…that’s not how things work…
Warning: The following contains spoilers for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’
Issue #1: Biology
In the comics, Thanos wants to kill half the Universe as a gift for his lady love. In Avengers: Infinity War, he wants to do so because he thinks the Universe is overcrowded, and in reducing the population by half he’s saving them from overexploiting and destroying their homeworlds the way that his was.
The former may be a little ridiculous, but even in its ridiculousness it ultimately makes way more sense than the latter. In all the untold time Thanos (Josh Brolin) has spent pursuing this master plan, he clearly never consulted a biologist. The thing about populations in the presence of abundant resources is that, regardless of whether you are talking about bacteria or bunnies or people, they tend to grow exponentially. Unless you kill off enough of a population to send it spiraling towards extinction, you’re not going to change the trajectory of the growth curve — you’ve just adjusted the time frame a little bit. If anything, following large extinction events, populations have a tendency to over-compensate. Just think of World War II. Millions died in the war, but remember what happened next, right here in the U.S.? The Baby Boom.
Say Thanos has truly “succeeded” in his plan. Even in that case, he’s done the equivalent of successfully tossing a single bucket of water on a raging house fire and then patted himself on the back and called it a day. Maybe the house will take a few seconds longer to burn down, but the fundamental situation has not actually changed at all.
The way populations and natural selection and all that fun stuff basically work is that, in a given environment, a particular population has a natural limit known as a carrying capacity. In other words, the resources present can sustain a certain number of a given creature. Population growth is typically more or less exponential until the population reaches this capacity. The population, typically speaking, actually exceeds this capacity briefly, at which point selection pressure increases as members of the population are forced to compete for survival, with only the stronger competitors surviving and reproducing. As such, natural populations generally end up stabilizing, with numbers oscillating around this carrying capacity.
The thing about populations that manipulate their environment the way humans do is that we have the ability to “cheat” this system and extend the carrying capacity of our environments. This is not fundamentally an issue, the problem comes in when these systems are not actually sustainable in the long run — which, historically, has been the trend. A simple reduction in population size does not actually address the problem, and therefore is not even vaguely in the realm of being a solution.
Furthermore, considering we’re dealing with exponential and not linear growth, a 50% reduction doesn’t even buy that much time. Unless Thanos is planning on repeatedly vaporizing a randomized 50% of the Universe’s population every 25 years or so (assuming human generational time to be around the average in this scenario), even if he succeeded in his plan, he has actually accomplished more or less nothing in terms of his self-described goals.
If he is planning on killing 50% of the Universe’s population every generation or two, well, that opens up a whole other bag of cats. For example, I can’t think of any governmental system that could really handle losing half of its officials with such frequency while retaining any degree of stability — except perhaps for absolute anarchy, which is by definition, the absence of a system and therefore chaotic. And a state of constant anarchy does not seem to line up with Thanos’s plan for a calm, peaceful retirement.
Issue #2: The “Beloved” Gambit
It’s a beloved trope — power-hungry villains having to sacrifice people they love in order to acquire ultimate power. We saw it just a year ago in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and plenty of other times before that. The issue is that when an individual reaches the point where he or she is willing to sacrifice “the person they love most” against this beloved person’s wishes, said individual has passed a point of no return regarding the ability to genuinely care for others.
As such, the “kill the one you love most” gambit with a non-willing sacrifice should never work because if you are willing to sacrifice said person against her wishes in the pursuit of power, whatever attachment you may feel is not love. With a willing participant who volunteers to die for the cause, a case could be made — but that is by no stretch of the imagination what happened with Gamora.
Issue #3: Ideological Origins
If Thanos’s “there are too many damn people here” argument sounds familiar to you, it might be because it has featured in the rationale behind more than one genocide in human history. However, while Infinity War happily borrows the sales pitch for genocide, it clearly doesn’t want to deal with the hideous beast that is actual genocide, because it is so adamant about separating Thanos’s plans from a defining feature of genocide, which is that it is against a specific people, whether that be an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group. In other words, what we have with Thanos is a co-opted introduction to a pro-genocide argument with the historical conclusion switched out for something more palatable. And I personally find this leaves a particularly unpleasant aftertaste.
It’s just a superhero movie, you might say, don’t take it so seriously. Admittedly there are situations in which I think such an argument is perfectly valid, but this is not one of them.
It’s kind of like featuring a swastika and trying to insist that it’s not being used in the Nazi way. The connection between that symbol and the Nazi party is forevermore a done deal. You can’t unlink them. It’s not something that should even be attempted. Because to do that is to forget, and when it comes to the ugliest parts of human history, remembering is of the utmost importance. Only through remembering do we have any chance of saving ourselves from repeating those most hideous travesties.
I’m not saying films should never engage with horrific ideologies. But if they are going to go there, they should actually go there. They shouldn’t just borrow a piece of it — particularly, a piece of it that helped actual real-life crimes against humanity occur, that made people willing to support or turn a blind eye to them — and trim off the ugliest bits. Because to do so, in itself, is decidedly ugly — the kind of ugly that definitively puts a damper on the ability to enjoy what could and should have been an entertaining summer blockbuster.