Serious spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War follow: continue to read at your own peril!
That major conflict in Avengers: Infinity War is driven by Thanos, who wants to destroy half the life in the universe to “balance” the universe and bring runaway population growth more in line with the resources available in the universe. While murderous, his intentions are actually altruistic.
Despite killing a significant portion of the universe’s population, Avengers: Infinity War‘s Thanos has what’s best for the world in mind. Like most compelling villains, he truly believes that he is doing the right thing. He knows that what he’s doing is right, and not even the most powerful heroes in the universe can truly stop him.
Bad guy, good intentions
Midway through Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos explains how he saved Gamora planet from overpopulation by killing half the inhabitants. In this pitch for his bold new theory of population control, he clearly sees himself as the brave being willing to suffer for his choices.
“If life is left unchecked life will cease to exist,” Thanos says. “I’m the only one who knows that. I’m the only one with the will to act on it.”
It’s a brutal calculus but a correct one. Overpopulation strains resources and threatens the ability for human life to continue. Shortages, exacerbated by climate change, have been avoided so far. But can the Earth maintain a significantly higher population than it has today?
Consider the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. This is an idea propagated by early biologist Thomas Malthus, who wrote, “…I say that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” While many of Malthus’ ideas about evolution have been disputed or discredited by modern scientists, carrying capacity still remains a vital topic of debate and discussion.
So far, humans have avoided encountered the Earth’s carrying capacity by using technology to overcome the limitations of the environment. But to imagine that such invention and ingenuity can break the physical limits of resource generation is likely naive. Without thoughtfulness, humanity may eventually find the limits of the Earth’s ability to support human life, which is currently estimated to be about 10 billion people. And that doesn’t mean that humans will stop being born: the urge to procreate is too strong to deny. Instead, humans will be born, suffer greatly from resource starvation, and die miserably. The rich and privileged will survive, while the poor suffer and die. It’s a dark fortune to tell, but one that could very well come true.
So why couldn’t Thanos just create more food? Well, it’s possible that the Infinity Stones can’t change the rules of physics in the Avengers: Infinity War universe. Thanos cannot erase entropy by making resources infinite. And without infinite resources, any change to the number of available resources is somewhat immaterial. Humanity and other species would eventually encounter that limit, regardless of how far away it was. Of course, that is unless we extinguish our species via an apocalyptic act of stupidity.
But he’s the villain!
Do Thanos’ ends justify his means? Thanos clearly believes that they do. Our heroes clearly do not. Who’s right? Well probably not Thanos, considering that he’s the antagonist.
And he’s the villain for good reason. Looking at past Marvel films, we can see that Thanos was hardly kind to his daughters. He was both physically and emotionally abusive, doing a major number on the daughter that he apparently loves. We see evidence of Thanos manipulating Gamora and torturing Gamora’s sister. And it’s hard to square that with his stated motivation of reducing suffering. According to Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thanos forced his daughters to fight, replacing parts of the loser with robot bits. Hardly the actions of an inherently nice man.
Of course, there is a more humane way to save the universe from total desolation. Thanos could kill half the population, and then wipe away the collective memory of his action. He could use the awesome power of the Reality Stone (and the other Infinity Stones) to make it seem as if nothing has happened. While it might be even sadder to imagine Spider-Man, Bucky, and others being erased from existence both physically and psychically, it would surely be the kinder alternative. Of course, Thanos doesn’t, which is kind of dumb. If he had, he wouldn’t face any kind of after-the-fact repercussions or resistance in response to his destruction of half the life in the universe: it would be impossible to know that he did anything.
If Thanos really wanted to be humane about the situation, he would have also used the power of the Reality Stone to make everyone think nothing ever happened. And that might make a far more interesting, if bleaker, ending for the film.
Is Thanos really right?
Of course, Thanos didn’t really need to kill half of everyone. It was kind of an arbitrary choice based on a traumatic memory of his home planet’s destruction and his inability to stop it. But the coming threat of over-population is very real, and very much needs to be managed. While humans have used scientific progress and GMOs to increase crop yields and raise the carrying capacity of our home planet, the coming threat of global warming and extreme weather leading to loss and destruction of arable land is very real. But in the end, he seems like he might be a villain bent on controlling the world through a psychopathic vision of himself as the sole savior of humankind.
The real villain is Dr. Steve Strange. The Steven Strange, who, with no explanation, simply hands Thanos the Time Stone. After explicitly stating that he would let either Iron Man or Spider-Man die rather than hand over the stone, he literally does the exact opposite, ensuring the destruction of half of all life in the universe because he couldn’t watch Robert Downey Jr cry. I don’t know if this scene is supposed to expose how stupid Dr. Strange is or what, but the choice is unmotivated and baffling.
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