SPOILERS for all of Avengers: Infinity War
In the past week, it has been hard to avoid discussions about Avengers: Infinity War, and yes, it’s mostly the last ten minutes of the film that’s to thank for that. From what I can tell, it’s been a pretty polarizing Marvel movie in the sense that there’s not a whole lot of, “it was just…fine” takes. Jeremiah sort of fits in that category, I’d say, though overall his opinion felt favorable, even if a bit tepidly so.
Mine was not.
It’s not even so much the ending, though I’ll be the first to say I found that bit gratuitous, cowardly, and eye-roll-inducing at the same time. Rather, it was that I could never get engaged with Thanos as a villain. Which was especially a problem in a movie where he’s the closest thing to a central character. Why? Because I found his motivations to be completely trite, unsympathetic, and forced. Worse still, I found their presentation completely irresponsible.
I said as much on social media, and in response was asked, “do villains need relatable motives?” That’s a great point. After all, was anyone really arguing that Sauron had some good ideas, or that Fire Lord Ozai just needed a better marketing team? Well…it’s the internet; I’m sure somewhere, yes, that’s been said. But overall, of course not. Sometimes antagonists can just be intractably Bad™, and that’s okay. It may not be my personal ultimate narrative penchant, but it sets stakes, and the interest lies in how our heroes react to the situation, the inventive ways they may go about bringing down the forces of evil, what they may learn about the world or the human condition, and of course how they personally grow and develop along the way.
Then there’s the fact that some people are motivated by unjustifiable aims. People with many followers, even. I’d argue the baddies in the new Star Wars trilogy fit into this category. The First Order are space fascists, because they want domination and control. Kylo Ren’s motivations are personal in nature, and as the audience we’re given insight into them, but his means and ends are never meant to be sympathetic, or nuanced, or remotely balanced. The bad guys are quite obviously unstable and at this point, flailing (which has an ironic twinge to it since their foes have basically reduced to 20 hippies in a van).
Our media is a reflection on our culture. Speculative fiction is valuable since we can distance ourselves from our current societal conditions and really dig deep into these issues. That’s why there’s a very valid reading of Kylo Ren as a proxy for say…a radicalized white supremacist in our contemporary times. And the way he’s portrayed and people react to them provide commentary that’s relevant to us, even if we’re not living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Going back to the Avatar: the Last Airbender example, Fire Lord Ozai is not really meant to be a proxy for anyone in our world. Sure, there are still people with imperialist aims, but it wasn’t a very direct commentary. However, the reflection on our culture comes in the forms of what the messaging is surrounding Aang’s journey. It’s about the importance of authenticity, finding your own inner strength, questioning the necessity of violence, and just in general, maturation. We may not have a lion turtle to whom we turn for a solution, but Aang’s struggle with capital punishment and his choice to end things in a way that didn’t violate his own morality is something aspirational for viewers.
So no, villains don’t need sympathetic or relatable motivations for a story to be good or meaningful. Sometimes they don’t even need understandable motivations. (Did anyone know Sauron’s 10-year strategic plan?) The problem with Thanos is that the writers didn’t seem to realize that his motivations were ridiculous, ungrounded in any logic, and completely lacking in any kind of sympathy.
A Genocidal Maniac with A Heart of Gold
Let’s just dive right into the specifics. For anyone non-spoiler-phobic who hasn’t seen the film, Thanos wanted to obtain all the infinity stones so that he could assemble the infinity gauntlet, control all of reality, and use that control to kill off half the population of every world within the universe. This is a very extreme measure, but don’t worry, he has a great reason: overpopulation.
You see, his home planet had an issue with resource scarcity, and the only thing that can create such a situation is when there’s too many people. So he’s been going to planets for awhile now with an army and indiscriminately murdering half of their citizens. It’s “not political” genocide, because he murders the rich and the poor. No judgement…just death! The infinity gauntlet would allow him to do this in one fell swoop, because he takes no pleasure in the genocide, and there’s oh so many planets he wants to save. It’s a burden and he cannot rest until it’s done.
