This piece contains some spoilers, but it’s been a hot minute since two of these movies came out and about a month since “Endgame” came out. You should have seen it by now if you really wanted to. No whining in the comment section!
As someone who cares about social justice and is genuinely invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the ideologies of the villains have had me thinking. Since Captain America: Civil War, I started to think about some of the antagonists and why they did what they did. Three in particular got me to think, “Wow, they’re really out here doing something.” While I do not agree with the tactics (e.g. murder, anarchic revolution, mass genocide), the motives behind their causes held some truth. I want to analyze these characters’ creeds and see how the visions they had translate outside of the MCU into our world today.
Thanos was probably the craziest dude to grace the MCU. He strongly believed the universe thrives on balance. He believes committing mass genocide is wrong, but solely because it’s inefficient. Thanos wanted to systematically eliminate life across all demographics. Taking the power of the universe literally onto his hand, Thanos snapped and wiped out half of all living creatures in the universe. While truly evil, the reasoning behind it is not completely terrible.
Thanos saw how living beings overused natural resources and bled planets dry. Violence ran rampant as almost entire populations would devour themselves. In Avengers: Infinity War, he speaks to his daughter Gamora about her home planet, and how all they have known is peace and having the food to sustain themselves since his invasion and blind extermination of half the population. Now, he is on a self-righteous mission to save all planets from themselves.
Thanos aims to eliminate greed, corrupt powers, overpopulation and its consequences. Within Avengers: Endgame, he says to Captain America that the destruction he carried out was never personal, and that it was for the greater good of the universe. Balance was needed, and balance was what he brought.
I will not support the whole “Yeet your daughter off a cliff” thing, nor the whole “Imma dust half the universe” plan, but it was the execution (literally), not the sentiment, that was wrong. As in the MCU, there are people in positions of power and ideas in the real world that represent what Thanos is fighting against. On Earth, there are plenty of world leaders motivated by capitalist greed who refuse to acknowledge major social inequities.
On Earth, the world continues to face a climate crisis. Many governments struggle to acknowledge the existence of climate change, let alone do anything about it. Since the industrial revolution, carbon emissions have grown in a fashion of e^2x, in other words, the carbon emission levels are stupid. Half of the world’s forests and swamps have been drained and cut down.
Then there’s rapid population growth. It took 200,000 years for populations to reach 1 billion, but only 200 years to reach 7 billion. We are currently at about 7.7 billion. These people need resources, and commercial agriculture and overfishing of waters are destroying natural ecosystems. Meat production also has a large impact, seeing that sixty percent of all mammals on the planet are livestock. This means land and freshwater are being used up rapidly by one of the leading greenhouse gas-producing lifeforms on the planet. Nice.
Other emissions come from oil and natural gasses, fracking, light pollution, and mining. The creation and disposal of products like paper, pesticides, paint, and pharmaceuticals continue to alter the planet for the worse.
When discussing movement (or a lack thereof) from the governments of the world to control their societies, a few topics come to the forefront of my mind. The recent moves in U.S. states introducing dictator-like abortion laws. The refusal to act on gun-control reform (it should not be asking for much to run a more extensive background check on all firearm purchases. We can help make guns safer AND your second amendment rights are not infringed upon, craaazzyyyy). The attacks on media by the “leader” of the free world actually threatening your constitutional rights. The people who don’t want people to be together because they are the same sex. Society’s continued praise of material wealth, even of people born into petroleum and coal money. The disproportionate amount of educational spending between affluent schools and Title I schools.
Most corruption, violence, and environmental destruction caused by humans can be attributed to the behavior of people in power. These behaviors negatively affect the way of life experienced by those not in positions of power, which is the vast majority of people in the world. Thanos wanted to use his power to eliminate all of the issues listed above, but hitting the tactical nuke button to determine the destiny of billions mostly because an elite few continue to fuck shit up is wrong.
So, did Thanos make up a problem? No. But did he bring a hand grenade to a fist fight? Yeah.
Honestly, thinking about Zemo in Civil War made me weigh the effects of Western ideals and military incursions on countries lower on the world’s totem pole. While Sokovia is not real, it does replicate of lot of what we see in Eastern Europe today. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many ex-Soviet block countries experienced the history of the MCU’s Sokovia. Mass infighting, a struggle for governmental stability, and rogue forces attempting to have superior identities over each other. This is how systems of power worked on a large scale. On the ground level, small cities and towns were just trying to survive.
