The Thanos Problem in Avengers Infinity War

For the most part I loved Avengers Infinity War. It did countless things right and despite being close to three hours long, it didn’t bore me for a second. But while it never bored me, it bothered me for one particular reason. Thanos.

More specifically, Thanos’ goal. Throughout the movie he wants to obtain the super-powerful Infinity Stones in order to eliminate half of all life across the universe. While he sounds menacing, his desire isn’t rooted in hatred. Rather, he operates based on a logical belief that limited resources lead to suffering. His solution: depopulate the universe so the survivors can enjoy the comforts they would otherwise be fighting over.

Despite the massive cast of heroes, Avengers Infinity War was Thanos’ story

This is basic utilitarianism, which defines as, “the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.”

So Thanos isn’t your typical death-lusting, universe-destroying psychopath. He has a plan to eliminate suffering, and while I don’t dig his method (Coin-flip odds of survival? No thanks.), at least he’s not getting off to the idea of swimming in the blood of his victims.

Now here’s my problem. Early on in the movie, we get a flashback with Thanos and young Gamora on her home planet. Thanos is enacting his utilitarian philosophy on her people by slaughtering them to ensure that less people starve. That makes logical sense. What doesn’t is later on when he obtains all six Infinity Stones. Instead of exploring their power and trying to create new resources or relocating existing ones, he selects 50% of people and hits the delete key.

I get that he’s a villain absorbed in his ideas, but neglecting to test his new power violates his own philosophy. If the person-to-resource ratio is what bothers him, why not at least try to produce more grain and fish and iPhones? Because if you want to make the greatest number of people happy, you shoot for the greatest number. Not half.

To be fair, I don’t know the extent of the Infinity Stones’ power. It was never explicitly stated (or maybe I wasn’t paying attention when it was). But regardless of their capabilities, the fact that Thanos didn’t bother to test-drive them kept nagging my brain after I left the theater.

Of course, it could be that Avengers Infinity War is a commentary on sharing wealth and how those in power can be short-sighted in dispersing resources. Thematically, that works, but at the same time it’s disappointing. Usually greed–not a strict adherence to utilitarian principles–leaves people suffering. And I want to believe Thanos is more than just another greedy supervillain.

Leave a Reply