Avengers: Infinity War Drops the Population Bomb

Spoiler warning: This review reveals plot details of Avengers: Infinity War.

Controversy has ensnared the public discussion over Avengers: Infinity War and the bickering among Marvel Comics fans seems to have overshadowed the essential plot driver: In a world of finite resources, people need to die. Otherwise, our world is doomed, faced with environmental catastrophe because of over-consumption. Someone will have to choose who lives to consume resources and who doesn’t. Or do they? Unfortunately, audiences will have to wait until the second Infinity War movie is released to know how this conflict is finally resolved.

The central tension in Infinity War unfolds as dozens of superheroes deploy into various squads to prevent the chief villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) from acquiring six “infinity stones.” Acquiring all stones makes him all powerful and gives him the ability to wantonly kill off half the universe’s population. What makes Thanos’s goal so disturbing is his sincere belief that murdering half the universe’s population will, in fact, save it. Infinity War ends up as an updated, superhero-grounded allegory for the population growth debate triggered by Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb published in 1968 (although the film’s release on the book’s 50th anniversary year is probably coincidental). The Avengers, the good guys, are engaged in a valiant, but apparently losing, effort to protect the objective value of life. 

What appears to have riled up many Marvel Comics fans is the shear scope and breadth of the heroes who are vanquished. Indeed, the producers said they would kill off popular superheroes, and they did. Chances are, your favorite, or one of your favorites, bit the dust, or more appropriately, became dust. (But this is the comics universe, so don’t place any bets on how long they will be dead.)

While the scale of the superhero slaughter appears to be unprecedented, the apparent randomness of the deaths is disturbing. This is likely the point. Thanos is not engaged in genocide—the deliberate mass killing of a specific race, ethnic group, or class of people. His goal is the mass extermination of half the universe’s population, no matter what group they belong to. This lower population level is Thanos’s estimate of the universe’s carrying capacity. His victims are chosen at random since they carry no value beyond the amount they eat and consume. Life or death appears to be based on who wins, or loses, in Thanos’s lottery.

For those not invested in the Marvel universe, the hand wringing over who lives and who dies is a bit overwrought. Infinity War is still a top-notch, well-paced action film. The visual and special effects are state of the art, seamlessly meshing live action, animation, and digital media. The star making and star boosting power of previous Marvel blockbusters has also given the screenwriters some breathing room for skimping on character development. Audience familiarity with the superheroes compensates for the thin plot and the inability to enrich or deepen the characters.

The movie does a remarkable job of planet hopping and mixing the various aesthetics of superhero worlds, from the magical and mystical Dr. Strange to the comic action of Guardians of the Galaxy. The fluidity of these moves is testimony to storytelling skill of the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Chronicles of Narnia, Captain America film series) as well as the directing by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War, Community TV series). A complete list of superheroes in Infinity War would take up too much space (see here for a list), but critical tension and comic relief and provided by the god-like heroism of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the self-sacrificial loyalty of Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the circumspect wisdom of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the technology-driven hubris of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the stoic determination of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the stealth of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the comic leadership of Star Lord (Chris Pratt).

The shear size of the cast, however, means that the movie has few break-out performances. All the characters are well acted, but that’s in large measure because the actors and actresses are well established in their film roles. What’s left is a thin plot and even thinner story arc following an increasingly desperate retreat by the Avengers as Thanos methodically defeats Marvel’s superheroes until the movie’s final showdown in Wakanda.

The lack of a plot resolution is mitigated by the fact the Infinity War two-parter will likely take the tension to an important metaphysical level, an arc consistent with the previous superhero films made by Markus, McFeely, and the Russos in this way. The Captain America franchise, in particular, hasn’t shied away from enmeshing substantive issues or ideas as plot drivers. Audiences, however, will have to wait until Part Two is released to know how the conflict is resolved. In the meantime, they just will have to enjoy the rush down the mountain and get off at the mid-station until the ride is completed.


Sam Staley is a Research Fellow and film critic at the Independent Institute, and a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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