The Avengers Won the War, But Lost the Argument: How Our Heroes Doom Our Future
This is not a review of Avengers: Endgame, but there are spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and want to, don’t read ahead.
For those of you who haven’t seen it and don’t want to, the last two Avengers movies, Infinity War and Endgame are about a struggle between the “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”, the superhero team called the “Avengers”, and a villain named “Thanos”. Thanos believes that life has exceeded the universe’s carrying capacity, and he wants to wipe out half of all life so as to bring things back into a state of balance. Thanos explains his motivation in two conversations with the heroes:
Gamora: … you murdered half the planet.
Thanos: A small price to pay for salvation.
Gamora: You're insane.
Thanos: Little one, it's a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.
Gamora: You don't know that!
Thanos: I'm the only one who knows that. At least, I'm the only one with the will to act on it.
And later …
Doctor Strange: … Your home?
Thanos: It was. And it was beautiful. Titan was like most planets. Too many mouths, and not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.
Doctor Strange: Genocide.
Thanos: But at random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike. They called me a madman. And what I predicted came to pass.
Doctor Strange: Congratulations. You're a prophet.
Thanos: I'm a survivor.
Doctor Strange: Who wants to murder trillions.
Thanos: With all six stones, I could simply snap my fingers, and they would all cease to exist. I call that...mercy.
Doctor Strange: And then what?
Thanos: I finally rest...and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe. The hardest choices require the strongest wills.
The Heroic Trinity
Against Thanos are arrayed dozens of major and minor heroic characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But out of this universe of heroes, three are central to this conflict: Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. To understand the conflict, it’s important to know what each of these characters represent.
Captain America represents unflinching optimism, faith in humanity, and the refusal to ever compromise one’s ideals. Again and again through the many movies leading up to Avengers: Endgame, Captain America refuses to stay down. “I can do this all day.” is his catch-phrase, delivered after getting up once again, Rocky-style, from what should have been a show-stopping pummeling. Captain America also represents American exceptionalism, writ large in the movies as human exceptionalism: the idea that the physical limitations of nature just don’t apply to us.
Iron Man/Tony Stark represents human ingenuity and techno-optimism, the faith in our ability to solve any problem with the proper application of science and skill. He also represents capitalist individualism. In his unrelenting in his pursuit of technological innovation, Stark nearly destroys all his relationships (See Iron Man 3), not to mention the world (see Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Thor is nominally the Norse god of thunder. But in the movies, he is more of a Christianized god-man wrapped in the trappings of a pagan deity. The son of a wise father-god, Thor is sent to earth to learn humility and to become who he is “meant to be”, a sacrificial savior-god who eventually becomes worthy of his divine inheritance. Thor, then, represents godlike power and the human potential to wield it.
The villain, Thanos, represents death (his name means “death” in Greek) or more specifically, the inevitability (“I am inevitable.”) of death. Ernest Becker taught us that our hero myths are how we, individually and collectively, stave off the terror of death.
“It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero- system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness … They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky-scraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay …”
— Ernest Becker. The Denial of Death (1973)
Near the climax of Avengers: Endgame, this trinity of heroes—Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor—face off against Thanos. Symbolically, this final showdown represents three heroic myths of Western civilization—human exceptionalism, techno-optimism, and power-worship—facing off against the inevitability of death.
And they win. Of course. Because this is Hollywood.
But do they really? Yes, they kill Thanos. And, yes, they restore to life the half of the population of the universe that had been wiped out by Thanos at the end of Infinity War. But ultimately they fail to answer the philosophical and practical challenge posed by Thanos.
Thanos Was Right
Thanos saw a universe populated by beings who had exceed the limits of the nature. As he saw it, there were only two possibilities, either voluntarily check the growth of life or let nature do it for us. Thanos chose the former path, because the latter would involve incalculably more suffering. The Avengers movies are fiction, but the dilemma posed by Thanos is a real one. As Naomi Klein has written in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate:
“We are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.”
The heroes reject Thanos’ plan outright, but they fail to take responsibility for the consequences. They fail to even wrestle with the logic of Thanos’ plan. No one actually says, much less proves, that Thanos was wrong. They call his solution “insane”, but they fail to address the insanity of unchecked growth within a closed system.
The short-sightedness of the heroes is manifest when they restore everyone to life who had been killed five years earlier, instantaneously doubling the universe’s population. As numerous critics have pointed out, after Thanos cut the population in half, the production of food and other necessities for sustaining human life would have been correspondingly reduced over the intervening five years. We’re supposed to be glad that all those people got restored to life at the close of Endgame, but who’s going to feed them all? You just can’t ramp up the world’s economy fast enough. Billions would die of starvation!
