In Spring 2018, I sat in a movie theater in Ankeny, Iowa, with my daughter and hundreds of attentive fans watching the dramatic end of a movie. It was an exciting, action-filled movie, but what happened after the credits started to roll caught me by surprise. The film was Avengers: Infinity War. What was the real human drama that came after the end of the movie? Let me tell you.
If you’re not familiar with Avengers or the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’ll highlight the relevant parts. Most important to this essay is the world view that drives the plotline of Infinity War.
In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich authored a book titled “The Population Bomb.” The book was a bestseller that predicted dire consequences for the world if the human population continued to increase. The opening line of the book reads, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”
The book provided a very dire prediction, but entirely off the mark as the world’s population has doubled since 1970.
The basic premise was that there are limited resources on our planet, and the world’s population was about to outstrip those resources. The book helped fuel a political movement focused on population control and convinced a great many people, including world leaders, that birth control and abortion were not only necessary but morally necessary to stave off the impending ecological disaster and human suffering.
Now I want to bring us back to Avengers: Infinity War. The main protagonist, Thanos, is a very powerful being. He’s traveled much of the universe and has seen the suffering of a great many beings on many planets. Over time he concludes that the universe would be free of suffering if its population were controlled, reduced by half to be precise. “It’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” It’s as though Thanos is Dr. Erhlich’s alter ego.
Early in his quest, Thanos travels planet to planet, engaging in open warfare with the indigenous peoples. He never conquers them to rule them. Thanos simply defeats them and kills half their population before moving on to the next planet. But the universe is a big place, and Thanos would like to find a lovely retirement planet where he can settle down and be a gentleman farmer. Destroying half of life in the universe one world at a time is too slow. Then he discovers an efficient means to achieve his calling.
Sadly, this blood-thirsty idealism played out for real in Nazi Germany when two self-absorbed men, Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, planned the Jewish Holocaust. Early efforts to kill all the Jews, the Nazis called it the Final Solution, were limited because digging graves and making bullets to shoot millions of people took too many resources and too much time. The Nazis eventually developed concentration camps with gas chambers and furnaces that could kill more efficiently. Thanos discovered the gas chamber technology of his era -then went after it.
The struggle for that technology, possession of six stones called infinity stones, is the movie’s namesake and creates the conflict and tension in Infinity War. Understand that it took years to build up to this moment in the MCU. Ten years passed from the first movie, Iron Man, to Infinity War. Slowly and steadily, Marvel built up a cast of superheroes taken from the pages of the Marvel Comics. Through good storytelling and endearing character development, the MCU movies developed a broad and very affectionate fan base. Superheroes such as Spiderman, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Star Lord, Gamora, Black Panther, Wasp, Thor, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America, just to name a few, were made larger than life by a very talented and admired group of actors.
One of the clever ways the developers of the MCU tied so many different movies, often with widely different settings and character arcs, was to sprinkle the infinity stone mythology throughout much of the MCU. The intrigue of infinity stones may have played the MacGuffin role in earlier movies, but it becomes central to the drama of Infinity War. The necessity of stopping Thanos provides the catalyst that brings all these beloved characters together in a dramatic climax.
Most fans invested a great deal of time, treasure, and emotion in following all these story arcs as they converged in Infinity War. Twenty-three movies spanning ten years and billions of dollars bear a convincing witness of their attraction for millions. And while the special effects, clever Easter eggs, interesting and dramatic plotlines were significant in generating this power, at the very heart of what commanded so much devotion were the characters and the actors who portrayed them. People came to love these long-time comic-book characters who were given new birth on the big screen. With each movie release, characters grew and developed under the watchful eye of an adoring fandom.
So I take you back once more to that theater in the spring of 2018. There I am, completely drawn into the movie as the events of Infinity War unfold. After a long and difficult struggle, Thanos takes possession of the final infinity stone. He places it into its setting on the back of a gauntlet created to join the stones under the will of a single mind – his. With literally infinite power in his left hand, he snaps his fingers and wills the disintegration of 50 percent of all life in the universe.
In a dramatic and moving sequence, the audience sees hero after hero quickly turn from flesh and blood person to ash that crumbles then flutters away on an invisible breeze (perhaps an allusion to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany?). The surviving characters, some with super-powers, are powerless (as is the audience) to stop the advancing genocide. They watch as their beloved friends and family members vanish. The moment generated a real sense of helplessness.
I have enjoyed most of the MCU movies. Still, I never invested as much emotionally as the average fan. So I was a bit amazed at what followed when the movie came to a close, and the credits began their march up the giant screen – the theater fell into silence.
At the close of a typical movie, most of the audience dashes for the exit. They talk, they banter back and forth, or they discuss what’s next on their itinerary — not this time. Though the theater was full, there was no talking. Only the hint of a sniffle here and there could be heard over the silence. I’ve been to dramas that leave the audience stunned and silenced. Still, they almost always involved real human drama of real human beings or fictional characters set in historic events, such as Saving Private Ryan. But I’ve never seen that reaction to a drama of fictional characters in a fictional setting.
I looked about as people began rising from their seats and slowly made their way to the exits as though moving in one long funeral procession. Not having been caught up in the moment like everyone else, I jokingly ‘floated’ from my seat as if I too were turning to ash and drifting away. My daughter reached up and gently tugged on my arm. I could tell by the look on her face- she was not amused. I wanted to call out in the theater, “It’s just a movie, people!” But I didn’t.
On the ride home, my daughter and I discussed the movie. I pointed out what struck me most wasn’t the movie itself but how people reacted to the death of all those fictional characters. I’m sure they understood they weren’t real persons, but they had made an emotional connection with them. And while Thanos had made a compelling argument for killing half the universe to alieve suffering, the audience grieved. People seemed uninterested in a universe free of suffering if it meant the death of so many heroes.
Although End Game gives a small nod to the idea that population control is a moral good, it provides greater insight into how dark such a world would be. For example, it shows neighborhoods abandoned and desolate. While plant and animal life are abundant, the previously occupied homes stand in ruins; the silencing of the human spirit is deafening. One scene shows us a park with rows of obelisks. These silent stone giants are etched with the names of thousands of people killed in Infinity War. Infinity War ends with the tragedy of losing a few dozen of our beloved heroes, and End Game picks up reminding us of the tragedy of genocide; when the ego is coupled with seemingly limitless power.
If Thanos were genuinely acting out of altruism and not ego, why not snap the fingers of his gold gauntlet and triple the resources of the universe instead of killing half its population? How often does our culture make choices against life because it is ruled by fear and despair, not faith and reason? Wherever there is life, there is hope. Real vision sees beyond the despair of hopelessness, and toward the greater possibilities, new life creates.
While I doubt the writers of Infinity War and End Game were trying to make a pro-life statement, I think that’s precisely what they did. And as I drove home in the dark that night in 2018, I couldn’t help wonder how many fans would say they were pro-abortion, or pro-birth control, but were heart-sick over the death of so many innocent fictional people. What if the story were altered, just a little. What if Thanos traveled back in time to when our heroes were in their mothers’ womb instead of battling them to the end in Infinity War, back before they were known. Suppose that is when Thanos snapped his gauntlet-clad fingers, would that choice have provided the universe a happy ending? Not in the PLU, the Pro-Life Universe.