'Avengers Endgame': The not-so-hidden environmental politics of Marvel's apocalyptic blockbuster

Key Points
  • Monday is Earth Day, and this week will be the premiere of "Avengers: Endgame," the latest in a long line of superhero movies that are engaging with the most pressing political and social issues of the current era.
  • The decision by Thanos to wipe out a majority of the universal population relates to issues of resource scarcity, genocide and overpopulation.
  • Disney and Marvel Studios' pop culture movies may be more successful in relaying messages to the masses than politicians.
Avengers: Infinity War.
Source: Walt Disney Studios.

Tickets to the opening night of Marvel Studios' "Avengers: Endgame" are not the only scarce commodity involving the film.

As the Avengers (at least some of them) return to deal with the aftermath of genocide-survivor turned super-villain Thanos having wiped out 50 percent of the universe, the message of the blockbuster movie is one for our times: Resource scarcity and overpopulation are not in the distant future. These are issues of critical importance to the future of the world — today.

Concerns about adequate supplies of freshwater, population booms across the developing world that will require much greater food production, and the broader debate over human-caused climate change in the industrial era that created unprecedented levels of economic growth — but also the potential for human extinction — are all reflected symbolically in the Avengers' concluding storyline.

"Avengers: Endgame" will bring at least some of its many characters together one last time to save the planet, and the culmination to the 10-plus years of storytelling includes an environmental message. Marvel picked a good week, too. Monday is Earth Day.

Thanos' ambitions are due to his own planet, Titan, running out of resources and ultimately being destroyed.

"I think the basic idea is that Thanos feels that humans are destroying the planet (or every planet) and that population control is the only answer. There are many environmentalists who believe this, although I am not sure it is true," said Daniel P. Schrag, an environmental science professor at Harvard University. "It just pushes the problem back another few decades, until population again becomes very large and strains the earth's system."

There is no denying the power of a popular movie or TV show to ignite an intense debate or even a casual conversation about socially relevant issues. And often the best way to do that is within a giant superhero extravaganza."
Paul Dergarabedian
senior media analyst at Comscore

A recent book by best-selling science writer Charles Mann called "The Wizard and The Prophet," tells the story of two 20th century giants of environmental thinking who present the fundamental divide that still exists today in seeking solutions. The prophets are those who see the apocalypse coming and believe we need to return to a idea of community, simpler concepts like small-scale, organic farming. The wizards believe human intelligence and creativity will always lead to a technological solution that society just cannot yet see, such as crop production techniques that lead to unprecedented booms in food production.

Thanos is a prophet of the apocalypse, though to be fair to environmental thinkers of the 20th and 21th centuries that fit the prophet mode, even as they rebuke the endless drive for technical solutions to all of the world's problems their philosophies extend well beyond a snap of the fingers.

Last year, when Josh Brolin's Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half of all living creatures (with the help of a fully loaded Infinity Gauntlet), the act served not only as a devastating conclusion that aided in the film's $2 billion-plus worldwide gross, but also as a form of symbolism to a simplistic way of thinking.

"This film is a commentary on simpilism and taking extremely complex problems and boiling them down to a single solution," said Paul Anastas, director of Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. "I view this film as a commentary on the simple and flawed approaches that believe you could solve complex, interconnected issues by a snap of the fingers."

The Wakandans of "Black Panther" and Tony Stark/"Iron Man" are clearly in the wizard camp. In the Stark storyline from the original comics, Tony's father Howard creator the arc reactor technology that would become central to Iron Man as a source for clean energy.

A parable on a global scale

Marvel, particularly with its "Avengers" franchise, has proven to impact people across the world.

Back in December, the first teaser for "Endgame" smashed the 24-hour video views record with 289 million. The previous winner? "Avengers: Infinity War" with 230 million views.

Advance sales for "Endgame" tickets were a record.

"These are movies seen by millions of fans, making up a very large piece of our cultural identity in the early 21st Century," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for Boxoffice.com. "Without a doubt, pop culture is an important channel for serious subjects facing humankind to be addressed and put under the microscope at times."

"Thanos presented an extreme environmental agenda and ways to literally execute that agenda within the framework of a massively popular superhero movie," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. "And thus sparked a pop culture conversation that otherwise might not have had such a massive footprint or exposure."

The environmental politics of the Marvel superhero saga did not go unnoticed on social media, as exemplified in this data provided by Crimson Hexagon.

"It's great to publish academic journals on the issues but the real breakthrough is when pop culture stories are hinted towards this cliff that we are all heading off," said Jesse Bryant, a director for the Environmental film festival at Yale University. "I never heard of the Russo brothers but their decisions are arguably more popular than the decisions of politicians."

Marvel Studios declined to comment.

Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of "Avengers: Endgame," have directed three other Marvel films: 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," 2016's "Captain America: Civil War" and last year's "Avengers: Infinity War," grossing over $3 billion worldwide.

Bryant, who's never seen the Avenger movies, pointed the finger at cultural elites in his social circle.

"Social circles that I operate in aren't talking about the Avengers and that's what is screwed up to me. Because the Avengers are like the water of our culture right now," Bryant said. "Especially in academia, the cool thing to talk about is the cutting-edge stuff. That is how you gain access into these elite social circles. And what's lost there is people who are not particularly interested in the stuff that elitists are talking about. Academia is formulated towards the edges of society not the center of it."

Political issues of all sorts at the box office

Marvel is no stranger to politics. Its history, pre-Disney films, is steeped in social issues. Stan Lee has said that Black Panther was created during the height of the civil rights era. As the comic book characters have become the biggest ticket in Hollywood, they also have grown to greater reflections on society and culture.

In 2018, Ryan Coogler directed "Black Panther," a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars, which gave consumers a performance by Michael B. Jordan that was threaded with themes of race and classism. The film grossed over $2 billion, according to Box Office Mojo.

DC's "Wonder Woman" and Marvel's "Captain Marvel" have been huge successes at a time when the first female candidate for the U.S. presidency lost a bitter election and the MeToo movement has sparked a national debate over gender.

DC's recent blockbuster "Aquaman" had a clear environmental message related to pollution and apocalypse: The king of Atlantis creates giant tidal waves that dump sewage and waste on the world's beaches.

"No matter what side of any issue you may find yourself, there is no denying the power of a popular movie or TV show to ignite an intense debate or even a casual conversation about socially relevant issues," Dergarabedian said. "And often the best way to do that is within a giant superhero extravaganza."

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