But even if we choose to overlook that plot hole, the fact remains that Avengers never adequately respond to the underlying problem: natural limits and the human propensity to ignore them. Because of this, our world is looking increasingly Thanos’ homeworld Titan. Every day there is more news about the devastating impact of human life on the planet and increasingly dire predictions of what our future is going to look like.
A few months ago, I began noticing articles about shocking levels of decline among populations of insects—up to 98% in some places!—and the animals that feed on them. Scientists are warning of a “bottom-up trophic cascade” which will surge up through the food chain and eventually reach humans.
This past February, an article appeared entitled, “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity By 2050”. Even more shocking than the title, was the source. The article wasn’t published in some far-Left periodical or even a liberal-leaning news outlet, but in Forbes magazine!
This past March, a NASA-funded study projected the collapse of global civilization in the coming decades because of a combination of “stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity" and “the economic stratification of society” into rich elites and poor masses.
I am noticing the word “collapse” appearing with alarming frequency, even in mainstream media. Dark Mountain co-founder, Paul Kingsnorth, recently noted that, since 1970,
"there have only been two occasions when the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen rather than risen. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The second was the near collapse of the global economy in 2008. ... The only thing in my lifetime that has come close to slowing down the ecocidal death machine that we call the ‘global economy’ has been collapse."
Kingsnorth concludes, “The collapse of the industrial economy is, in all likelihood, the only remaining way to prevent the mass destruction of life on Earth." This is the world we’re living in.
The Specter of Malthus
Admittedly, Thanos solution is ham-fisted.* To begin with, 50% is a completely arbitrary number. It’s possible that the necessarily reduction would be smaller, though it’s probably larger. In addition, a 50% culling would not prevent the population from rebounding and needing yet another correction in 50 years.
More importantly, the relationship between population and carrying capacity is complex. While population is an issue, the more immediate concern is consumption. It would have been much more efficient for Thanos to kill hose who consume the most. He could have started with the top 1% of the population and then continued the culling in over-privileged countries, like the United States. The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population accounts for 59% of all human consumption. Americans constitute only 5% of the world's population, but consume 24% of the world's energy. (Source)
Any suggestion that we limit human population tends to be labeled “Mathusian,” a reference to the late 18th century economist, Thomas Robert Malthus, whose name has since become a byword.** And any invocation of Malthus today is meant to be an argument-ender. Predictions of mass starvation by by Malthus and neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) have so far turned out to be wrong. Due to modern technology, we are now feeding more people than ever and the global standard of living continues to rise (albeit not uniformly).
But at what cost? Ehrlich’s 1968 predictions were narrowly avoided by the so-called Green Revolution. But industrial farming, with its non-renewable fertilizers and chemical pesticides, have wreaked havoc on ecosystems around the world. Today, industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. As Charles Mann writes in The Wizard and the Prophet, “If just ten fish remain in a pond, the solution to running out of fish is not more efficient nets. Instead, what we need, above and beyond all else, is a change in our relationship with Nature.”
Thanos Bats Last
After Infinity War hit theaters, numerous articles appeared arguing that Thanos was wrong and comparing Thanos to Malthus. Even more appeared after Endgame. Many of them argue that we haven’t yet hit the limit, that we haven’t exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet yet.
But this argument just kicks the can down the road. If we can agree that there is a limit (or more accurately, multiple limits), then we must agree that at some point we have to alter our behavior to conform to those limits. And the latest science tells us that we have already passed several of the planetary boundaries for sustaining human life.
Other commentators answered Thanos’ challenge by suggesting that we can transcend natural limits:
“The overpopulation concept also assumes Earth has limited resources due to a carrying capacity, but that might be irrelevant because humans are able to use artificial means—farming and other technologies—to engineer ecosystems and sustain populations beyond natural limits.” — JV Chamary, “Is Thanos Right About Overpopulation In 'Avengers: Infinity War'?”, Forbes, Apr. 30, 2018
“The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history … Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits. …The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.” — Erle C. Ellis, “Overpopulation Is Not the Problem”, New York Times, Sept. 13, 2013
The first quote above seems naive, but the second one is truly terrifying. “A better Anthropocene”?! That phrase says it all. In the view of the techno-optimist, human beings are destined to be Masters of the Universe, and the only thing holding us back is the belief that natural limitations are real.
This seems to be the implicit message of the Avengers movies, that we can transcend all limits with technology (when combined with gritty resolve and plucky optimism). After all, hasn’t it worked for us in the past? The Industrial Revolution came along and saved us from Malthus’ predictions. And a century and a half later, the Green Revolution saved us from Paul Ehrlich’s predictions.
