• Daniel Kephart

Thanos: The Problem of Balance

There is nothing more deadly than misplaced compassion.

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


"I am inevitable."

Those three words form the core of Thanos' role in the Infinity Saga. Marching across star systems with his army and the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos sees himself as an embodied force of nature. He is the cleansing spirit of the universe, come to eliminate overpopulation and restore the world to primordial harmony.


The idea of primordial harmony needing restored through war isn't new. The philosopher Thomas Malthus believed that war, pestilence, and other disasters were partially beneficial to civilization for this very reason, that they provided a check on overpopulation. Like Malthus, Thanos considers overpopulation the central problem of civilized existence - as the natural urge to procreate would produce more mouths to feed than there could possibly be food. This predicament (if it exists, which it probably doesn't) is sometimes referred to as a "Malthusian trap."


Who knew that Marvel was so interested in the philosophy of economics?


It's fortunate that they were, because Thanos provides an incredible vision of how this worldview can twist a rational mind.


In this way, the Thanos we see in Infinity War and Endgame is a uniquely modern villain. Unlike the more traditional, religious villainy of Loki, Thanos' brand of evil is as scientific as test tubes and lab coats. Remarkably, Thanos would be a far less dangerous villain were he driven simply by personal desire. As we see in Infinity War, he does have deep personal motivations: He actually loves his adopted daughter Gamora as his own. Yet Thanos is gripped so tightly by his ideology than he is blind to the fact that he is committing nothing less than mass genocide. His compassion creates a monster.


"Perfectly balanced...as all things should be."

There is a despair in Thanos' worldview that reverberates with the arrogance of intelligentsia, of educated elites. Like many of the dictators responsible for the genocides of the 20th Century, Thanos is adamant that he can both predict and control the motion of future events. And the depth of Thanos' foreknowledge, in his own mind, makes it appropriate that he do what (he thinks) is clearly necessary: Bring the universe into balance by destroying half its population. For Thanos, that is the only way the world can be fair. Endgame, though, isn't satisfied with the fairness of Thanos. And in a battle that crosses the boundaries of time itself (not unlike the far-reaching philosophical battles continually being fought in our own world) the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe stand up for an idea totally antithetical to the pessimism of Thanos:


The uncertainty, struggle, and difficulty of a free life is better than the comfort and injustice of a life built on the demise of others.


That's the problem of balance.


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