Nerd Factor: Thanos’ Big Dumb Idea

Dr. Mike Robinson, UofL Communication Studies Professor~

By now, you’ve probably seen Avengers: Infinity War. Or you’ve had someone tell you what happened in the end. If not, stop reading now.

Thanos killed half of the population of the universe.  With a snap of his fingers—and the unimaginable power of the Infinity Gauntlet—Thanos’ will was enforced and a number of beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe characters crumbled to dust.

In Infinity Gauntlet, the 1991 limited series written by Jim Starlin and drawn by George Perez and Ron Lim, Thanos’ motivations were selfish.  Destroying half the life in the universe was a bid to get the attention of Mistress Death, the embodiment of the end. While strangely immature, this motivation makes far more sense than the one Thanos was given in the movie.

As movie Thanos tells it (and that alone is a reason to be suspicious), his destructive ways have always been aimed towards a higher good.  Believing that there are not enough resources to support sentient life in the cosmos, Thanos sees himself as culling the herd. A random selection process will cut demand on resources by half, thus improving the lives of the fortunate survivors.

However, there are significant problems with Thanos’ plan:


Illustration by Nicole Freewalt

1) The plan is unimaginative.  Given the power to do anything, why not double the supply instead?  Or triple it? Or whatever it? Thanos may feign compassion. Or perhaps in his egotism he actually believes it.  However, his inability or unwillingness to consider this approach is indicative of his cruel nature.

Amusingly, some people have argued online that this approach is unrealistic.  They invoke the laws of thermodynamics to argue that Thanos cannot create something from nothing.  Look, the whole Gauntlet violates those laws all the time. It’s weird to suddenly demand hard science at the end.

2) The plan is unfairly enforced.  In order to avoid the impression that he is carrying out his own will upon the universe, Thanos used his vast powers to randomly choose who dies.  Conceivably, Thanos could have lost the fatal coin toss too. But here’s the problem with random processes. They can often appear to behave in ways that are not random.  While the human mind tends to get very suspicious in such situations, the laws of probability allow for a million coin tosses in a row to come up heads. Thus, it is entirely possible to imagine an inhabited planet where nobody dies and another where everyone does.  Maybe the process applies on a planet by planet basis somehow. But if so, what about civilizations that have found a way to live in the ecological balance Thanos deems impossible? Do the sentient beings who have figured it out need to die to?

3) The plan will be ineffective.  While I can speak to some planets in Marvel comics and movies, let’s just stick to the planet we know best.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that the population on Earth is roughly 7.5 billion people right now. When was the population of the planet half of that?  Sometime between 1960 and 1970. Thanos just knocked us back a few decades. Unless Thanos distributed some really convincing leaflets, there’s no reason to think we humans won’t make up the difference.  Heck, if all sentient life reacts to stress the way we humans do, those population numbers will breed back up in no time.