From Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine to the sadistic President Snow of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, film has no shortage of iconic antagonists and villainous schemes. One of today’s biggest baddies is Marvel’s epic villain Thanos, a philosophic warlord who plans to use mass genocide as a solution to limited resources and universal overpopulation in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Thanos’ intentions are based out of a legitimate problem, but his methodology is deeply flawed.
The Mad Titan believes eliminating half of all life in the universe will increase the prosperity of the survivors, and to a limited degree, it does. During an argument with his adopted daughter Gamora in Infinity War, Thanos cites the culling of her poverty-ridden home planet as proof of the morality of his cause, noting the surviving children have known only “full-bellies and clear skies” since he intervened. Statements like this are often invoked in defense of trends like #thanoswasright and fuel a legitimate fan following for Thanos himself.
But Thanos’ reasoning has a complete misunderstanding of life’s value. The Titan’s aware of how many lives he has ended, but he believes those deaths were necessary to fulfilling his own big-picture plan. Of course, lives aren’t something to be traded or balanced through statistical murder. Each individual soul has deep and inherent value, which is why no genocidal solution is ever justified.
But the greatest fault of Thanos is his arrogance. Beyond all his fallacies, his quest of reshaping the universe is only about himself. As he explains to Gamora, Thanos believes he is the only one who understands what “must” be done, and he refuses to leave the self-absorbed mindset that only he could be right. Thanos believes the weight of change rests on his shoulders alone—that he is the savior only doing his duty for the benefit of the universe. It’s the same mindset of monsters like Hitler and Stalin: destruction masked as creation.
The issue stands that to many, these real-world tyrants appeared as heroes. The citizens living beneath their reign were shown a different side of the story, mistaking the rise of each despot for the arrival of a deliverer. When we place our trust in any human, be it in a politician, athlete or intellectual, we can lose sight of their corruptibility. This isn’t to say true heroes can’t rise up or shouldn’t be encouraged, but we should recognize our laud could be feeding a dangerous pride or power influence that can spread out of control.
While the arrival of a purple Titan is unlikely to pose a threat to us today, Thanos’ delusion can manifest in everyday leaders. Whether it’s the boss who takes his authority too far or the politician whose words always please the crowd, we may not recognize these figures for the hidden tyrants they are. We may scoff at those “oblivious” citizens beneath the heels of Hitler or Mussolini, but we can just as easily be lost in the empty promises of a silver-tongued speaker. Subtle coercion is one of the tyrant’s best gateways to power. We need to interrogate these supposed heroes to recognize when our need for involvement, validation or love may be being taken advantage of.
Tyrants enact their agendas upon the world through appeal to the masses, raising up new seed-spreading followers devoted to their leader’s twisted ideology. Just as Thanos’ inspired his Black Order to loyalty, tyrants will build upon the passions of their subordinates. Biased headlines and massive groupthink can be used as mediums by which tyrants gain footing in our minds, but how do we address both tyrants and their zombies?
Large or small, tyrants need to be stood down, but through a well-meditated, righteous stance. As Matthew 10:16 states, we are to be as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. We can do this by keeping our ears and eyes open to recognizing and dispelling irrational logic, showing empathy to those still swayed by the tyrant’s words and displaying courageous love through our actions. The Avengers may be facing down Thanos in combat, but we are called to counteract our oppressors through the lens of godly love.
Ben Fleagle is a student of psychology, board games and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.