One year ago, the Mad Titan Thanos claimed the final Infinity Stone and proceeded to “restore balance” by randomly eliminating half of all life across the Marvel Cinematic Universe.* For the three hours leading up to that moment, we watched as the secret history of Thanos’s purpose was revealed: the overcrowding on his home planet that led to famine, pestilence, and war. Convinced that the same fate would befall the universe, he set out to retrieve the Infinity Stones and use their power to “solve” the problem of overpopulation. As others have observed, his solution wasn’t especially well conceived. Aside from the fact that the human population would either collapse or rebound within decades if magically halved, the same power used to erase life could have been used to preserve it.
In creating the MCU Thanos, Marvel Studios tapped into a perennial human obsession with population that dates back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th century. The Mad Titan can be viewed as the latest in a long line of so-called idealists believing the risk of catastrophic overpopulation so great as to justify draconian measures.
In the aftermath of the First World War, many people, including pacifists and humanitarians, took to conceptualizing international relations as a function of population. As Alison Bashford writes in Global Population, they came to believe that overpopulated nations like Germany and Japan would grow restless and violent as the drive for survival demanded increased land and resources. They saw overpopulation in India as a drain on wealth and part of the poverty trap of colonialism. Some proposed giving “underutilized” land away to satiate these growing populations.
Their theories may have been more nuanced than Thanos’s, but that does not make them any more accurate—or benign. The story of population control intersects with eugenics, oppressive birth control regimes, and the battle over the global color line. Despite their claims to moral authority on humanitarian issues, both liberal internationalists and anti-colonial nationalists have been implicated in the coercive aspects of population control as a solution to social and political problems.
While the challenges of population must be met, this history reveals the destructive legacy of Mathusian ideology and how it has been used to oppress women, minorities, people with disabilities, and people in developing countries. We still see the resonance of overpopulation today. After Infinity War, some internet lurkers claimed “Thanos did nothing wrong,” and in internet custom they may not have been entirely joking. Far more concerning, our political leaders prey on fears of demographic change and invoke tropes of overpopulation by announcing that “our country is full” as a justification for hard-line immigration policies. Environmentalists worry that the growing population and the rise of the middle class in developing countries will make it impossible to fight climate change. Population is a popular theme because it can play into so many agendas.
As Endgame approaches, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that regardless how justified Thanos claims to be, he is the villain—and a not very wise one, at that. As important as it is to study history to remember the crimes committed by men like Hitler and Stalin, it’s also necessary to understand the crimes of people who genuinely sought to do good—and who, in their hubris and prejudices, have caused irreparable harm.