Around the globe, millions of movie-goers and superhero enthusiasts are hitting theaters in droves this Friday to catch Avengers: Endgame, the final piece in the puzzle that is set to be the finale of Marvel's Avengers arc.
But while most people wondered if their favourite Avenger would survive and shared other theories about how the saga would end on the Internet, Thanos and his whole "flipping a switch to kill half of humanity" ploy has always been a far more intriguing aspect of the arc, making Thanos a complex character with many shades of reasoning and logic, not just your basic, mentally imbalanced mass murderer.
Ever since the megalomaniac Titan super-villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) appeared on screen in Avengers: Infinity Wars, many MCU fans have loved to hate him, making him a veritable punching bag for memers. The so-called 'dark' story arc of the previous film, in which Thanos manages to wipe out half of humanity at random with a snap of his fingers, thanks to the Infinity stone-studded golden gauntlet, freaked out many of the series' fans, who despite understanding and appreciating conflicted villains with backstories, do not love the idea of losing their favourite Avengers.
However, it is this sacrifice itself that Thanos seeks from the world. The massacre is lifted almost directly from The Infinity Gauntlet comic written by Jim Starlin in 1991.
There are certain differences, though, between the motives of the silver-screen Thanos and the Mad Titan of the comicverse. For instance, in the comic book, Thanos pulls the plug on half of existence to impress Mistress Death, formerly a girl whom Thanos had known as a child and now an MCU comic-book counterpart of the Grim Reaper.
In the film, Josh Brolin's Thanos, however, does not mention Mistress Death (neither has she been mentioned in the story arc). He does, however, mention "overpopulation" as the cause for the pogrom.
Fans have come up with many theories as to why the Thanos did what he did. Some pertain to his tragic backstory on his home planet of Titan. He watched Titan get destroyed and continued to be haunted by the massacre, one that could only be avenged by killing off half of all creatures that exist in the universe.
"Overpopulation" is truly the biggest ailment of the world today, giving rise to strife, greed, inequitable resource distribution, disease and social oppression through hierarchical control over resources. In that sense, Thanos can be seen as an anti-hero, one who has been alienated by war and destruction, only to arrive upon the solution that humanity (and all other creatures) are themselves the agents of the universe's destruction . He kills half of existence to SAVE the rest of it.
While it was a convenient sub-plot for the filmmakers to avoid the Mistress Death tangent, the linkage to overpopulation raises many questions.
IS Thanos trying to protect the rest of the world by killing half of the creatures that exist? Is such a thing possible? Many scholars argue that mass deaths such as the ones caused by the pandemics such as Britain's Great Plague and Great Famine of the 1300s that wiped out almost half the island nation's population, paved the way for industrial revolution and agricultural boom in the UK.
By the end of the Medieval era, overpopulation was one of the biggest socio-economic problems affecting the population. The Plague, which wiped out large portions of the demographic in batches, was tragic but also helped reduce the population in Britain to a size that could be easily satiated and, in turn, controlled.
Another interesting similarity between Thanos's massacre and the Great Plague is the apparent classlessness of it. The Plague did not spare peasants or elites, much like Thanos, resulting in a sort of reordering of social structures in the 12th century Britain.
The idea of killing half of existence to save the rest of the world and to ensure sustenance of the same by reducing the number of stakeholders is not aloof to Thanos. Many anti-hero villains before Thanos have envisaged a world with its population magically halved. In his 2013 historical-thriller novel Inferno, writer Dan Borwn penned the main villain to be a philosophical man who believed that systematic purging was the only way ahead for survival of humanity.
Much like Thanos, Dan Brown's villain does not want to pick or choose, he does not want to kill the rich and spare the poor or vice versa. He, like Thanos, wants a impartial, practical cleansing of the Earth's scum, in this case, humans.
A more recent pop-culture reference to the idea of purging populations for overall "betterment" was seen in an episode of the popular adult, animated show called Rick and Morty. the episode titled 'Who's Purging Now', depicted a society that was the most peaceful one in the universe, except on chosen 'Purge" days when all of townsfolk indulged in pogrom and violence. The idea was that by participating in the purge, ordinary people could work out petty aggression that bring them down on a daily basis and experience cathartic release, even if it is temporary. And less number of mouths to feed should translate into a surplus in resources!
Massacring innocent people, however, is never the solution to end strife an inequality. And audiences would do well to remember that these are fictitious characters that don't exist or exert power in the real world which exists sans Nick Fury and his band of vigilantes. In the real world, killing half the world would never actually solve problems as the remaining people would continue to exploit inequalities and create new ones to meet the changing social order, an issue that the misguided environmentalist in Thanos failed to consider (though in Infinity Wars, it is unclear if Thanos wiped out half of humans or ALL creatures that exist, in which case the impact would be larger and more potent and lasting).
Anti-heroes like Thanos raise an important point - does the planet have the capacity to accommodate the growing numbers of human populations across the world? Does it have enough resources to feed, clothe and shelter billions of people? Can it continue to bear the brunt of the exploitation meted out by over 7.3 billion humans on a daily basis?
If a real-life Thanos were to actually pull the plug on half of humanity, the world's population would come down to 3.8 billion. Humans had already achieved this figure in 1970 so the decimation would only humanity back by a few decades in terms of numbers. Imagine what the world could do with a halved population and doubled resources with the current level of human know-how and expertise? Wildlife would flourish, poverty could be eradicated, global food security would cease to be a pipe dream and even inequality could be banished. However, at present birth rates across the world, it would only take humans a couple of decades to bring the population levels back to "normal".
Thanos may be killed in Avengers: Endgame, he may realise his "mistake". Or maybe he would go on believing in his flawed logic. But the argument raised by Thanos cannot be dismissed as a mad man's psychosis. The planet is a pinch away from collapsing due to the rampant exploitation and overuse of resources by humans. If we does not find the solution to containing population, it could very well be 'Endgame' for humans on Planet Earth.