The snapture was objectively ridiculous.
Spoilers ahoy for Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Avengers: Infinity Wars
When the current fad for redeeming or exploring villains started, I was pretty ecstatic. This is because I am a Villain Sympathy hipster; I was doing it before I was cool. Likely because I was pretty badly bullied for most of my youth, and because for various reasons I’ve been made to feel monstrous at different points in my life, I always instinctively looked to the villains, and thought about their circumstances. Why exactly was Ursula banished from the kingdom, and would she have been so evil if she hadn’t been forced to live in a creepy cave? Why was she the only one to take Ariel’s desires seriously? And if God was omnipotent and had personally created all of the angels, didn’t that mean that Lucifer was basically destined to rebel? Was he the ultimate fall guy? Of course this sympathy hit limits—Claude Frollo is a creepy asshole, and probably my first exposure to someone giving off some “rapey” vibes. Hitler and Nazis are just always bad, no matter what Fox News and YouTube tell you.
So I was excited when we first started to dip our toes into the antihero/villain pool. Dexter, Wicked, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Maleficent… all of these started an interesting trend of making villains more complex, of making heroes more villainous, and making media more varied. But then it kind of didn’t… stop. The media, and the public, never got to that point where sympathy hit its limit. Fans started to hate Skyler White for the crime of being a woman who told her murderous, drug-dealing husband that he should stop being a murderous drug dealer. We wound up with oodles and oodles of Hannibal fanfiction. Don Draper has an entire redemption arc before showing that he’s going to go right into bad patterns in the finale, and we’re supposed to think of this as a happy ending. And then we just went in for it wholesale, and started saying things like “Thanos was right!” and I was like, “Holy shit, what have we done?”
Now, I’m not claiming to not have any problematic faves of my own. I’m pretty much always going to be a fangirl of Spike from Buffy and Loki from the Thor movies. But I am also not going to claim that either one was “right” in their villainy. Spike almost rapes Buffy, a narrative move that I still think was clumsily done by the writers, but one that definitely exists in canon. Plus there’s, you know, the centuries of being a murderous vampire. Not a good look. And while Loki has plenty of emotional damage, and Daddy issues out the wazoo, he also genocided a planet. And even though his actions are actually a good example of the end result of a warrior culture that insists on the monstrosity of an enemy, he still genocided a planet. I’m not going to be standing on any soapboxes proclaiming that he was “right” to do so.
Before we get to Thanos, I’m actually going to backtrack a little bit to the first Kingsman movie, because I think the Thanos Problem actually has a lot in common with the villain from the first Kingsman, Richmond Valentine. Because it’s not just about fan response (though we’ll get to that); it’s also about movies and media forgetting to show that their villains are wrong. Oh sure, they’ll show that their villains are evil, and that they pursue their goals in socially unacceptable ways, but they won’t necessarily take the time to show that the goal itself is a terrible goal.
Richmond Valentine actually has a very similar outlook to Thanos: he thinks that there are too many motherfucking people on his motherfucking planet. (Sorry, I had to.) In the film he ascribes to something called “Gaia Theory,” a misreading of an actual theory called the Gaia Hypothesis. In the film, the Gaia Theory essentially says that the Earth is a body, and people are a virus, and global warming is the fever response to our “infecting” of the planet. Because there are too many people doing vague Bad Things to the environment, we are going to either cause the “fever” of global warming to kill all people (the virus) or we are going to manage to kill the Earth (the body). He has a couple throwaway lines about how he has tried other methods of environmentalism to no effect, so now he’s decided on his supervillain plan: give out free phone cards that will cause a signal to go off that incites listeners into intense violence, while keeping an inner cabal of important political, business, and cultural figures safe in various bunkers. (These people, for some reason, include Iggy Azalea. I can’t explain that.) So the violence inducing wave will cause people to kill each other for X amount of time, and at the end the population will be greatly reduced, and all the Best People can re-emerge into a drastically less populated world.
Now, obviously, the good guys are like “hey, wait… don’t kill all those people.” But at no point in the film does anyone stop and say, “Hey wait, literally all of the things about this are wrong.” His premise, that climate change is the result of overpopulation and individuals being awful, is taken at face value. His plan is objected to for its violence, not its… well, object. But we know that 100 companies are responsible for a staggering 71% of emissions. While individuals are certainly contributing to global problems, we are not even close to that number. So ostensibly, after half of the population kills the other half, these 100 companies would look around, say, “Oooh, 50% fewer environmental protesters. Sweet!” and then merrily continue polluting. Even if the individual CEOs of the companies died in the purge (though let’s be real, they’re probably all chilling in Valentine’s bunker) that would only be a temporary stopgap. And Valentine is shown in the film to have what can actually stop climate change: money and political capital. He manages to convince various heads of state, including Obama and the British royal family, to buy into his argument and agree to a plan that violently kills a large portion of their citizens. I would think if he is that powerful and convincing, it would be a cakewalk to get legislation passed that caps emissions, forces investment into alternative energy, etc.
