Avengers: Endgame — a Cautionary Tale of Technological Innovation (No spoilers!)

Underneath the spectacle, Avengers: Endgame challenges us to think about the use of powerful technologies in the real world

Marvel Studios

When my publisher suggested I go with an alternative title for my recent book, my wife was aghast. “You can’t call it that” she exclaimed, “no-one will buy it!”

The offending word was “morality.” And she had a point. I was writing about technology innovation and sci-fi films, and she intuited that if there was ever a word to sour the expectations of a journey through emerging technologies and blockbuster movies, this was it.

Yet as Avengers: Endgame is poised to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time, its message is clear: morality at the movies is “in.” And because of this, I can’t help but feel a warm glow of vindication.

Avengers: Endgame and its prequel are, of course, vastly more than modern-day tales of techno-morality. In fact, if I’m honest, there isn’t that much overt technological self-reflection in Endgame. And yet, this is a movie about moral choices. And it’s the culmination of a story arc beginning with the original Iron Man back in 2008 that is driven by the tension between technologically-enhanced power, and social responsibility.

“when viewed in the right light, movies like Avengers: Endgame can provide surprisingly powerful insights into social and moral responsibility in a technologically complex world”

Without giving too much of the plot away (no spoilers here), Endgame revolves around Thanos — a being whose own twisted morality drives him on a single-minded mission to erase half the living creatures in the universe — and the Infinity Stones which, collectively, form a technology of near-infinite power.

Endgame opens just after Thanos has wielded the Infinity Stones to bring his repugnant plan to fruition. Faced with a universe devastated by heartbreaking and indiscriminate loss, Marvel’s team of remaining superheroes draw on every ounce of their moral courage and technologically-enhanced powers to undo the harm Thanos has caused. And so, a complex struggle between good and evil plays out.

Avengers: Endgame is, if course, fantasy. But underneath the spectacle, the film echoes the dramatic rise of powerful technologies in the real world, and the responsibilities that come with them. In recent weeks for instance, scientists have kick-started brain cells in the severed heads of dead pigs, spliced human genes related to intelligence into monkeys, and 3D printed a heart from human cells.

These and other capabilities are child’s-play compared to those in Endgame. Yet they are a reminder of how fast modern-day technologies are advancing. And they highlight the growing tension between what is possible, and how we ensure our technological reach doesn’t exceed our collective grasp.

This isn’t a new problem. The first atomic bomb tests in 1945 were a stark reminder of this tension, along with Oppenheimer’s chilling invocation of the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s no coincidence that so many comic book superheroes are the byproducts of an atomic age, or that Thanos’ power directly reflects Oppenheimer’s nightmares.

Fast forward to the present though, and we’re grappling with a new generation of powerfully transformative technologies. CRISPR gene editing, for instance, is enabling us to redesign whole species, leapfrogging evolution as we do so. Scientists are toying with planetary-scale geoengineering that could be used to re-design the world’s climate — but at what cost? And day-by-day we’re handing more of our lives over to artificial intelligence-based machines.

“far from being a panacea for fixing the world’s problems, powerful technologies inevitably become enmeshed in a complex network of societal dynamics that demand as much social-savvy as they do tech-savvy to navigate”

These are future-changing technologies that, if left unchecked, could cause immeasurable harm. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe though, we don’t have a band of superheroes to save the day when things go wrong.

What we have instead is our collective intelligence, our ability to learn, our sense of right and wrong, and our capacity to work together. By harnessing these, we have the combined skills to ensure the increasingly powerful technologies we’re developing are wielded responsibly. But only if we recognize the challenges we face, and we rise to the occasion.

As Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben famously observed “…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

Yet this is where the real world diverges markedly from the social and technological world of Endgame. The movie challenges us to think about personal responsibility and powerful technologies. But it’s set in a universe where the ability to act resides in the hands of a few exceptional individuals. And it naively promotes the idea that, if handled right, powerful tech can be the solution to all our problems.

Our reality is very different. New technologies are developed by large teams of people, and their uses and abuses are tacitly sanctioned by millions more. And far from being a panacea for fixing the world’s problems, powerful technologies inevitably become enmeshed in a complex network of societal dynamics that demand as much social-savvy as they do tech-savvy to navigate.

And yet, when viewed in the right light, movies like Avengers: Endgame can provide surprisingly powerful insights into what it means to be socially and morally responsible in a technologically complex world.

Illustrating this, I teach an undergraduate course on science fiction movies and responsible innovation at Arizona State University. Each week, we watch and discuss a movie together in class. Through these films and the associated assignments, my students learn how to think differently about the social challenges and opportunities of real-world technologies.

Each time I’ve taught the course, I’ve been amazed by the changes in perspective and understanding I see as students begin to get to grips with what innovating responsibly means. And every year, I’m reminded afresh of how powerful movies can be in helping make sense of morally complex issues surrounding new technologies.

“These are future-changing technologies that, if left unchecked, could cause immeasurable harm. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe though, we don’t have a band of superheroes to save the day when things go wrong”

In the same way, the moral questions embedded in Avengers: Endgame have the ability to reveal unexpected insights into how powerful new technologies might play out in society, and how they can be developed and used safely and beneficially.

These include grappling with treading the fine line between what we can do, and what we should do with new technologies. But they also touch on who decides which new technologies are developed and how they’re used, and how we collectively navigate the tortuous landscape between good intentions and socially acceptable outcomes.

Of course, there are dangers in using movies as a guide here — especially when they suggest that all we need to solve the world’s problems is more technology. Sadly, the complex and convoluted ways people think and act together end up throwing one almighty wrench into this notion. Yet because superhero movies are ultimately about people and relationships, they can be remarkably powerful in stimulating insights into how we develop and use technologies responsibly.

To see just how this plays out in Avengers: Endgame, you’ll need to watch the movie for yourself. But as you do, think about that word “morality.” And consider how the film sheds light on how to navigate the complex real-world moral landscape around powerful technologies and how we use them.

You may be surprised.