The Real Problem with Thanos’ Plan

It would be hard to come up with a villain strong enough to justify a story involving 20+ superheroes. And if you wanted to make that villain actually interesting (as opposed to something like Justice League’s Steppenwolf), you would need some creative superpowers to rival the Hulk’s strength.

Avengers: Infinity War could have been a disaster. That is wasn’t, and that it actually succeeded in being a coherent, entertaining movie, is an awesome accomplishment.

But there are some nagging issues around Thanos’ plan. And I’m not talking about the plan itself, but the framing the film sets up around the plan, and how we are being encouraged to view it.

Mild spoilers below.

The motif of Thanos is the conquering of worlds so he can kill a random half of the population. Then he leaves. Thanos sees himself as a bold being of action, taking on a heavy burden to bring balance to the universe. His plan for the infinity stones is this same motif writ large, as gathering all of the stones will allow him to kill half of all life in the universe with a simple snap of his fingers.

The problem Thanos sees himself correcting is one of overpopulation and the poverty brought on by scarcity of resources. All of the heroes on screen are revolted at the tactics Thanos wants to use, at the coin-flip genocide he desires to implement, and the whole film is made up of various teams trying to stop the atrocity.

But not a single one questions the underlying premise that drives Thanos. Indeed, the film itself validates Thanos’s premises and even wants us to agree with the strategy while shrinking away from his particular tactics.

At one point, Thanos talks to Gamora, whose planet was a victim of his “mercy.” While Gamora complains, Thanos fires back that before he killed off half the population of her planet, there was rampant poverty and hunger, and that Gamora herself was a victim. Thanos challenges her to look at the planet now. They are thriving. Everyone has everything they need.

And the film never calls shenanigans. Thanos’ goal (Utopia reached by solving overpopulation) is meant to be seen as noble, and it is one of the ways the film attempts to make him sympathetic.

If Thanos were trying to help someone with tooth pain, he would advocate pulling out 50% of the teeth, chosen randomly. The heroes would be aghast at this barbaric idea. With righteous indignation, they would declare that a more surgical, precise, and humane approach is required to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, the poor patient doesn’t actually have tooth pain at all. It’s a complete misdiagnosis. The patient actually has a mild stomach ache, and maybe a hang nail on their ring finger.

But the film really wants you to focus on that supposed tooth pain.

So the real problem with Thanos’ plan is not the plan itself, but how the film really wants us to view underlying, faulty assumptions. And while there are books and articles everywhere written about the non-problem of overpopulation, I’ll just mention two issues I had with the implicit validation of Thanos’ presuppositions.

One: it assumes a fixed size of the pie, and if one person gets a piece, that means there is less for everyone else. But that’s not how the world works. That’s not how economies work. The pie gets larger. More population can ostensibly mean more wealth generation potential. It’s faulty to assume that more people = less resources for everybody.

Two: people are not hot-swappable nor equally interchangeable. Believe it or not, we are not all equal in the varying contexts that we must navigate in life. What if Thanos had actually killed all the farmers on one planet, or maybe an inordinate amount of the engineers that designed and repaired the technology necessary to produce food in sufficient quantities? Thanos is much more likely to breed chaos than to usher in a utopia.

We actually have historical parallels of what happens when a society murders large chunks of its population, and it ain’t pretty. There is no peaceful “rising from the ashes.” It results in more shed blood, more starvation, more misery.

It all reminds me of Jared Diamond and his 1987 paper where he argued that the advent of agriculture was mankind’s worse mistake. Why? Because it allowed the population to grow, which led to all sorts of evil. Diamond eventually goes on to romanticize infanticide, and says other things that make him a philosophical ally of Thanos, if not in deed, then certainly in spirit. And Diamond is not alone.

Maybe Avengers 4 will address these issues in a more mature way. I hope so. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how they plan to wrap everything up. But given our culture that glories in infertility, a culture that wants desperately to justify its decisions in that regard and pretend it is moving toward a righteous goal, I tend to doubt it.

Matt Robison also writes at http://www.mattrob.com.