A frequent criticism of movies set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that they lack compelling villains. Usually our heroes are up against mostly-faceless corporations or assorted bland space terrorists. The most compelling villains so far are buoyed by the charisma of the actor (Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok), or by their conflicted motivations (“Bucky” Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, and Loki, the adopted brother of Thor and scion of the sinister Frost Giants, across several Marvel films). The others are generic bad guys with generic plans for generic domination and/or mayhem (Iron Man 2’s Justin Hammer or Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan the Accuser, for example). As a result, most Marvel movies play on the excitement of seeing comic-book heroes come to life on the screen accompanied by state-of-the-art special effects and sarcastic quips (there are also other, somewhat less flattering reasons we generally find Marvel movies so enjoyable, which Titus Techera has been chronicling).
Avengers: Infinity War finally provides a villain worth watching and talking about. Josh Brolin’s Thanos not only steals every scene, but provides the film’s primary emotional resonance. This is a movie about Thanos far more than the Avengers, despite the initial appeal of watching all of our favorite heroes from across the MCU team up to fight evil.
Thanos presents himself as the only being in the universe bold enough to take the harsh steps necessary to save people from themselves. The problem, as he sees it, is a problem with life itself: left unchecked, life outgrows its own resources, leading to poverty and untold suffering for most people. Thanos’ own planet suffered the consequences: it became, over time, an uninhabitable wasteland filled with ruins and destruction because of its overpopulation.
Thanos’ solution, which his own planet rejected but which he intends to impose on the rest of the galaxy, is to wipe out half of all the living beings in the universe. He will do so by lot, thereby removing any favoritism based on wealth or rank. Thanos argues with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), his estranged adopted daughter whose planet he subjected to his version of the Final Solution, saying that now, relieved of its excess population, her planet has become a “paradise.” Gamora’s argument—that her people were happy under their previous conditions—is brushed aside by Thanos.
Most of Avengers: Infinity War chronicles the Avengers’ attempts to prevent Thanos from collecting the six powerful Infinity Stones, which will allow him to carry out his population-control plans.
In his own mind, Thanos (whose name is clearly derived from the Greek word for death) is a tragic hero. He alone is willing to make the sacrifices, including deeply personal ones, to eliminate suffering; he alone has the will to sacrifice even the only person he truly loves to achieve his goal. Thanos’ success is built on his willingness to endanger or torture loved ones of the people he seeks to manipulate into doing his bidding; in each case, Thanos gets his way because of some hero’s unwillingness to sacrifice a loved one.
Because of the blandness of most previous Marvel villains, it is useful to think about Thanos’ goals. He is, essentially, a super-powered Malthusian proposing as radical a solution as possible to intergalactic scarcity. He is set apart from other Marvel villains in that his malevolent goals are rooted in real-world threats; a growing and influential segment of Western elites have begun wondering about the goodness of humanity itself, given what they perceive to be man’s baneful effect on the natural environment. What used to be an opinion confined to the margins in, for instance, the deep ecology movement, now finds purchase in books published by major academic presses.
The problem Thanos proposes to solve and the salvation he offers force us to confront the question: what is good about being human? Is it worth the suffering and the inevitable destruction we cause? Other than Gamora’s brief, unsatisfying assertion, our heroes don’t offer a counter-argument; the Avengers’ only resistance is the armed kind. That is a mixed blessing; it does show that Disney/Marvel assumes its audience still feels the goodness of humanity deeply enough that, despite his arguments, Thanos may be presumed to be obviously wrong and his “salvation” obviously evil.
But while neither the average-Joe moviegoer nor his superheroic alter egos on screen feel the need to articulate an argument against Thanos, it is also not clear whether they have the resources to do so if they wanted to. It is a sign for hope that we still believe strongly in human goodness. But if elite skepticism about that goodness begins to trickle down, the time may come when Captain America or Iron Man needs to counter Thanotic arguments not only with vibranium shields and repulsor blasts, but also with a reasoned defense of human life.