By Chris Geary
Watching the new Marvel movie, Avengers: Infinity War, I couldn’t help feeling that the villain, Thanos, was really on to something. With 149 minutes of plodding plot, inane crossovers, and a crowd of protagonists all feebly jostling to be the funny one, the movie is so bloated that when half of the characters are finally vaporised, it honestly comes as a relief. Thanos is right: the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is overpopulated, and it has long been in need of a cull.
Infinity War is the latest installment of “Phase Three” of Marvel’s long-term plan to pad out the franchise and pad Disney’s pockets. Across eighteen previous films, the MCU has proliferated characters and plotlines to such an extent that every film is now essentially a two-and-a-half hour trailer, in which the heroes wink sidewise at fans as they service them knowingly, teasing their all-consuming desire for yet more films to come. Substantively, there’s very little distinction between the sequences before the credits and those after. Marvel movies mark the perfection of infomercial as art.
Yet Infinity War at least promises to do something slightly different. The market strategy of teased gratification that led to all the proliferations and escalations of the previous installments has finally resulted in a crisis of fan service. The franchise has radically upped the stakes with the prospect of permadeath. None of the petty threats to the world that went before matter now – the fan faves are facing extinction. Thanos is coming, and as he declares in the opening scene, nonchalantly tossing aside the throttled corpse of Tom Hiddleston, “No more resurrections this time.”
Thanos’ motivation is overtly ecological. Having seen his home planet transformed into a barren wasteland by overexploitation and, implicitly, attempts at geoengineering solutions to climate change, he resolves to enforce standards of sustainability in the universe at large. “This universe is finite; its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.” In one sense, this is simply classic Malthusian population theory, which holds that populations will always increase beyond the means of subsistence, and so will be periodically and inevitably corrected by famine, plague, and war – or else will require, per Thanos’ plan, the conscientious elimination of half of all living beings. Death must follow life to keep rapacious reproduction strictly in check. Thanos (from the Greek thanatos, “death”) is, after all, the “son of Eros” (eros, “desire, love, sex”).
Thomas Robert Malthus’ principle of population was generally invoked to dismiss alternatives to industrial capitalism and its immiseration of the working classes, on the grounds that any improvements to social conditions would just be eaten up by more mouths to feed. The Malthusian notion that overproduction and overconsumption are inherent to life is certainly baked into Thanos’ understanding of the universe. If he can just cut demand in half, there will be twice as much supply and the children of future generations will know “nothing but full bellies and clear skies” – at least until all the breeding and feeding gets out of hand again. However, to read Thanos’ character somewhat against the grain, he appears to be vilified precisely because he advocates for environmental sustainability, which is fundamentally at odds with the economic fantasy of endless growth that Cap and co. so Starkly represent.
Marvel movies have a tendency to discredit morally compelling arguments by having their exponents also advocate for genocide. In Black Panther, for instance, Erik Killmonger’s call for reparative justice and decolonial revolution is only defused and defeated by speciously reframing it as the white nightmare of race war. Likewise, Infinity War contorts itself to present Thanos’ random massacre of half the universe as naturally following from a worldview rooted in the ethical recognition that resources are finite and that current modes of production are ecologically unsustainable.
I did wonder whether this decimation is truly random rather than applying to, say, fifty percent of every planet or star system. If not, the law of averages being what it is, there would surely be millions of species left unscathed, and just as many entirely wiped out. Yet ridiculous and horrific as it is, Thanos’ genocide is underlain by a principle of radical equality, not so much in the distribution of goods as in the redistribution of scarcity. “At random. Dispassionate, fair. The rich and poor alike.” What Thanos really represents, then – and what the MCU cannot entertain – is the idea that a better, more equitable world will not be achieved by yet more expansion and growth, but rather by the radical curtailment of privileged overconsumption.
And standing in his way are those avatars of muscular individualism, technocratic management, and western privilege: the Avengers (et al. ad nauseam). Besides the unctuous captain of industry Tony Stark, we have Captain America, a nationalist paramilitary on the lam after defeat in Civil War, a Redeemer still fighting the Lost Cause. As he returns to the scene in all his ruggedly arrogant whiteness, this “sovereign citizen” scoffs at the notion that a black authority figure would dare to arrest him. This is America, after all, and this is Captain America.
Opposing the radical equality of Thanos’ reductive quest to “balance” life in the universe, Cap and his minions also insistently spout a principle of individualistic equality: “We don’t trade lives.” They resolutely refuse to engage in Thanos’ ecological calculus, which balances the interests of the many and the few. Ironically, this actually just means they are happy to sacrifice however many extras might be necessary to save their own friends’ lives. They have no compunction, for instance, in letting hundreds of Wakandan warriors die to buy time for their bionic friend’s neurosurgery.
(Doctor Strange also seems to give up one of the final Infinity stones just to save Tony Stark’s life, though I presume this is part of a longer ploy to defeat Thanos and reverse all his killings. The fate of the franchise depends on it after all, and I’m not sure Marvel could get away with killing off Black Panther for good at this stage.)
American politics has long been marked by a tension between these two ideas of equality – of social equity and individual right. The country’s long and ongoing history of racial oppression certainly demonstrates that these have hardly ever existed as a happy synthesis. And however glibly it might do it, Infinity War does intriguingly explore how these principles are now entangled with ecological concerns about economic growth. In left politics, there are potential conflicts between environmental justice and economic justice, such as in debates over nuclear power or urban density (California’s recently defeated housing bill, SB 827, is one contentious example.) In effect, ecological conservation and sustainability will be at odds with the maximisation of individual economic benefits – even if these are spread in an equitably redistributive manner – insofar as those improvements are based on greater economic growth.
To be clear, this is not a crypto-Malthusian argument on environmental grounds against universal healthcare, say, or a higher minimum wage. More affordable housing in Californian cities won’t merely result in the ruinous overpopulation of the state – the subtext of arguments made by the NIMBYs of the Sierra Club against SB 827. However, if it is an ecological imperative that we reduce our impact on the planet and scale down the exploitation of its resources, particularly when the consequences of climate change will disproportionately harm classes of people who have not benefitted from that exploitation, then we need to decouple the idea of equality from the drive for growth, and to rethink the ideal standard of living beyond and below the unsustainable one of western super-consumerism.
Again, this is not necessarily an either/or choice between reducing poverty in “developed” countries and reducing it in poorer ones, which merely mirrors racist opposition to foreign aid. Rather, the two can still go hand-in-hand even if wealth redistribution goes beyond a national scope to a truly planetary one. A green economic policy of “degrowth” can still be a red one of greater economic justice. But for this to be the case, our fetish for growth must be abandoned. In fact, this fetish is often the biggest obstacle to left-wing socio-economic policy. The invisible hand of the market is always ready to very visibly slap down progressive and radical alternatives, and to spank the democratic governments that attempt to institute them against neoliberal orthodoxy.
Underneath all the narrative spandex, then, this is Thanos’ real lesson: less in total can still mean more all around, but our notion of “more” must be adjusted to a global and ecologically sustainable standard and not remain a specifically bourgeois western one. The costs of adjusting to this and to the reality of climate change must be paid proportionately by those who have disproportionately benefitted from the long exploitation of the Anthropocene. Looking at you, Tony Stark.
Chris Geary studies English at the University of California, Berkeley.