These towns are perfect for warlords to use as leverage, for example, Ultron. The Avengers arrived in a very Western fashion and brought American justice to Sokovia. The empty sort which bred new enemies that ultimately wanted to destroy the world because of Western action. Yes, I know, I know, Ultron wanted to destroy the world, but the action was parallel to many aspirational regimes in the world. Such as in Civil War, when Rumlow tried to steal a bio-weapon and Wanda ended up exploding a building. After this, there was a push for the Sokovia Accords, a plan to have a UN committee oversee the deployment of the Avengers.
This is where Zemo comes in. His family was killed when the Avengers dropped a city on their faces. He orchestrated a bombing of the UN meeting where many world leaders had convened and framed Captain America’s best friend, Bucky Barnes a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, when brainwashed. This fueled the divide between the Avengers and left them in an internal conflict and a downward spiral. The Avengers began to fight themselves and ended up reconvening when they learned of the plan to start up more Winter Soldiers. Soon, they found that they were killed in Zemo’s lab. Zemo revealed that he did not want more “supers,” rather he wanted them to fail because of their desire to push their own brand of justice. There was no accountability for their actions, and ultimately more supers would breed more problems.
While a terrorist attack is not a great way to push your agenda, the cause inspiring Zemo’s actions was not at all incorrect. Consider Allied forces who cut into the Middle East and installed Israel amongst the Middle East at the expense of Palestine. The West ignored cultural boundaries of the Middle East and separated countries based on made-up boundaries instead of the existing placement of groups based on tribal identity. The West also elected to ignore the plight of Armenians and disregarded the region’s history during the First World War. The United States interferes with low-income countries by installing US-sympathetic governments which serve as routes of instability.
As seen in Civil War, the Avengers (the West) have large stakes in global affairs but often do not think about the consequences of their actions because it is not directly related to their everyday existence. But Western ignorance bred violence in Sokovia and was largely responsible for creating Helmut Zemo.
Erik “Killmonger” Stevens
Killmonger is probably my favorite MCU villain. Why? Because I really thought he was right the entire time. Hailing from inner-city Oakland, Killmonger lived in the poverty experienced by descendants of those forced over from Africa. He wanted to change that. He is first introduced in Black Panther viewing an exhibit in the UK with traditional African artifacts. He speaks to the curator, schools her, and states that the items are stolen from his ancestral lands. This runs on par with English museums holding parts of indigenous history on display and refusing to return them, or have the audacity to say they are going to lease them back to the lands that they were stolen from. It is like carjacking someone and asking the victim to pay the monthly dues and insurance fees.
Either way, Killmonger travels back to Africa where he challenges for the throne of Wakanda, a fictional utopia lightyears ahead in technological innovation. He quickly takes the throne and starts an initiative to distribute weapons and technology to support Black revolutions around the world. He believed in African dominance over oppressors and the right to self-determination on the world stage. He wanted to help through violence to rearrange the world power structure.
I was actually kind of on board with this. Not the violent aspect, but the use of technology to bring the oppressed out of marginalization and poverty. Killmonger’s believed the strongest should be on top, and he was driven to make sure colonizers were no longer the strongest. I don’t know about you, but being marginalized is not fun, nor easy. I would definitely thrive with some assistance, so if there is like a secret tech base in a Latinx country that wants to help, please, I am a poor college student in debt.
When the last battle ensues, of course the bad guy loses and Killmonger is defeated. T’Challa asks if Killmonger wants to be taken into custody but have his life spared. He then evokes the dark history of the Transatlantic slave trade and said to, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.”
That line put me over the edge. I was convinced that Killmonger was truly headed in the right direction, and I could not be upset with him for doing what he did. The right track, but the wrong train. After his death though, Wakanda started a relief center in Oakland as a nod to Killmonger’s vision to help the oppressed and empower them on the world stage. Wakanda’s leaders didn’t think he was wrong either.
The MCU is full of villains bent on world or universal destruction. But when it comes down to it, there are a few who weren’t totally in the wrong and their ideas translate well into the world we currently live in. Will these Marvel villain ideologies change the world we see around us? Only time will tell.
UPDATE (12/31/2019): Piece has been lightly edited for brevity.