The problem is that each of these revolutions came with a cost—one that is left uncounted by the capitalists and technocrats alike. The Industrial Revolution was built on the availability of cheap fossil fuels—first coal, then oil. But we have now passed the point of peak oil, and the availability of easily obtainable fossil fuels is on the decline. While there still is plenty of oil and gas in the ground, the cost of extracting them is going up—so the net energy output is going down. Since the efficiency of renewable and nuclear energy sources is a fraction of cheap fossil fuels (which are disappearing), the unavoidable outcome will be a drastic reduction of economic production (whether voluntary or compelled by collapse).
Similarly, while the Green Revolution allowed us to feed billions more people, it has also come with a cost. Grain yields have gone up, but the efficiency of the food production system has gone down, meaning that the amount of energy required to produce the same amount of grain has actually increased. It’s taking more and more energy to keep the whole thing running, and eventually, it has to collapse. It’s elementary thermodynamics: You can’t draw infinite energy from a finite system.
At the end of Endgame, Thanos is defeated when Tony Stark uses his Iron Man suit to steal the Infinity Stones and use them, by snapping his fingers while thinking Thanos and his army out of existence. Magic stones and finger snapping: It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of wishful thinking. There was one more important ingredient, though. In using the stones, Stark sacrifices himself, which ompletes the modernist/Christian formula for transcending death: technology + optimism + a sacrificial figure.
But the fact is that technology is not going to save us. Technology—or rather, our technological attitude—is the problem, not the solution. No substitutionary sacrifice is going to save us either (though I expect many scapegoats will be executed along the way). Wishful thinking isn’t going to save us either, whether it takes the form of faith in technology (Iron Man) or American exceptionalism (Captain America) or a Christian-style god (Thor). In the end, death is, as Thanos says, inevitable.
“Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives all the same. And now it is here.” — Thanos
I’d Rather Be A Human Than a Goddess or a Cyborg
This isn’t an argument for genocide or for eugenics. Some of the best ways to limit population growth are education and empowering women. But so long as we maintain a collective faith in our ability to transcend all natural limits, then we will inevitably hit those limits.
The problem with Avengers: Endgame isn’t the villain, but the heroes—or rather, the heroic mentality. As Ernest Becker explained, ironically, it’s our very attempts to save ourselves, to make ourselves immortal, that end up dooming us.
“Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production. This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind.”
— Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1975)
Our enemy isn’t death, it’s our attempts to avoid death: the myth of human exceptionalism, uncritical techno-optimism, and a Christian savior-complex. In the place of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, I would choose other protagonists:
Instead of Iron Man, I would choose Pepper Potts. Pepper is the romantic partner of Tony Stark. She continually tries to get Stark to stop. Just stop. Stop his blind drive to invent, to create, to build. Apparently she succeeds for a little while, during the interlude between Infinity War and Endgame, when Stark settles down and makes a life with Pepper and their child at a lakeside cottage. But then he’s back at it again in the second half Endgame. Stark knows no limits. Pepper does.
Instead of Thor, I would another Marvel heavy-hitter, or rather his alter-ego. I would choose Bruce Banner. No, not the Hulk. Banner. Unlike the Hulk and unlike Thor, Banner understands the dangers of power. He understands that when Hulk smashes, people get hurt. And so, he practices restraint.
Instead of Captain America, I would choose Vision. Vision is an android who falls in love with a human. In contrast to Captain America’s optimism, Vision is a fatalist. I’m thinking here of a scene from an earlier movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. At the end of the movie, the robotic villain, Ultron, is confronted by Vision. As the sun sets in the background, Ultron says, “They’re doomed,” referring to humanity. “Yes,” responds Vision thoughtfully, “but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” Unlike Captain America, whose optimism is unrelenting, Vision knows that humanity is ultimately doomed. He can see us for what we are. But still, he sees beauty. Still he loves.
Unlike Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, these three characters—Pepper Potts, Bruce Banner, and Vision—understand limitations. They understand that human beings are not and are not meant to be gods or supermen or cyborgs. They understand that to be human is to be limited and, in the words of Heidegger, to have a “capacity for death.” Ironically, it is in our capacity to embrace our finitude, our limited nature, to love it even, that our salvation lies. Not salvation from death, but salvation from a fate worse than death: to watch ourselves become the villains of our own story.
* While the characters talk about Thanos eliminating half of all life, it’s not clear what exactly was meant by “life”. Did that just include heterotrophs, those who eat other animals and plants? What about non-humanoid animals? What about trees? Or bacteria? What about edible plants? Did Thanos also just cut the food supply in half?! There’s some indication that what he really did was wipe out half of all human (and humanoid) life. Other life apparently began to thrive again in the new environment, as Captain America observes a pod of whales in the Hudson River.
** It must be said that some of the opprobrium attached to Malthus’ name is deserved. In various times and places, Malthus’ ideas inspired governmental policies which have had disproportionately harsh impacts on the poor, people of color, and women.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”, which has been translated into 16 languages and has been signed by people from 99 countries. John strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, and A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.