Originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter:
I’ve been diving into the Marvel Cinematic Universe the past couple of weeks, out of lack of stimulation and procrastination. My friend Richard describes the films as a “concentrated sugar high:” attractive people in body-hugging outfits and an emotional whiplash of tragedy and comedy all strung together in a series of fast paced fight scenes so mind bending you’re not sure where the CGI begins and the actors end. And then they do the thing at the end of a big fight where they boost the soundtrack volume so high I have to immediately turn my computer’s volume down – just endorphins on endorphins.
I want to talk about one specific character, Thanos, the supervillain of the Avengers crossover series. Stop reading now if you’re spoiler-phobic. Thanos is the last surviving member of the alien race known as “Titans,” who hail from Saturn’s moon. As Thanos explains, the other Titans supposedly succumbed to famine because they refused to implement his plan to avoid planetary starvation. I can definitely see why Thanos wasn’t so popular back home, his plan was a planet-wide cull of half Titan’s population to “conserve resources,” conducted by lottery to ensure fairness. But like any bad politician with fascistic tendencies, Thanos kept shopping his sustainable 50% population reduction around the universe, wiping out exactly half of a bunch of planets and expecting folks to be thankful for their newfound resource abundance. In the plot of the Avengers movies he sets his sight on gathering the magical Infinity Stones which, when used together will allow him to take his 50/50 plan universal.
It’s bad, Thanos is bad, duh. The Avengers crossover movies are so packed with superhero cameos and montages that there can’t be too much of a plot. In the comics Thanos wants to kill half of everybody because he’s in this wild sexual death cult, but the movies substitute Thanos’s complex backstory with a seemingly complex moral standpoint – he’s a genocidal maniac but it’s for the greater good, a.k.a. “sustainability.”
Ecofascism comes up in this newsletter a lot and yes, Thanos is an ecofascist. Even if his mass death doesn’t fall along lines of race or class, sentencing the entire universe to mass death to realize one man’s environmental model is fascism. It’s important to see Thanos in the context of the 2018-2019 world in which they were written. We find ourselves in a continually worsening environmental crisis and nobody – at least none of the major news networks or our most powerful elected officials – know how to deal with it. You can see the Marvel writers grappling with this in the Avengers franchise, knowing drastic action is needed to save the planet, and grasping at old debunked environmental ideas from the 70’s like Paul Erlich’s neo-Malthusian book The Population Bomb to conceptualize what that action may be. It’s upsetting but not exactly surprising. These old ideas are still what everyone thinks environmental action looks like – an anti-human movement that demands incredible personal sacrifice, culminating in the denial of reproduction and even human sacrifice.
Thanos frustrates me because his simplified motives paint a simplified idea of environmental thinking. Nobody in the movie tries to sit down with Thanos and discuss with him exactly why his plan won’t work or what other universal food provision strategies exist. If we think of the movie’s characters allegorically, the big bad environmental movement (Thanos), is heroically vanquished through the cooperation of military nationalism (Captain America) and technocratic imperialism (Iron Man). Also is anyone else creeped out by the weird scandanavian white supremacy in the Thor franchise?
So to finish things out I’d like to list all my issues with Thanos’s plan to save/destroy the universe:
- He’s so insistent that the population must be cut in half exactly. Why 50%? Seems a bit excessive. Can I see which models you were looking at?
- Also, my dude, populations grow, especially when resources are abundant (aside: the only good way to read Malthus is that he’s trying to understand how Britain’s new fossil imperialism generated abundance breaks with pre-imperial agrarian population dynamics). If this is your plan you’re just going to have to come back in another however many years and kill half of everybody again. Sustainability? I think not.
- ALL THE BUZZWORDS Oh my GOD! “The universe is finite, its resources, finite.” Like as far as we know the universe is actually infinite, and who the fuck talks about the universe’s resources? Also also WHAT RESOURCES? You can’t drink oil, you can’t eat vibranium. What Do You Mean “”””Resources??”””””
- 50% of what? There are definitely times in the movie where characters say “half of all life in the universe” but that’s clearly not what happens. If half of ALL life was eliminated there would 1. be half as much “food” and 2. all ecosystems in the universe would collapse. What really happened was that half of all “eaters” were killed – but there’s no explanation of how Thanos (or the Infinity Stones) distinguish “eaters” from “food.” Also does a man o’ war jellyfish count as 1 organism or several thousand organisms?
- Scale: You’ve got a one size fits all plan that works for every planet, non-planet, and pseudoplanet in the universe Thanos?
- WHERE’S THE FOOD?? For a movie that’s all about preventing starvation there’s barely any scenes of people eating, absolutely no indication that anyone is actually starving, or analysis as to why folks may or may not be starving. Not denying that hunger is a real Earthly problem that stems from imperial exploitation, but Thanos just showing up and saying “you’re hungry trust me I can fix it” is pretty imperialist itself.