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Success in Avengers: Infinity War Character Pairings Due to the Structural Balance Property

There have been many investigations into the use of social networks and graph theory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both in articles online and in this blog. The article linked below, “Avengers: Infinity War: How They Decided to Split Up the Characters,” touches on a group of four nodes in Marvel’s social network that were isolated in the plot of Avengers: Infinity War: Tony Stark (Iron Man), Stephen Strange (Doctor Strange), Peter Parker (Spiderman), and Peter Quill (Starlord). The article describes the decision of screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, to match these four characters with each other, and I believe that the cinematic success of the pairings is strongly thanks to the properties of structural balance in networks.


According to the article, Strange and Stark immediately have a strong negative relationship, due to the fact that they “‘occupy similar spaces in their universes as guys with a vision but also an ego.’” When the screenwriters bring in Parker, they introduce a third node with a strongly positive relationship to Stark and a neutral/generally positive relationship with Strange. This group of three, with two positive and one negative relationship, violates the Structural Balance Property, causing visible stress between Strange and Stark and more of an implicit stress on Parker, who is younger, less powerful, and has little control over the other two individuals. Marvel capitalizes on this opportunity; the stress on the relationships in this trio translates to a palpable stress in the audience and emotional investment in the characters’ development.


The article also notes that when Quill enters the group, he alleviates the pressure on Stark and Strange; the latter two are “‘bumping heads’” at first, “‘but suddenly they can agree that this other guy is the real problem.’” By giving them a common enemy, what Markus and McFeely have actually done is they’ve flipped the relationship between Stark and Strange and created a triangle in this network in which both men of Earth have a “negative” edge to Quill and a more positive edge between each other. Unlike before, this set of three nodes in which two “friends” have a common enemy does satisfy the Structural Balance Property. This new structure changes the dynamic of scene, alleviating some of the more tension-inducing stress of having an imbalanced triangle in their network, just in time for the more extreme stress to land on their planet – Thanos’s arrival and the altercation over the gauntlet.


In summary, the pairings made by the screenwriters does not just make theatric sense based on the traits and histories of the characters themselves, as this article describes. The violation and subsequent satisfaction of the Structural Balance Property among subsets of three in this group of four individuals is actually strategic in how it induces stress in plot and thereby in the audience, contributing to the success of the film.




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September 2018