And apparently there’s been great results so far! Gamora’s planet is “thriving” and there’s no more starvation ever since he took out half their population a couple of decades ago. Clearly this issue not only scales up to the entire universe, but the genocide itself is an effective means to reducing starvation. Equally clearly, there’s no other pathway to prevent resource scarcity, even with a gauntlet that controls reality and could easily create more abundant resources, or increase access to birth control, or terraform an uninhabitable planet for more space for overcrowded planets…
Again, I’m not the first person to point out how his entire motivation falls apart under the smallest amount of scrutiny. But it’s still necessary to call attention to this.
Now, it’s important to note that in the process of obtaining the infinity stones to control reality to murder half the population for humanitarian reasons, Thanos needed to sacrifice something he “loved.” Why? Because Red Skull told him that’s the only way to get the soul stone, and clearly that obstacle needed to exist in the first place.
So Thanos pushes Gamora off a cliff, we get a shot of her horrifically smashed corpse on the ground below, he sheds a Man Tear, and the soul stone is his. Then he later talks about all he’s had to sacrifice to be able to achieve his aims—presumably this is about Gamora, not to mention the “toll” indiscriminate genocide has on him since it’s his “burden.”
So our villain, and quasi-protagonist of the movie, is given a sympathetic backstory (yes, it is sympathetic that there was such horrible poverty on his planet that people were suffering and dying), a platform to share his philosophical motivations and rationalizations, and a moment where he has to sacrifice love—presented without irony—in order to achieve his chilling aims.
It’s that last bit that particularly stands out, since “sacrificing one personal love for the sake of utilitarian benefit” is a rather common thread throughout this movie. We see both Peter Quill and Wanda Maximoff make the same choice. Yeah, in their case the people they loved were on-board too (Gamora and Vision), whereas Gamora was clearly not okay with being murdered by Thanos for him to obtain the soul stone, but we still get our villain following the beats of our heroes.
Why am I harping on this? Because the issue is that the movie acts as though Thanos has a point. The movie acts as though Thanos’s philosophy is justifiable, but taken to an evil extreme. The movie acts as though Thanos legitimately did have to sacrifice something, and this is taking a personal toll on him, and it’s kind of tragic that these are the means and ends he thinks are necessary to resolve what’s clearly a real problem. And that’s the worst bit: the movie acts like overpopulation truly is the cause of great suffering thanks to resource scarcity.
There is only one person who even engages with Thanos’s motivations, and that’s Gamora. Everyone else just wants to stop Bad Thing™ from happening, because it’s bad. (It is, but I’m not even positive most of them know what Thanos wants, so their stakes in this are far more generic.) Gamora actually points out to him that killing people is shitty and not helpful. Thanos responds by telling Gamora his slaughtering of her people led to prosperity. She has no counter to this.
And that’s it! There is no argument raised against Thanos’s framing of the problem, nor his solution.
Worse still, Thanos’s portrayal is collected, measured, seemingly reasonable, and yes, burdened. Now, you can still have a villain with absolutely horrifying ends in mind and a calm demeanor. In fact, that’s often effective at showing how chillingly detached they are form humanity. But Thanos ain’t detached either. He emotes pretty strongly, he cries for Gamora, and we learn that his love had been real, or else he wouldn’t have gotten the soul stone. There was nothing on our screens within the movie that even hinted at hypocrisy, or personal delusion, or anything. He was just a dude solvin’ that universal overpopulation crisis with a means that most people deem unacceptable because the death toll is too high. What makes him a villain is that he doesn’t care that it was that high, I suppose.
(As a side-note, there’s also absolutely no explanation for his minions, their philosophical commitment, how he convinced them, or what they view as the aims. So we have to assume they’re on-board with this plan for humanitarian reasons as well, or something. ~Apolitical genocide~!)
The thing is, from what I can tell, this portrayal mostly worked. It sold Thanos. That’s why we have critics comparing him to Killmonger, a villain who took a very real problem to a chilling extreme, and an extreme that was tragically shaped by the toxic masculinity of the culture he was forced into.
