Thanos as Malthus





The new blockbuster hit Avengers: Infinity War has as it’s major plot conflict an attempt by the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and others to prevent the Titan Thanos from collecting all six of the Infinity Stones, mounting them in the gauntlet and using the collected power to end half of all life in the universe. I read this as Thanos taking a very specifically Malthusian anti-demos approach.

Thanos, in the film, is motivated by events from his home moon of Titan where a crisis of resource exploitation came about (the how is not clear). Thanos offer a solution of reducing the potential pool of exploiters but was rejected. Implied in the film is that the continuation of the overexploitation makes Titan a lifeless, desert world in the end.

This is the current trajectory of Earth in the material world, though this isn’t generally explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Infinity War is part of. So using Earth as an example, apart from the local geographies were humans first evolved, when humans first arrived in a new geography they exterminated through overhunting or elimination of competitors some of the other megafauna. But this isn’t the same as ecosystem collapse. As example, after humans first arrived on Turtle Island they killed (or otherwise rendered extinct) several large animals but attained a sort of harmony over time by and large. This is the same path that happened in Australia and elsewhere. Capitalism created the overexploitation when it reimagined the ecology not as a place of being but as an exploitable resource. Infinity War naturalizes capitalist this growth-by-any-means throughout the universe as though the “Infinity War” is caused by a class one brought by the capitalist enclosure of the universe.

But in the material world it is capitalist accumulation that produces environmental collapse and resource scarcity. The overwhelming majority of the population, largely delineated by the lines created by colonialism and African Slavery, not only has nothing to do with the cause of the overexploitation, but are similarly victimized by it. Thanos’s understanding is not this though. His is a very capitalist interpretation of demographic danger as if the very fact of population produces danger. Thanos imagines overpopulation as a thing since overproduction and overconsumption cannot be imagined inside capitalism as capital is incapable of self-reflection. His solution then, is to end half of all life to bring “balance” to the universe. Were Thanos focused on overconsumption instead of overpopulation, he would find solutions to the “problem” short of culling the herd.

For example, if the full Infinity Gauntlet can end all life through physical erasure, it certainly could create matter too and produce what is lacked. Or instead of “half”, Thanos could use it to kill the exploiters, the CEOs and what have you. But Thanos can’t imagine this. Instead he designs that half the beings in the universe must die to avoid the fate of his home world. The culling is very much a Malthusian solution of cruel social engineering. The filmmakers give Thanos the libertarian gloss of fake egalitarianism by insisting all the powerful and disimpowered alike will face this culling. But what does this have to do with consumption of resources? If capitalist overconsumption is the norm throughout the MCU then a numerically small percentage of each planet’s population controls the resources. Thanos’ numerically random cull will disproportionately affect the majority, again delineated by the lines of colonialism and African slavery, who are not responsible for this overconsumption, further concentrating power in the hands of the elites who brought on the crisis.

Thanos’s solution is not the only evidence of his Malthusian demographic take. The definition of “life” as exemplified by the cull points to this as well. We see part of the cull in a lush Wakandan forest but no trees or other plants are seen to die, only humans and humanoid-ish beings. So if the definition isn’t literally “life”, then it is some kind of colonial definition of animality that picks what/who is a qualified life and who/what is an exploitable resource less-than-life (which should’ve but didn’t spare a specific Avenger so Thanos must not have read Wynter and Wilderson lol!). Taken as the product of MCU storylines to date, a Malthusian “positive” effect the film describes as inevitable. In one of the concluding lines, Benedryl Slumberpatch’s character appears to be recruited to Thanos’ POV, suggesting an inevitability to the Malthusian culling.

All this is well and good but if Thanos is Malthus, what potential does that open up for the Avengers? It’s kinda silly to imagine that Tony Stark is anything but an arms dealer and Steve Rodgers is anything but an imperial super-grunt but being forced to take an anti-Malthusian position allows for the possibility of anti-colonial positioning. Expecting this from the MCU is silly but it’s something to aspire towards.