Thanos, Disney, and the Invisible Hand

Adam Smith (1723–1790) by Unknown (Source: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/3787/adam-smith-1723-1790-political-economist)

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, the latest of the Disney/Marvel products, is interesting only in that its villain is also its protagonist. Thanos, the big purple alien with a very on-the-nose name (Thanatos is the personification of death in Greek mythology) is presented by the film as both the ultimate force of evil who seeks to destroy half of all life in the universe and also, bizarrely, a somewhat-sympathetic figure whose genocidal tendencies are, if not justified, at least explained through a character arc involving the destruction of his home planet, an event which made him realize that to bring balance to the universe he has to destroy half of it (essentially, he’s a reductive amalgamation of Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Malthus). Nevertheless, this strange juxtaposition of Thanos’s desire for world domination alongside a more emotional, “human” story makes sense once we realize that Thanos is really just Disney itself — a corporate entity that dominates all of its artistic creations by bringing them life and death on a whim. If the movie wasn’t so bad, this would actually be quite an incredible feat of corporate postmodernism.

The plot of Infinity War centers on Thanos trying to acquire the six infinity stones (the time stone, the mind stone, the soul stone, the reality stone, the power stone, and the space stone), all of which have either featured or been referenced at some point in the previous eighteen films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Once Thanos puts these stones into the metal Infinity Gauntlet he wears, he can “snap his fingers” (literal dialogue from the film) and destroy half the universe, which (spoilers) is what he does.

Aside from being very laborious MacGuffins, the Infinity Stones are clearly very literal metaphors for the various superhero franchises of the Marvel Universe, as each stone roughly corresponds to a particular group of Avengers and their respective films (the time stone with Doctor Strange, the mind stone with Vision, the reality stone with Thor, the space stone with Captain America, etc. etc.). But the Stones can also be seen as metaphors for the various companies that Disney has purchased over the last twenty-five years, including ABC (1996), Pixar (2006), Marvel (2009), Lucasfilm (2012), and 20th Century Fox (2017). If Disney eventually buys Universal and Warner Brothers, then with a snap of their fingers they’ll be able to make whatever films they want.

Thanos’ Gauntlet is therefore also a metaphor for Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, an unregulated market force that gradually brings all the world into one monopoly. Because of this, the film’s ending is not really meant to be a tragedy. Thanos snapping his fingers and killing half the movie’s superheroes is simply Disney announcing to the world its own power. Like Thanos, it literally controls all space and time within its movie universes. It can kill whomever it wants and resurrect whomever it wants. We all know, after all, that every character who died at the end of the movie will somehow return in the sequel — in the opening scene of the film Thor even makes a joke about how frequently his brother Loki has been resurrected throughout the franchise. Thus the melancholy music that plays at the film’s end over images of highly-paid actors dissolving into dust is actually quite ironic — Disney knows these commodities are too valuable to actually get rid of.

Disney films, of course, have always been meta-commentaries on themselves to various extents. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are essentially just filmed versions of the theme park ride, the characters and plots narrative filler between the CGI action sequences. Similarly, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story is not actually about its characters (who nobody remembers anymore) but instead about the very simple and teleological structure of its plot, which involves making sure the Death Star plans reach the hands of CGI Princess Leia, which because we’ve seen A New Hope, we always knew was going to happen — it’s a literal passing of the baton meant to signal Disney’s new ownership of the franchise. Even Toy Story 3, perhaps the most poignant of Disney’s films, is a meant to be message to its viewers about letting go of beloved characters from childhood (though it’s an utterly ironic message now given Disney’s decision to make Toy Story 4.).

Ultimately, to understand Disney’s universe we must turn to Bishop George Berkeley, the eighteenth century philosopher who advanced the theory of immaterialism, or subjective idealism. According to Berkeley, the world itself has no physical reality and is merely an idea in the mind of God. By the end of Infinity War, the Avengers too are simply ideas in the mind of Thanos, for him to kill as he pleases. Likewise, soon all movies will also simply be ideas belonging to Disney, immaterial visions reflected back to us from its corporate mind.