The popular early ’90s graphic novel, “Infinity Gauntlet” (the inspiration for “Avengers: Infinity Wars”) opens with a conversation between the two arch-villains Mephisto and Thanos. Their discussion begins and ends with Thanos emphatically pronouncing that he is a god—nay, the god—with whom the whole universe must reckon.
In fact, he sees himself as a being of such power that his mere existence entitles him to sit at the head of the gods. However, the plot soon reveals that Thanos is also the first chosen disciple of the goddess death and that she is the true object of his worship. Through a series of dialogues among the Avengers, we find that she has called Thanos up from the abyss to have him balance the cosmic ledger between the living and dead.
Contrasted against the movie version of this Marvel uber-villain, we see some obvious artistic liberties taken by the film crew. The clearest example here is the hazy presentation of the motives animating Thanos. The movie is clear about his concerns of scarcity and the ever-growing population of the galaxy, but if the infinity gauntlet is so powerful then why is his final solution so morbid? Why not snap more resources into existence or even create a new planet?
In any case, the character Thanos, void of the layers of hero stories building up to “Infinity Wars,” plays out much like the post-modern anti-hero to an audience whose daily reality is steeped in the very material world of scarcity.
The Comic Book Version of Thanos Reveals More
In a sense, the comic book Thanos reveals something important about the cinematic version. In “Infinity Gauntlet” there is little left to the reader’s imagination over his abject depravity. That death is his god translates quite well into the film adaptation.
This point should come into sharp focus during the scene where Thanos offers a blood sacrifice of his adoptive daughter, his greatest love, Gamora, to clinch the soul stone. It is precisely through sacrifice, specifically for the Infinity Stone that is the most spiritual in nature, that we can understand the object of his worship. In fact, it is in this choice of knowing death over life that makes Thanos the proper archetypal son of Adam and Eve.
Later in the movie, it is revealed that Thanos’ home planet Titan has become a wasteland. This is where the most valiant Avengers effort to separate him from his Infinity Gauntlet, and thus prevent him from undertaking his final solution, plays out. To Thanos’ mind, his home planet was destroyed by the poisonous relationship of scarcity and overpopulation.
Far from being driven by a desire to return to his Edenic roots, Thanos’ mission is cast in the hot furnace of a post-fallen world where death becomes both a problem and a solution. For the first man Adam, this mindset of scarcity—the enveloping perception of lacking—that drives the arch-Titan is the direct result of eating the forbidden fruit. This first sin is the re-orientation away from God and onto the self.
As the Catholic blogger Marc Barnes explains:
For these Church Fathers, the commandment forbidding ‘one tree’ was a trial, not of Adam’s ability to blindly obey an arbitrary will, but of his ability to trust that God provides. Adam was tried in his capacity to retain a presumption of abundance; to rest in the many instead of fretting over the meagre; to rejoice in the gifts of God rather than tremble for fear in the dark light of some perceived lack.
The great sin in the Garden of Eden was man’s doubt in the life-giving abundance provided by God and then followed-up by rejection through taking what was not given. In his own little finite manner, Adam attempted to foist himself to the same level as God. Instead, he merely shifted his perception of the world as the source of abundance to a struggle against nature.
The gods of scarcity—war, pestilence, famine, and death—then quickly enter the scene. Man has forsaken paradise in exchange for a life of toil. With toil, a state of mind that sees labor through the lens of evil, he finds himself a zero-sum conflict with the rest of nature to usurp the most resources. As the disciple of death, Thanos believes he is ushering in a new age of plenty, but really he is conjuring up the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Is Thanos Really Such a Villain?
Without the entire Marvel cinematic universe to tell us who is the hero and who is the villain, Thanos would seem to have been occupied in a worthwhile struggle. Smarter people have already pointed out his Malthusian inheritance, but the thinking of Malthus haunts us all. Few today doubt the looming reality of scarcity and how it dictates the way we live.
This idea is truly embedded in our culture, but where Thanos’ activities are interpreted—is he uncertain hero or brooding villain?—falls square on the shoulders of the viewer. Essentially, if the just allocation of finite resources is the highest achievable good, if there is no possibility of transcendent ends for man, then what exactly is the problem with Thanos turning half of all interplanetary life into dust with the snap of his finger? If we are not the bearers of the Imago Dei, then who decides what way to achieve a just human-to-resource equilibrium is a step too far?
Thanos, in this sense, is the proper son of fallen man. Like his father Adam, he brings death and destruction into the world through a disordered gaze. We can see the depth of this disorder by further reflecting on the final scene of “Infinity War.”
Shortly after he has finger-snapped half of life in the universe into dust, Thanos sits alone in an open field during a beautiful sunset and we reckon with the cold righteousness of a religious zealot. Death and destruction are the objects of his worship, and that is what he brings to bear on the entire galaxy.
When scarcity is a problem that must be solved, and death is the idol through which you find salvation, then reducing a universe brimming with creatures made in the image of God is the singular option. Like all sin, this act can only offer brief repose before it ultimately begets more discontent.
I cannot say if the Avengers are Christ-haunted in the Marvel cinematic universe, but their earlier adaptations suggest so much. They know evil, and words are not minced when it is unleashed. In the manner of a few decades, the evolution of Thanos tracks well with the devolution of western culture.
In a cursory meditation on the manner with which death is treated today, be it as a compassionate act or as one of the necessary ingredients of freedom, we can see that it is the idol of our age. There is a lesson echoing throughout the Marvel Universe, and it is the unsettling question of what solutions to large-scale problems become reasonable as culture abandons the hard-won lessons of their past.
Believing he is ushering in an age of paradise, Thanos, the true spiritual son of Adam, is actually harvesting the first fruits of apocalypse. We would all do well in re-shifting our scarcity-plagued gaze.