Avengers: Endgame — What the Media Won’t Talk About
The ‘biggest film of all time’ subtly promotes the infinite growth economic model that is destroying the planet
I recently saw Avengers: Endgame and it’s a pretty spectacular end to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. It is also the greatest piece of promotion for the predominant economic model of our time that I’ve ever seen.
Let me explain.
For anyone unfamiliar with the two-part story carried over from Avengers: Infinity War, a Purple Space Hitler named Thanos spent the last film acquiring a full set of Barbie’s war crystals from across the galaxy, which granted him almost unlimited power. He used these to wipe out half of all living things in existence, including half of our favourite band of superheroes, the Avengers.
In several scenes in Infinity War Purple Space Hitler explains in his view he is solving the problem of overpopulation relative to resources. He says that life, if left unchecked, will consume life, to which Gamora responds, ‘You don’t know that!’.
When Infinity War came out this idea provoked a fair amount of discussion and commentary, mostly saying Thanos was dead wrong and repeating the old ‘overpopulation is a myth promoted by eugenicists’ canard.
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While it is true that Thanos is advocating genocide, and then carries it out, his slaughter is random so the eugenics talk is largely irrelevant. Eugenics is selective, designed to protect a favoured race or class, whereas Thanos’ genocide wasn’t selective in any way (other than ensuring that he survived).
Breaking down Thanos’ overpopulation argument
Perhaps more importantly, it’s simply bad reasoning. Just because SOME people who’ve advanced notions of overpopulation have also advocated eugenics doesn’t INVALIDATE the notion of overpopulation. It might invalidate their proposed solutions to the problem, but it doesn’t mean the problem itself is a myth.
We can break it down quite simply, since Thanos presents a very simplified version of this argument.
P1) There are finite resources.
P2) Finite resources can only support a finite population.
P3) We have now reached the point of widespread environmental destruction resulting from us trying to make finite resources support a population that is too large for those finite resources to support.
C) We should kill half of all living things to restore balance to the universe.
Just because the conclusion is wrong doesn’t mean any of the three preceding premises are wrong, but that is precisely the counter-argument made in almost all of the commentary on this aspect of the film, and indeed almost all of the commentary on this issue. Because the implicit/explicit conclusions of the overpopulation problem aren’t tolerable to us, we deny that the problem even exists.
But it does.
We do live on a finite planet with finite resources. Anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot or a liar (or both).
Finite resources can only support a given population. Again, anyone who contradicts this is simply dishonest or stupid (or both).
There are abundant signs that we are banging up against the limits to growth right now, in the first quarter of the 21st century. The production of most resources has peaked. People aren’t getting richer generation-by-generation even in the wealthy Western nations, in sharp contrast to much of the previous 200 years. Pollution is omnipresent. Biodiversity is shrinking.
These aren’t myths invented by crazed eugenicists — they are our living reality on earth.
So while I agree that simply slaughtering half the people on earth is a vile, immoral, fascistic ‘solution’ the premises of Thanos’ argument are entirely correct.
Avengers: Endgame and the Denial of the Problem
In Avengers: Endgame (SPOILER ALERT) our plucky band of superheroes track down Thanos and behead him, ISIS-style, as revenge for his genocide. The story then jumps to five years later, and we see our heroes along with ordinary people struggling to come to terms with the loss of so many friends, relatives and loved ones.
In particular Black Widow takes it upon herself to try to bring everyone back, with the help of the other Avengers. She is clearly suffering from a deep depression and grief — understandable given the circumstances, and a great emotional hook for the narrative, but deeply troubling from a value-propaganda point of view.
The message is clear: the perpetuation of our current scale of population and our current levels of consumption is more important than the natural world.
In one particularly telling moment Captain America says that he saw a pod of whales while he was flying over the water, and mentions how less ships and cleaner oceans are resulting in repopulation of threatened sea species. Black Widow dismisses this as him merely trying to make her feel better, and redoubles her efforts to reverse the situation.
