Villains in the Marvel Universe — particularly the movies — tend to have one thing in common: they all want to destroy the world. Loki (more or less a villain at this point), Hela, the Red Skull and the Ultron all make short-lived attempts to rule Earth or wipe out parts of an entire species.
Among these villains, Thanos stands out the most. Whereas the majority of Marvel villains pursue domination for the purposes of power or revenge, Thanos has a much more developed purpose. In the blockbuster movie Infinity War, Thanos completes his quest for the Infinity Stones — gems that give him the power to alter the constructs of time and reality itself — to end the life of half of all living beings in the galaxy.
His intent is not to rule over anyone, or even to spite someone who has wronged them. Instead, Thanos makes a philosophical case for galactic extermination. After seeing the destruction of his home planet, Titan, Thanos sees the universe as plagued by overpopulation and a lack of resources. “Too many mouths, not enough to go around,” as Thanos says to Dr. Strange.
Presumably, this is a deplorable position to take. It’s obviously morally unacceptable to kill half the universe, even if it’s to save the other half. As Captain America says when Vision proposes destroying the Infinity Stone lodged in his head to stop Thanos, “we don’t trade lives.” He’s absolutely right… isn’t he?
We can’t yet speak for other planets, but Earth is facing a crisis. We aren’t necessarily overpopulated nor are we running out of resources — yet. But eventually, humanity will reach a point where we can no longer provide for everyone. In the nearest of futures, climate change already threatens to shrink the pie we all take from. Disastrous wildfires and floods combined with rising sea levels and accelerated warming threaten to make this planet inhabitable, be it within the century, as climate experts warn, or another 100 years after that in the best case scenario.
To make matters worse, nobody seems intent on alleviating the conditions for climate change in any meaningful way. Assuming we aren’t too far gone already, politicians and corporate conglomerates decided long ago that profiteering off of resource exploitation is more precious than the lives of everyone who will be affected by climate change. Green technology can mitigate the problem, but it would require an infeasible and rapid overhaul of energy infrastructure all around the world.
Not to mention, we’re hopelessly addicted to producing waste and emissions. Our texting, eating, buying and transportation habits are so economically and socially ingrained that it’s impossible to imagine a change in heart that could save us from our own destruction.
Not to be dramatic, but the world is doomed. The question is: what are we willing to risk to save it?
For Thanos, it’s everything. And who could blame him? Life isn’t a superhero movie where we get to save the world and be perfect moral gods at the same time. Perhaps we are so accustomed to the philosophical dribble of Superman-esque movies that we couldn’t possibly contemplate a utilitarian solution to suffering.
Just imagine, for a second, the world we’d live in after Thanos’s snap. Half the population means double the share of resources to go around. Less starvation, less suffering, less inhumanity. It also means fewer people contributing to the waste and destruction that is literally destroying our planet. There would be more spaces available for those to live — spaces for the homeless, the abused and the poor.
All of this begs a question that staunch Kantian ethicists and superhero movie fans alike grapple with: what’s the real harm of trading lives if it means the rest of us get to live?
In this short life on this little planet, happiness is all that really matters anyways. Everything we put our efforts into go towards maximizing happiness, even at the expense of others. Our clothes, resources and habits have consequences for others, which we’ve always been happy to accept — so long as the burden doesn’t fall on us.
Finally, the consequences have arrived on our shoulders. But in our world, there are no Avengers to find some last-minute, mind-blowing way to save the world without sacrificing lives. Instead, we have a choice: go down in flames together, or sacrifice a part of our existence for the rest of us and future generations. If there really were a Thanos, snapping his fingers would be no less a sin than watching our entire world collapse for the sake of principle.