By Jordan J. Ballor, PhD*
The latest Marvel blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War, has opened to popular acclaim and record-breaking box office numbers. It is truly a spectacle, and one that expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into uncharted territory. But amid the special effects and the glamor, the plot that drives the action is an old one, and no less compelling because of its antiquity. Thanos, the Mad Titan, pursues absolute power in the form of the Infinity Gauntlet, which houses six gems whose origins lie beyond the creation of the cosmos. Thanos initially pursues this power not for its own sake but rather out of a well-intentioned but deeply misguided sense of limits of economic growth. What we find in the course of the film, however, is that the single-minded pursuit of such a pure ideological agenda always requires sacrifice.
Thanos, the zero-sum economist
Thanos was born on the planet Titan, where he grew to see that the abundance of his civilization would inevitably lead to destruction. As he puts it, “It was beautiful. Titan was like most planets; too many mouths, not enough food to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.” That solution was genocide, but with a Rawlsian twist: “At random. It would be fair, for rich and poor alike. They called me a madman. And what I predicted came to pass.”
These formative experiences drive Thanos to implement his solution on a cosmic scale. The logic runs like this: there is a finite amount of resources in the world (or the cosmos, in this telling), while the growth of the population is unlimited. At some point we will reach peak population, after which the abundance which had previously been enjoyed will be replaced by famine, privation, and eventually mass extinction. The only sustainable solution from Thanos’s perspective is to purge the universe of half of its population. This would rebalance the relationship between population and resources, setting things aright and allowing for those left alive to thrive and flourish.
And the only way to implement his solution on the scale it needs to be implemented is to have absolute power, so that with the snap of his fingers he might randomly eliminate half of the population of the entire cosmos. This is the vision that Thanos has pursued throughout his life, and the one that he explains to his young, adopted (after he orphaned her) daughter Gamora: “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 correcting.” This is Thanos’s neo-Malthusian vision, one expanded beyond the national or global scale, to all of existence itself.
From Malthus to Molech
The problems with this vision are manifold. It assumes that life is by nature “unchecked,” perhaps a commentary as much on Thanos’s perception as much as the reality. Nature itself provides boundaries, in the form of conscience and natural law as well as its inherent limitations and feedback loops. If a species extends itself too far, an evolutionary logic might argue, then it will experience the natural consequences, and perhaps extinction is what it deserves. In this sense Thanos possesses a more developed moral sensibility. His goal is actually to preserve life from the threat it presents to itself.
Thanos thus finds himself faced with a dilemma: he can not do what is required and watch all of life cease to exist (on his assumptions), or he can act and preserve half of the cosmos’s population. He can take upon himself the mantle of savior. Here we see the neo-Malthusian logic come to its necessary conclusion. Most often in these scenarios it is the future generations that are sacrificed for the apparent needs of those who are currently alive. This may be accomplished through abortion or forms of contraception and the accompanying formation of cultural values that de-center procreation as a social good.
This is why adherence to a Malthusian vision always ends with worship of Molech. Molech, the Ammonite god of fire and death, could only be appeased by offering the children of the people as a sacrifice, a practice condemned by the Old Testament (Lev. 18:21; 20:3-5). Typically such pagan sacrifices were made to deter the wrath of the god as well as to curry its favor. The hoped-for result was a bountiful harvest and blessings for those who were fortunate enough to survive.
This dynamic of pagan sacrifice closely mirrors Thanos’s vision. In the comics, Thanos literally worships a personified Death, which is why he pursues the complete eradication of life from the cosmos. In the cinematic version, Thanos pursues his pure agenda with religious zeal, only seeking to destroy half of those who are alive. But the basic framework is the same: His dogmatic adherence to the neo-Malthusian creed of limitation and extinction requires him to make a sacrifice, first of his own child and then of half of the entire cosmos.
A lack of imagination
Whether or not the neo-Malthusian vision is itself properly linked with its eponymous political economist, we can see why such an ideology makes for such a common and compelling motive for villainy, be it Agent Smith of the Matrix trilogy or Thanos in Infinity War. There is the appeal to some greater good, and the adamantine pursuit of this good despite the consequences, which in its own twisted way can be respected as a mark of character. As Thanos tells Gamora of his neo-Malthusian truth, “I’m the only one who knows that. At least I’m the only who has the will to act on it.”
One of the key flaws of Thanos’s ideology is its lack of imagination. As my son wondered upon reflecting on the film, when he achieved absolute power, why didn’t Thanos just create more resources? The power he claimed represents the opposite of the finitude and the limitations he seeks to overcome: infinity. Unless Thanos were to directly intervene to control the growth of population, simply eliminating half of the cosmos’s population would merely set the clock back and would not be itself a sustainable solution. Such a purge would need to be periodically implemented. So, if the number of people cannot be indefinitely checked, then the other part of the equation, the use and limits of needed resources, seems to be the natural factor to address.
And even if the absolute limits of natural resources could not be literally made to be infinite, neither does Thanos acknowledge the ability of people to adapt and innovate. We have shown a remarkable ability to survive in all kinds of environments and against all kinds of challenges. Life will out, we might say. But Thanos simply cannot imagine a future in which new ways of surviving and adapting to changed economic realities might come to be.
The economist Friedrich Hayek even asserted that it was the market’s ability to overcome the logic of the neo-Malthusian population bomb that was one of its key and compelling claims to a positive moral status. As Hayek put it in the opening of The Fatal Conceit, “our civilisation depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation.”
And so it is in the limits of his own imagination that Thanos realizes his greatest captivity. This is his conceit which results in the fatality of half of the cosmos. He cannot move beyond the flawed, zero-sum framework that arose from his earliest experiences. And he cannot envision a future that is truly open to new discoveries and new possibilities, to the discoveries that come from human interaction and ingenuity on the basis of what exists in the created order. In this Thanos is perhaps most clearly contrasted with the God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the God who is himself understood to be infinite and the source of all good blessings (fons omnium bonorum), whose sacrifice of himself was made that people “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Infinity War thus presents us with a cautionary tale about the limits of our own imaginations and the righteous zeal in pursuit of a utopian ideology. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
About the author:
*Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the “What Good Markets Are Good For” project.
This article was published by the Acton Institute.