Here’s the rub: Killmonger was fighting on behalf of the suffering of black populations around the world. He’s fighting for the marginalized, though it’s clear his views have fallen out of balance. That’s why Nakia, the philosophical counterpoint to Killmonger, is such a crucial character. She believes Wakanda should offer aid as well, because this suffering is not okay and they do have the power to help, but her approach does not engage with any imperialist strategies.
“The following distinction is crucial: Black Panther does not render a verdict that violence is an unacceptable tool of black liberation—to the contrary, that is precisely how Wakanda is liberated. It renders a verdict on imperialism as a tool of black liberation, to say that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.” —Adam Serwer, The Atlantic
In Infinity War, Gamora is the closest thing we’ve got to Nakia in terms of offering a counterpoint, and hers just amounted to “genocide is bad.” It wasn’t even engaging with the subject of resource scarcity or starvation. Thanos said that’s what he wanted to solve, and she just kind of reacted like, “Yes, of course. But these means are bad.”
Here’s the thing though: unlike Killmonger, what Thanos is seeking to solve—overpopulation—is actually at the expense of marginalized populations when it’s viewed as something that needs solving in the first place. I mean yes, technically he is trying to get rid of starvation and suffering due to resource scarcity; but his diagnosis that this is the result of overpopulation is again, not challenged, and rather confirmed by the way Gamora’s planet apparently bounced back happily from the genocide. Which kind of implies that the writers believe overpopulation to be a credible threat as well.
That’s dangerous. It’s actually pretty racist at its historical core too, and certainly its contemporary application. I don’t want to shock anyone, but there has been poverty, starvation, and suffering long before the earth was in even remote danger of its biological capacity being reached. Even now, the countries with the highest rates of death due to malnutrition are the same countries that are using the fewest resources, consuming the least amount of fossil fuels, and contributing the least to global warming, generally speaking. Is world hunger a case of resource scarcity for us? No.
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. For the world as a whole, per capita food availability has risen from about 2220 kcal/person/day in the early 1960s to 2790 kcal/person/day in 2006-08, while developing countries even recorded a leap from 1850 kcal/person/day to over 2640 kcal/person/day. …A principal problem is that many people in the world still do not have sufficient income to purchase (or land to grow) enough food or access to nutritious food.” —2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics (bolded emphasis mine)
At this moment, there is a bit of a global hysteria regarding immigration and refugees. As the effects of climate change worsen, the need for populations to move to new countries is only going to increase too. That’s kind of what happens when areas become uninhabitable. It is really, really important that people understand issues of poverty are not because there’s “too many people” in the world, but because resources are inadequately distributed.
This isn’t even touching the issue of safe access to both education about and means of birth control. Which yes, is very effective at curbing birth rates in areas that may be more resource-strapped and lacking in the capacity for its citizens to obtain proper nutrition.
What is keeping us from sustainably and equitably distributing resources and education? Power structures! Governments! Apathy! NIMBYism! The requirements for corporations to be completely profit-driven at all times! And look, I’m not here calling for a grand revolution because one movie had a bunch of logical fallacies in it. Our overlapping systems of government and economy on this planet are complicated and ending world hunger isn’t exactly something where there’s a clear path towards a solution.
But what I am saying is that finger-pointing at the broad concept of overpopulation has a whole host of problems, and it completely ignores the power structures behind resource distributions. It’s kind of like blaming the victim, but in a way that’s couched as apolitical. Which is dangerous in its own right. Today, when people within our governments are the ones articulating this? It’s beyond irresponsible, especially as a takeaway from the biggest movie to date.
Thanos, Motives, Realism
I know it might be confusing that I started by saying Thanos’s plan falls apart under minimal scrutiny (what, is he snapping every 80 years or something?) and was horribly unrelatable, and then led to a point where I argued how the danger is that there are people today with Thanos’s worldview (universe-view?). So…doesn’t that mean it is relatable?
