that, all the possible ways that Avengers 4 could go down. That’s what guided everything he did on Titan, and everything that happened after that point in the movie; the need to get to the RIGHT Avengers 4 scenario. And the reason there were so many different possible Avengers 4 outcomes? Because the final battle with Thanos depends entirely on which combination of heroes are still alive to fight him; and that, after he snaps his fingers, depends on random chance.
There was exactly one combination of heroes that could defeat Thanos after Infinity war, and Strange had to guide things along to get to that one combination. It couldn’t have been Star Lord, Black Panther, and Wasp; it couldn’t have been Iron Man, The Hulk, and Groot… it had to be Captain America, Iron Man, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon, and all the other heroes who actually lived to the end of the film. They each have a roll to play in defeating Thanos, and they are the only ones that can do it. This becomes an issue of statistics; every single person has a 50/50 chance of dying from the Infinity Gauntlet. You need Captain America; flip a coin. You need Black widow; flip a coin. You need the Hulk; flip a coin. And remember, this isn’t limited to the the heroes on screen; there’s also Shuri and Wong, and Hawkeye, and Captain Marvel, and Nova (probably not though), and maybe a few other characters we haven’t met. Some have to live and some have to die; flip a coin for each of them. You have to hit heads on every one of those characters to keep them, over and over again, to get the right combination to defeat Thanos. Do you know what the odds are of randomly getting the RIGHT combination of heroes? Me neither… but it’s in the tens of millions. Those were the 14 million scenarios; 14 million losses to Thanos, one way or another, in round one; 14 million different combinations of heroes to defeat Thanos in round 2. Dr. Strange saw early on in those scenarios that Iron Man was the key; he hedged his bets by bargaining for Iron Man’s life, and then walked along the path, as far as he could, that lead to the right, winning combination of heroes to join him. It worked; and now we get to the rest of his vision of the future play out in Avengers 4. And it just so happens that the one winning scenario involved Star-Lord seemingly bungling everything in a very human and understandable way.