Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films are not meant to be taken that seriously. Popcorn, maybe an absurdly large drink with a stupidly large amount of sugar included – a lot of very loud noises some staggeringly good special effects – and wham, bam, thank you Thor for the lightning it’s time to go out to look for a good meal.
This could have been a conventional review, but sod it. The politics are front and centre in this movie.
Start thinking beyond the popcorn and drinks and the MCU gets a little more intellectual – particularly when you compare the changes from the comics. The latest movie, “The Avengers – Infinity War” is an excellent case in point. For us classical liberals, and other believers in minimal (or no) government, there is a lot to like.
*** WARNING – SPOILERS BELOW ***
Let’s start with the blindingly obvious – the villain in the movie is a Malthusian. A believer that to achieve balance in the universe, to stop environmental Armageddon, you need to murder literally half the life in the universe. Half. It’s not made clear if this is half the sentient life or half of all life, but no matter. Not only does he believe it, he spends the whole of his life murdering literally millions to achieve it. The whole plot of the movie is for Thanos (the villain) to get the Stones to allow him to murder trillions by simply “snapping his fingers” rather than to do the tedious hard work of conquering planets to slaughter them individually.
In the comics the reason for him to do this is to impress Lady Death. Many fans thought this was Hela, Thor’s sister – you saw her in “Thor: Ragnarok”. In the MCU she is probably dead, killed in the destruction of Asgard. It’s the change in political philosophy from the comics to the cinematic that is interesting here. Why did they make the change to give him an environmental motive rather than a selfish one? There’s a lot of possible reasons, but to me one stands out – because the filmmakers believe that this philosophy is worthy of making into a great evil while remaining one we can understand and empathise with.
The directors of the movie explain:
Anthony Russo: He does believe that he is doing something good for the universe. He believes suffering is based upon the fact that there’s too many creatures and too few resources, and he believes that if he does this, he will bring balance, he’ll bring peace, and that people will, their eyes will open to the fact that this was what was needed. It’s very much the process of pruning a garden. Life can thrive, but you have to do this, and you have to do it in a way that’s fair…
Joe Russo: And random. And he believes that he was genetically created to accomplish it. His body, his strength, his genius-level intelligence, his ability to fight, allows him the opportunity to be the one. So he’s like a chosen… it’s like a messianic complex.
The conclusion brings this home with all the subtlety of a cricket bat to the head – Thanos, the deed done, no longer has the gauntlet and is in a wooden hut on the side of a hill, smiling and watching the Sun on the horizon while literally trillions of beings cease to exist, murdered by him. This is equivalent to Mao having a swim in the Yangtze River during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – a murderous tyrant seeming to think he has done well.
Of course the other question is why, when he has all the power in the Universe and can restructure it at will, does he not make it so that the actual problem is solved? He could make it so that there are plentiful resources that do not deplete and that no soul could do other than love each other. But no, he has been murdering half of the population of planets all his life, so he will continue with that and retire to his wooden shack. Doing the arduous work of thinking is beyond him. Remind you of any particular political group?
One of the threads running through the MCU ever since “Iron Man” has been that government – even if it is well meaning – is unlikely to tell the truth. In the conclusion to “Iron Man” Agent Coulson, the archetypal government bureaucrat, hands Tony Stark a litany of lies, including sworn affidavits, for him to use as a cover-up. He refuses them and as a result his status as a hero is confirmed. Fortunately Coulson is put to better use later.
The “Captain America” movies probably get closest to providing a thoroughly classical liberal character, both from a moral and political standpoint. In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, we find Steve Rogers clashing with friends and foes over Project Insight, a nightmarish combination of global data-mining and Big Brother paired with pre-crime targeted assassinations, opting to take down the government and spill all their secrets rather than let a small group hold ultimate power. When presented with the existence of Project Insight, Rogers declared that the project wasn’t about freedom but fear, that it was tantamount to holding a gun to the world’s head and calling it protection.
Rogers’ place as the classical liberal character in the MCU is solidified in “Captain America: Civil War”. Faced with a plan by the governments of the world to bring the Avengers to heel, Rogers highlights the key problem: should the Avengers subject themselves to the governments of the world, they will be subject to the agendas of those governments. He poses the questions: what if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there is somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us?
Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, refuses to allow his conscience be subject to the whims of any government, becoming an outlaw and facing off against Tony Stark aka Iron Man, the man who once declared that he had privatised world peace but is now the pragmatist who sees government control as the lesser of two evils. Eventually Rogers’ fear plays out in “Infinity War”, as the council that oversees the Avengers dithers in the face of attacks by Thanos’ henchmen, and those who agreed to government control call in the outlawed Avengers without hesitation.
The glaring exception here is Wakanda – the kingdom ruled over by the benevolent king, T’Challa, aka Black Panther. Even here, the preference towards minimal government is clear. War Machine (James Rhodes) fools Bruce Banner into thinking that you need to bow to T’Challa, something T’Challa seems to find almost insulting.
I will be fascinated to see how they resolve the Infinity War in the next movie. Will it be that the remaining Avengers (including all the Originals – none of whom were culled) manage to work collectively, but again without compulsion, to use the time stone to reverse the effects of the Gauntlet without somehow becoming corrupt themselves? Will Thanos repent of his evil, and realise that Malthus was wrong? Whatever it is, those capitalists at the Disney Corporation will doubtless be counting their stunning profits once again.
I pity Paramount for giving the MCU up – although I am sure they got a lot for it. As for us – perhaps we should go back to our popcorn and too large cool drinks and continue to dream that entertainment movies can make a difference.
Also published on Medium.