But the issue is that it shouldn’t be. This is not the worldview that should be validated in any way, or presented as even worth being given the time of day. Because it’s one that comes at a human cost. And in-verse, it’s even more absurd, since it’s a worldview that comes at the cost of 50% of everyone, just indiscriminately. There is no reason to ever take a character doing something like that and twist the narrative so that people can walk out shrugging, “you know, he had a point.”
If Thanos had been targeting governmental systems a la Zaheer in Legend of Korra, this might have played well. Not perfectly, but it’d at least be some kind of way of identifying a problem worth digging into. This? It makes the comparisons to Killmonger feel grossly inappropriate, to say the least.
And even if we can say, “But some people do think like this!”, there was no attempt to challenging anything but the means to the end. Even the end itself was tacitly endorsed. It can be argued that American History X’s imagery may have inadvertently framed white supremacy in an enticing way to some, and that’s something filmmakers need to consider when penning their antagonists. But the narrative was abundantly clear about the dangers of this worldview, the chilling way people can become radicalized and buy into it, and the horrific ends it leads to. It was a clear condemnation.
For Infinity War? The writers seemed unaware that anything needed to be condemned. Overpopulation…it’s obviously a problem! And a universal one at that, in the most literal definition of the word “universal.” Otherwise, why would Thanos, this rather mild-speaking individual who experienced horror thanks to an overcrowded planet, be willing to sacrifice the daughter who he
abused loved and take on the mantle of this burden? Sure his solution was too much, but there was suffering, and the test-results of randomly wiping out half the people worked great! Why wouldn’t he continue pursuing it? Why wouldn’t there be anything but great results? Fewer people means everyone gets more things and that’s good! There would have been no recovery period with mass panic and devastation or anything.
Sorry, I can keep going with this.
The thing is, I get why the writers did this. The comic event upon which this movie was loosely based had a Thanos who wiped out half the universe’s population in an attempt to…win over a girl. Death, to be precise. He thought she was awesome, and my guess is she probably thought the half-extinction of the universe was awesome. No, I didn’t read it, but it’s not exactly foolish that the writers would want to make the motivation more…reasonable. Or less weird? More serious, maybe? On the surface, it does sound utterly ridiculous, and with media that’s slanted more towards realism lately, it seems like an uphill battle to translate it to the screen.
Then again, there was something a little more than ridiculous about the end sequence already, especially with the woolly powers of the infinity stones and the inherently jarring deploy of the time stone. So I’m not sure “realism” was much of a goal here.
What’s funny is that in the writers’ desire to make Thanos more motivated, they kind of missed that his original motivation—impressing a lady—is very relevant to today’s world, and ripe for potential social commentary. You know, maybe it’d be something like a guy not accepting rejection from a woman, and going to chilling ends to get her attention, possibly because of misguided sense of entitlement? Kind of like the stuff we’re reconciling now, as a culture!
On this vein, if it’s Death he’s after, why not have kept Hela from Thor: Ragnarok around to be the female personification that he’s trying to woo? That way, Cate Blanchett isn’t blown on just one movie, and it would have helped justify the tonal dissonance of Ragnarok as it would have been more of a bridge movie within the universe, rather than a disjointed attempt at a Thor standalone.
I hate branching into “I wish the movie had been about this” territory, but it’s mind-blowing to me that of the many, many options the writers had for this event, which included a closer adaptation of the source, they picked the “apolitical genocide” route. Because apparently overpopulation is a credible threat to fall back on, Thanos is just an extremist, and it’s possible to be egalitarian in murdering of half the population.
There’s a chance that Thanos’s laughable excuse for philosophy will be taken to task in Avengers 4, and I don’t want to dismiss that possibility. But there’s nothing in the framing of his plan that makes me think the writers even realize it’s necessary to do so. Not to mention, this was the movie with the biggest opening in history. All MCU films until Avengers 4 are going to have taken place before the snap. So we have this standing for a solid year. That is a long, long time for that viewpoint to go unchallenged.
No, villains don’t need relatable or sympathetic motives for compelling stories. But if you’re going to present it like they do, then it at least needs to be thought through.