No, Thanos Was Not Right: Coronavirus and the Revival of an Unfunny Meme
With rising anxieties surrounding Covoid-19 and the sneaky spread of Eco-fascist memes on the internet, maybe it’s a good time to talk about how the Russos and their creative team failed with Thanos and — intentionally or not — promoted Eco-fascist ideologies.
Now, this isn’t my first rant about the character and it probably won’t be my last, but I should point out that some of my favorite villains of the speculative genre fall under the “Eco-terrorist/extremist” category. And with the growing threat of climate change and the “trapped” feeling many Millennials and those of Gen-Z have begun to feel under the influence of capitalism and consumerism, it should be no wonder many of us have begun to identify with some of the ideas presented by the likes of Aquaman’s (2018) Orm, DC’s Poison Ivy (aka: Dr. Pamela Isley), and even some obscure villains such as Hellboy II: The Golden Army’s (2008) Prince Nuada Silverlance.
But what separates these villains from Thanos? Why can many of us sympathize and even agree with their motives to a certain extent but not his?
Thanos’s motivations are fueled by a grudge. He was once (rightfully) ridiculed by his peers for proposing genocide, so in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), he wants to be able to prove that it works. However, the audience never is allowed to understand why he would propose such an extreme solution to the problem of dwindling resources. We’re simply supposed to accept that and sympathize with it, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when he murders his “daughter” to succeed at his goal (that goal being genocide). When he commits his atrocious acts, the tone is solemn. We’re given a melancholy soundtrack with close-up shots of his anguished face. Since (hopefully) most people cannot get on board with genocide, this doesn’t work for (again, hopefully) a good portion of the audience.
What separates villains like Orm and Nuada from Thanos is that they are both motivated by the need to save their people. In both their stories, their people are facing possible extinction due to humanity’s greed and disregard for life outside of it, and both are willing to go to extreme lengths to stop this from happening — even kill their own people if they do not fall in line with their visions. At one point in Aquaman, we see Orm murder a fellow Atlantean right in front of his wife and daughter for refusing to aid him in waging war against humanity. Nuada takes it one step further. Early on in Hellboy II, we witness him murder his own father in order to obtain a piece of the crown needed to awaken the golden army — which he intends to use to annihilate humanity. Both actions are disgraceful, to say the least, and they are illustrated as such. But even so, we understand what led to their decisions.
DC’s Poison Ivy’s disdain towards humanity is interesting, because powers or not, she, herself, is still human. Many versions of her that have appeared in the comics throughout the years share a consistency in their backstories — She grows up emotionally neglected by her parents, has no friends, and copes with all this by dedicating her emotional energy to plants. At some point, she meets an older man (sometimes his name is LeGrand and other times his name is Woodrue) who takes advantage of both her intelligence and emotional attachment to him. There is a scuffle between the two of them, and this scuffle is what leads to both her transformation and her resentment towards humanity — especially men.
Now one positive trait Poison Ivy possesses that the other two villains do not have is an ability to make exceptions. After her transformation, Poison Ivy takes on the role of Mother Nature and wishes to give the planet back to the plants by whatever means necessary. However, somehow there is still room in her heart to love. We see this in her relationship with Harley Quinn and her soft spot for children. Despite the fact that she’s no longer completely human, she still somehow retains one strength found in parts of humanity — a desire to care for the most vulnerable.
Orm, Nuada, and Poison Ivy are well-crafted villains because they have a connection to the people they want to destroy. All of them have been wronged by humanity in some way or another. Thanos, on the other hand, wants to destroy half of all life (human or otherwise) in the universe simply to prove that genocide works. Had he been treated like the one-dimensional villain he is, perhaps this could have worked from a storytelling perspective, but the desire to force some sort of sympathy towards him takes away any enjoyment we could have gotten from his character.
The Portrayal of Thanos’s Ideology is a Problem that Expands Outside of Fiction
There is a beautiful irony in our ability to enjoy characters like Orm, Nuada, and Poison Ivy. All of them hold a dangerous hostility towards humanity, but we, as humans, are still able to enjoy them. There is also a benefit to putting themes of environmentalism in a villain’s motivations. When done right, it illustrates the flaws of humanity which opens up the possibility of conversations we can have to determine how we can take better care of the planet and each other.
We live in a time when information is readily available almost anytime we want it. In some ways, this is wonderful, especially for those of us who love fiction and love to connect with people who share that same love. Now, more than ever, we are able to share our thoughts, opinions, and analyses on stories. Unfortunately, another thing that comes with this is a desire some people have to be the smartest person in the room — or the online forum.
It is important to talk about the potential affect fiction can have on our perspectives on environmentalism, racism, sexism, etc. One only needs to look at D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and its connection to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan to understand that fiction often can affect reality. The problem comes when people want to make their like or dislike of something deeper than what it really is. All throughout the internet, you may find examples of people co-opting talking points and terms suited for discussions of social justice in order to describe their reasons as to why they feel Rey and Kylo Ren from the Star Wars sequel trilogy should be together. Some will go as far as making outlandish theories and assumptions (with little to no evidence to back them up) about the real life people involved with making the stories when they don’t agree with their creative choices.
The way Thanos was written in Infinity War seems to appeal to those who have a desire to feel intellectual simply for liking a movie, and to stick themes of environmentalism in his motivations for genocide treads on dangerous territory.
Orm and Nuada illustrate how dangerous Eco-fascism is while giving us an understanding of how they came to their mindsets. Poison Ivy’s relationship with humanity is not black and white — it’s rocky. At her best, she still has the ability to be nurturing to those who need it which contradicts her views that human life is not valuable. Thanos has little to no connection to anyone he’s trying to annihilate. He just wants to be right. But because writers attempted to make him sympathetic, we now have people all but gobbling up the views he presents and spreading the idea he was right all over the internet.
It should come as no surprise that the “#Thanos was right” meme is making its rounds again throughout online forums and blogs as the Coronavirus continues to spread around the planet. People have started to share pictures of the cleared up water of Venice, Italy due to the quarantine (and as some have pointed out, some of the pictures aren’t even of Venice at all) and some — likely joking — are responding by saying things like, “So, I guess Thanos was right?”
If the Coronavirus wasn’t literally killing people, maybe this would be funny, but the truth of the matter is the virus is spreading and the most vulnerable among us have an increased potential of dying from it. When people’s lives are on the line, it’s not the time to revive a meme that was never funny to begin with.
Now, I cannot, in good faith, suggest that everyone who enjoyed Thanos agrees with him. There are people, I’m sure, who like him as a villain for reasons that have nothing to do with anything I’ve written here. However, I cannot help but see a connection between his need to prove himself right and the need for some of his fans to write full-on pseudo intellectual essays as an attempt to make their enjoyment of Marvel movies some deep, philosophical act. In both cases, neither is doing anything good for the world regardless of how they attempt to portray their actions.
It seems, nowadays, everyone wants to write a sympathetic villains, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but lines need to be drawn. It has to be done the right way and responsibly. If you choose to include themes of environmentalism in your villain’s motivations, your audience should be able to recognize the flaws of humanity while also recognizing why your villain was wrong in their methods of fixing the problem. If your attempt to make a genocidal villain sympathetic results in a number of people using your villain’s ideology to suggest — jokingly or not — that a global pandemic is a good thing, you did it wrong.