On top of that, his plan has the potential to lead to horrific environmental consequences. The violence signal that his phones emit are completely non-discriminatory—anyone who hears it goes into a rage. So what happens if there is a tech at a nuclear plant who is playing Candy Crush? What happens if one of the 50 people on a plane who didn’t actually listen to the flight attendant and put their phone in airplane mode is sitting in the front, near the pilot? What if a mechanic who is working on an oil pipe is blasting Spotify? Not to mention the environmental crisis of just having 4 billion dead bodies lying around. That would be… ick.
Thanos has a surprisingly similar outlook. He thinks that there are just too many beings in the universe. He thinks the universe will get full. Just… think about that for a second. And because he once genocided half a planet, and then the planet recovered and thrived, he thinks that all planets are overcrowded, and that he has to kill half of all living beings in the entire universe. Which is obviously horrific, and there were many heart-string tugging moments of favorite characters turning into dust. But again—no one addresses his main point. At least when it comes to Earth, we already know that a lot of problems that are ascribed to overpopulation are actually problems of inequitable over-consumption, poor distribution, and capitalist impulses that mean that grocery stores would rather destroy food than go through the effort of donating it. Most discussions of overpopulation are fairly… eugenics-y. (Peter Coffin has a good video on it if you’re interested.) And no one in the film really bothers going, “Hey… not only is this a ridiculous plan, but also if you have gems of infinite power that can seemingly break the laws of physics, why don’t you just… create more resources for people?” If you have gems of infinite power and a desire to fix problems with resources and overpopulation, your first response isn’t gonna be genocide unless you already wanted to do some genocide.
And like Valentine’s plan, the very thing that Thanos explains as a feature is actually a bug. Thanos thinks his plan is “fair” because it is indiscriminate—the 50% of beings who die are randomly chosen. (It’s not clear if this is 50% per planet, or 50% of the universe, total. So one planet might hit the lottery and have everyone survive, but another planet is fucked). But these deaths could cause a chain reaction that not only leads to more deaths but also destroys planets beyond the ability for people to live on them. On Earth, the same points about nuclear attendants, pilots, and oil workers applies. The 50% of people could take with them the person who was just at that moment directing a drone strike that instead takes out a major city, leading to rioting, and… you get the picture. Or even the scientist that was about to cure AIDS or cancer, leading to more inadvertent deaths down the line. Not to mention, Thanos himself has already kind of gone beyond the point of his quest. He’s killed basically every Asgardian except for Thor and Valkyrie, and from his own statements completely wiped out Xandar. How does that fit into his little equation?
Yet despite these obvious flaws, I still logged onto the internet the day after I saw the film and saw a ton of “THANOS WAS RIGHT” and “THANOS IS A HOT GRAPE DADDY” posts. The latter is disturbing, but the first one is worse. Because while the film itself doesn’t do a good job of proving Thanos wrong, that doesn’t mean that viewers entirely lose their sense of logic. Every viewer could go through the same thought process I just walked us through. But instead of thinking through that process, everyone is just stanning him instead.
This is where we get back to my point about the over-identification with villains. We have gone a full loop from “sympathy for villains” to “identification with villains,” to the point that we’re now blaming heroes with bad plans for the actions of villains. Poe Dameron gets a lot of flack for his (admittedly stupid and toxic-masculinity-fueled) plan in The Last Jedi, but he isn’t the First Order. The First Order killed people, not Dameron’s plan. In the same way, Peter Quill gets blamed for Thanos’ actions—if he hadn’t gotten over-emotional over Gamora’s death, the logic goes, Thanos could have been stopped. But again, Thanos is the one killing everyone. Failing to stop something bad does not have the same moral culpability as doing something bad. And somehow yelling at a doofus with barely concealed emotional trauma and abandonment issues seems more fitting to vast swathes of the movie-going public than yelling at the genocidal monster.
Now, under a lot of circumstances I could let this over-identification with villains go. Stans are gonna stan. But we are living in an era where actual villains are getting too much sympathy, and I can’t help but draw a connection between what is happening in fiction and what is happening in reality. Our president says that there are good people on “both sides” of a debate where one side is fascists, and one side is anti-fascist. Also the fascist side rammed a car into a crowd and killed and maimed people. Journalists are getting imprisoned and murdered, and we’re still gushing over the leaders that harmed them. Supposedly objective or even supposedly liberal media publications are writing rosy pieces about Neo-Nazis and how they like to go grocery shopping, too. (Neo-Nazis—they’re just like us!) Sexual abusers are embarking on comeback tours barely a year after they were exposed as sexual abusers. And just like in the media, the people who are ineffectual at stopping the bad stuff are often given more blame and responsibility than the people doing the bad stuff. Women should have come forward with their abuse sooner. People of color should stop… breathing? Doing whatever it is they supposedly do that pisses off police enough to shoot them. Children should learn how to do active shooter drills. Democrats lost the election because we didn’t sympathize enough with racists. We’re in a topsy-turvy world that seems to exist on the age-old playground principle of “Stop hitting yourself.”
I think it is helpful, and even good, to show villains as being complex and interesting. We don’t live a world where evil is simple, and our fiction shouldn’t have such worlds, either. But there is a difference between making a villain complex and purposefully or accidentally presenting the villain as “right.”
Signed: Feminist Fury
Featured image is a meme depicting Thanos looking confused with math symbols flashing in front of his face.