The message is clear: the perpetuation of our current scale of population and our current levels of consumption is more important than the natural world. A perfect, emotive defense of the infinite growth model, in what will undoubtedly be one of the most popular and successful movies ever made.
Indeed, the most uplifting moment of the entire film is when, as the climactic final battle sequence begins, all the heroes who were wiped out at the end of Infinity War emerge from Dr Strange’s cosmic portals to take part in the fight against Thanos’ army. The restoration of the lost population is seen as an accomplishment, and one that only has positive consequences for our world.
In reality it would quickly result in all the problems and consequences we see around us every day, both economic and environmental. But these have never been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark does not use his genius intellect to find ways to clean up the oceans (a problem even staunch population-consumption growth advocate Jordan Peterson recently conceded was worrying). S.H.I.E.L.D. do not consider loss of biodiversity a pressing issue.
Indeed, until Thanos brings it up as a justification/excuse for his genocide, the question of resources/population/sustaining a living environment were never part of any Marvel storyline. They are solely voiced by the worst, most repulsive villain Marvel have ever created, and are contradicted by Gamora and Black Widow — two of the most loved character in the Marvel Universe.
Success in Avengers: Endgame is defined as defiance of Thanos’ gruesome masterplan, and in denial that there even is a population problem.
The Irony of Infinite Growth in Marvel’s Box Office Receipts
Marvel has become the most profitable movie franchise of all time by reflecting the neverending expansion of our real world growth in their fictional cinematic universe. The final battle in Endgame is a spectacle to behold, reminiscent of Cecil B DeMille’s casts of thousands.
In order to up the stakes (and therefore increase box office takings) the writers deployed a threat on a scale hitherto unseen in Hollywood cinema — the instantaneous murder of half of all living things. Endgame’s record-shattering opening weekend shows they were right, that the bigger the stakes the more people feel they need to see what happens next.
But in pursuit of extracting as much value from this cinematic universe as quickly as possible they have — ironically — adopted a form of denial and emotional reassurance that could wreck the planet. By equating the maximisation of resource consumption (alongside the environmental destruction and pollution that inevitably results) with heroism, they have successfully promoted an economic model that is already poisoning the world we depend on to survive.
This has been hugely successful because most people want to believe that the problem doesn’t require us to consume less, to live different lives. They want to believe that we can have our cake and eat it too, even if that cake is full of plastic micro-beads that will eventually kill us. They want to believe that we can tackle the problems caused by our economic model, without actually changing that economic model. They believe in ‘ethical consumerism’ — perhaps the most fundamental contradiction of our age.
So a film that tells them that the worst thing that could possibly happen is that there were less people on the planet, consuming less resources, reinforces these childish dreams and reassures them that their consumption isn’t part of the problem.
But it is.
We all consume more than we need to, and often more than we ultimately want to, because the model of infinite growth is so ingrained in our culture, our politics and our societies. So much so that even a genocidal arch-villain in a movie saying that we can’t just keep plundering the world without consequences meets with accusations of a ‘satanic agenda’, when in reality the film is advancing the very opposite. The notion that we can’t just keep taking whatever we want, whenever we want, is resisted, criticised, labelled, denied and rejected.
Enjoy the film, but don’t drink the kool-aid
Avengers: Endgame is a fun and entertaining, if somewhat incoherent, finale to a story arc that began over a decade ago. I enjoyed it as a film, and I have no objections to others finding joy in it.
But the logic within it is one that will drive our species off a cliff, and take many others with us. Some will remain in denial, or even try to claim that the price is worth it because we enjoy such excess in consumption in the present moment. And perhaps on a galactic scale the self-destruction of the human race is inconsequential, given the likely abundance of life out there.
To my mind, however, it is a crime almost as bad as deliberately wiping out half of the human population. If we do that through sheer denial and self-centred recklessness does that make us much better than Thanos?
Sitting around waiting for a superhero to lift the sun into the sky is nothing more than magical thinking at best, and childish avoidance tactics at worst.
So enjoy the film, but don’t buy into its bullshit. We have difficult decisions to make and they require serious people to make them.