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'Avengers: Infinity War' & The Uncertain Fate of Humanity

Last night Liz and I went to see the latest Avengers film. In a word, it's awesome. I also think it's quite profound.

The movies in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) keep getting bigger, better and more complex.

  • Captain America: Civil War was a remarkable achievement for superhero films, in terms of how many characters and storylines it brought together.

  • Black Panther was an aesthetically gorgeous, spiritually charged and uplifting vision of black culture and of the syncretism of tribal traditionalism and utopian technology.

Following in their footsteps, Infinity War does not disappoint. It's grander, more ambitious and more complex than any previous Marvel film and, though it clocks in at 2.5 hours, its pace hardly ever lets up and the blend of action, humor and simultaneous storylines is, for the most part, riveting.

However, what I found most impactful about the film were some of the deeper themes that I think it presents. I found the movie's main antagonist, Thanos, to be a fascinating character, with a degree of nuance that is rarely seen in comic book 'super-villains'.

*Spoiler Alert* From here on, I'll be revealing important plot points from the film.

Thanos the destroyer

Thanos is a fanatic. He and his followers see themselves as saviors of the Universe. They believe they are the only ones willing to do what's necessary for life to continue to thrive throughout the galaxy and beyond.

Their 'thing' is invading planets and killing off half their population, so that the other half can have enough resources to live well.

We learn that the source of this motivation for Thanos comes from the extinction of his home planet, Titan. He attempted to implement his radical solution there, but was prevented from doing so, and the civilization eventually collapsed.

This tragedy served to reinforce and entrench Thanos' belief that it's only through randomized, partial genocide that civilizations can thrive. It's what drives him to want to obtain all the infinity gems, and even to make the ultimate sacrifice so that he can have the power to wipe out half the life in the Universe, thereby 'saving' the other half.

Now, let's pause here for a moment, and contemplate this theme. Does it hit home for you? For me it does, and in a way that feels a little 'too close to home.'

World's on fire

Our world is reaching critical inflection points. As the population keeps growing and the inequality gap keeps widening, global temperatures keep inexorably rising and global climate keeps getting more extreme and unpredictable: heat waves, 'super-storms', floods, forest fires & rising sea levels, to name but a few examples.

These are the realities we're living in, whether we choose to see them or not. I don't know whether the writers of Infinity War consciously chose to include these themes in their story, but even if they didn't, they're still here. They're in the zeitgeist. They're the great collective shadows of our time.

Malthusians & Cornucopians

In his magnificent new book, A New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries, my dear friend & teacher Terry Patten talks about two competing narratives, which he calles the Malthusian view, and the Cornucopian view.

The Malthusian perspective, after 19th century scholar Thomas Malthus (one of the first people to predict that human population growth would outstrip the planet's resources) is the pessimistic one. Not surprisingly, it's the one most people don't like to think about, and the one shared by many ecologists, climate scientists and climate activists.

Many of these people have looked deeply at humanity's trajectory, at our economic systems based on continuous growth, at our exploding population, and at our impact on the climate, and concluded that dire consequences are headed our way.

The Cornucopians, on the other hand, are the optimists. They include technological innovators and thought leaders like Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk. They believe that the exponential acceleration of technological advances will eventually lead to us finding solutions to all of these planetary emergencies.

Thanos and his followers represent the Malthusian view, in a rather extreme way. And the Avengers, of course, embody the Cornucopian view. It's the view most of us gravitate towards, because it's the one that seems infused with hope.

Death & hope

And yet, the possibility of catastrophe is always here. Perhaps this is why Thanos is such a compelling character.

The fact that, at the end of the film, Thanos makes half the inhabitants of the Universe disappear into wisps of ash with a flick of his jewel-encrusted glove can be seen as a stark (no pun intended) reminder of just how imminent our individual and collective destruction always is.

We never know which breath will be our last. And we never know when our comfortable lives will be disrupted. This is hard to let in, but to the degree that we do, it can enliven us and fill us with gratitude for each precious moment.

I'm guessing that in the upcoming 2nd part of Infinity War most of Thanos' genocide will somehow be reversed (probably by use of the green infinity gem which controls the flow of time), and the Avengers (and the Cornucopian view) will triumph in the end.

Hopefully that's humanity's fate as well. As the new father of a 4-month old boy, I feel more invested than ever in doing what I can to help bring about a healthy, sustainable future for us.

I have a profound hope and an unreasonable trust that we will find solutions to the confounding problems we're facing. But I know nothing's guaranteed.

We need each other

Finally, there's another profound message in Infinity War. It's present in all the Avengers films, but it's never been more alive than in this latest one.

It's the deep truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence. Of how everyone has an essential task to do, an important role to play. No one, no matter how powerful or resourceful, can figure it out on their own.

The Avengers need each other, and so do we. Maybe now, more than ever.

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