This movie is one of the Avengers series, and as such is an excuse for lots of violent action and cute dialogue, as well as plenty of special effects. One could be excused for thinking the resulting movie totally trivial, but maybe there’s something significant to be seen in it.
In this movie the super-villain threatening the universe is Thanos (derived from from Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology?), who has embarked on a project to kill half the populations on over-populated planets across the universe, fairly, without reference to any social or political status. According to him, he sees himself as a benefactor who makes the depopulated planets into paradises. To do this more efficiently, he seeks gems with magical powers, some of which are held by individual Avengers. One of them he can only obtain by sacrificing his “daughter” (whom he had rescued from one of the planets in which he has committed genocide). Why is his goal so compelling that he can bring himself to make this “sacrifice’?
One could contemplate genocide in the abstract, but not everyone would be willing to undertake the concrete actions to slaughter people. Thanos’s claim to altruism is unconvincing. Our historic experience with genocide, whatever the rationale for them, has generally included hatred for some particular ethnicity or political group. What else would provide the emotional drive to commit such atrocities?
This reflection reminded me of Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus cycle of Greek myth, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea. The novel follows Theseus from his childhood in a small kingdom, where he discovers he is the heir to the king of Athens, through his trip to Athens, his sojourn in Eleusis, and his determination to travel with the other young people demanded by the Cretans (who, as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, have to be propitiated by most other governments) where they are to be sacrificed to (in the myth) the Minotaur.
Renault depicts the situation in Crete more realistically. Central to the story is the bull dance, which Sir Arthur Evans found artistic renderings of when he investigated Knossos. Renault (and maybe others) saw this as a religious event, a human sacrifice to ensure the well-being of the Cretan nation. But the bull dance evolved (or devolved) into a sporting event (as Renault describes it) observed by the nobility in particular, and bets placed on which dancers would survive their dance with the bull. Theseus, having been raised in a milieu where religion is taken very seriously, is shocked at the rather secular attitude. He is more shocked by the behavior of the Minotaur–in this telling the heir to the throne–who, as Theseus sees it, is willing to sacrifice others for power. Theseus has been brought up to be a king, and the ethic in which he believes is that when a sufficiently severe crisis besets a kingdom the king is supposed to sacrifice himself for the good of the people.
Our archetype of self-sacrifice is Jesus; here is an example of the same idea some thirteen centuries earlier, and Renault cites some other examples of the ethic in ancient Greece.
Compare this ethic with the rationale articulated by Thanos. Whether or not his idea is valid, who is he to impose his solution on anyone? How is it appropriate for him to sacrifice others to achieve his goals? And again, what is it that drives him to kill so many when so many oppose him?
My hypothesis is that relieving the universe of excess population is only the rationalization for his actions. His REAL desire is power to avoid death himself; thus his desire to find the magic gems so he can employ them for his own security, as much as for his self-imposed task. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” He has become obsessive, and fallen into the psychological condition of inflation: he sees himself as more than he is, identifying himself with God, and believing that the actual God must want the death of anyone he sees as enemies.
One can see this motive in the great mass-murderers of the 20th century, too. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao tended to see themselves as necessary to their countries, which made it necessary to murder their opponents. The black and white aspect they shared of their individual visions encouraged the idea that destroying their evil opponents would produce a paradise on earth. Few (other than extremists) venture to seriously advocate genocide as a solution to anything, but dehumanization hasn’t ended, so the idea remains a possibility. Fear and scapegoating can allow history to repeat itself.
The movie ends with Thanos having achieved his desire but, as my grandson assured me, there will be a sequel to this movie. The Avengers franchise isn’t going to allow their series to end on such a hopeless note.