[Spoilers for Infinity War]
So, you might recall the news story from the past few weeks about those Thai boys stuck in a cave. The world watched as qualified professionals led a dangerous mission to rescue them. Tragically one of the divers lost his life. However, all twelve boys managed to get out alive. What a heartwarming story! Then Elon Musk. Musk began to insert himself in the news story by building a submarine that no-one asked him to build and travelling to the already-crowded rescue site. Now, you might be thinking that there’s nothing wrong with a wealthy individual using their money to try and help. Sure, if that were the end of the story Musk would come out of this smelling no worse than he did before. Oh. Oh no. Following some comments made on social media, Musk has taken a Twitter-sized beating. Now, how does this relate to the menacing villain of Infinity War, Space Grimace?
See, following the release of Infinity War, there was some discussion about Thanos’ motives. The word sympathetic was used in some discussions of the film when describing the genocidal villain. You might have detected that I have some thoughts on the matter. (Side note: While I might not delve into Thanos’ relationship with Gamora, I do heartily recommend Maggie Mae Fish’s two-parter video essay on Daddies in Film). So, Thanos’ goal in Infinity War is to remove half the life in the universe. He does this with the stated goal of balancing the universe and ensuring enough resources for the remaining half of the population. You might agree that this is a noble goal. There is a collective good element to his motivation. In the process, Thanos decrees himself a pariah and a martyr for his goals. In Maggie Mae Fish’s video above on the subject, she notes the patronising paternalism that Thanos undertakes in declaring that ‘Father knows best’ for the entire universe.
Now, I’ve been critical of the film’s portrayal, but I do think it’s a totally valid way to frame your villain. There is a consistent theming around father-son relationships in the MCU. Tony Stark has quite a few daddy issues which he’s had since the first film. Tony, in turn, acts as surrogate father to Peter. Thanos has been portrayed as father since he was given a voice with his adopted children, Gamora and Nebula (A relationship that is coded as abusive, but the universe still thinks that Thanos loves his child which is … fucked up.) Anyway, there was a certain subsection of those that watched the film who saw no issue with Thanos’ plan. They even carried out a mini-version of Thanos’ ideology on Reddit. Now, that subreddit was ThanosDidNothingWrong, which is a reference to the earlier and more well-known, EmpireDidNothingWrong. Both of these subreddits implicitly suggest that if you remove subtext, then the villains have a point. “The Empire might have blown up Alderaan but they were seditious traitors”. The problem with this reading is that the Empire is that the Empire is clearly modelled after Nazis in a reference to the World War II serials that Lucas took inspiration from. For the record, my official opinion on that matter is that Nazis are always the bad guys. You’d hope that that wouldn’t be a controversial opinion in 2018 but alas, here we are.
Now, going back to Thanos. Some might baulk at the idea that Thanos is genocidal. Genocide is a very specific thing and we shouldn’t throw the term around. Cool, but here’s the thing. Genocide is still genocide even if you only target half a population randomly. Our history tends to have us think of genocide as racially motivated because most of them have been. I realise this is a heavy topic so we’ll get back to some light stuff soon. Anyway, Thanos’ actions do very much fit the definition of genocide laid out by the UN. Hence, I find it messy whenever people use terms like sympathetic and claim he did nothing wrong. You might note that it’s just a joke and that not everything carries a heavy political ideology. I’d argue that the way we frame speech frames our ideology on subjects.
Now, what does this diatribe have to do with Elon Musk? I’m getting there. Thanos’ plan is to wipe out half the life in the universe to ensure more resources for the remaining half. There are some legitimate criticisms that have since been lobbied against Thanos. The first is that if his concern was really altruistic then he could just increase the available resources in the universe. However, he could equally retort that individuals will just increase their consumption. Thanos, that’s also true if you kill half of all people. Another aspect that’s shown in the post-credits scene is that vanishing people out of existence will kill more people by proxy. We see a helicopter crash after presumably losing its pilot. If there were other people on that helicopter, they are killed by proxy. “Perfectly balanced”, my ass. The narrative makes implicit that this process will be random, no room for morality in this decision. As shown in the previous example, random selection is prone to failure. Then there’s the assumption that we will produce resources at the same rate if we lose half the population. What if this random selection removes 90% of the farmers on any given planet. That planet will then starve its remaining people because of the random element. Then, there’s the kicker. Thanos has excluded himself from erasure by being the one to wield the gauntlet. He waxes poetic about being a martyr but for a guy who claims that it cost him everything, he still lives at the end.
I don’t think these issues are plot holes. I think they are a crucial thought experiment of the themes of the film. We understand implicitly that the reason that Thanos chooses this particular solution is because that’s what he’s good at. Thanos is good at murder and genocide, and well when all you have is a hammer. Thanos only sees the solutions that involve his skill set. There are alternate solutions but they don’t matter to Thanos because they’re not in his wheelhouse.
Thus, we get to Musk. Elon Musk is well known as a future-facing billionaire who holds a certain cult of personality around his ambitions to propel humanity into a sci-fi future. Musk launched a car in space to show that he could and that they would get to Mars through his company. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has also stated his desire to go into space. Hey Elon and Jeff, give your workers a fucking union and pay them properly first, eh? See, Elon Musk could have provided money and resources in the Thai rescue effort. There are some reports that he offered the help of his drilling company, The Boring Company, but I found no accounts that confirm if this was anything more than hot air at this point. He did promise to do so on Twitter. After all, Elon Musk keeps his promises, right?
See, here’s the connection between Musk and Thanos. Musk frames himself as a hero for the work he’s doing for renewable energy and progressive causes. No hypocrisy in that, right? Musk framed his attempts to rescue the Thai boys around his submarine. Why? Because it’s his brand. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Musk seems most concerned with how his technology can help. As mentioned at the top, when he criticises by one of the rescue divers over his submarine he got very defensive and called the hero diver a ‘pedo’ in an ill-thought-out tweet. Musk launched a car into space for publicity. Musk tried to make himself the hero of the Thai rescue story. His first thought was to test a submarine rather than speaking privately with people close to the operation to see if he was actually wanted. You know what might actually help? Money. Money usually helps. However, Musk who was born into wealth has never seen a lack of money as a problem, so to him, money isn’t a solution.
I encountered a concept on social media which was labelled as the ‘Just World’ fallacy. Now, this veracity of this is tricky to confirm so I’m mostly extrapolating anecdotal evidence here. This fallacy posits that we try to frame the world as just even when it is not. We are always most aware of our own successes and failures. Viewed in a vacuum, we all have our own struggles. This can cause a certain amount of privilege bias. It’s how Trump can claim that he ‘only received a small loan of a million dollars’ and believe that he has struggled as a result. We have to believe that people get what they deserve or else there’s nothing protecting us from losing everything in an unjust world. It’s how news outlets can call Kylie Jenner a self-made billionaire. We equate wealth hard work because it is aspirational. Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator, once described America as a nation of ‘haves and soon-to-haves’, which is wrong.
Statistically, not everyone can be well-to-do. Someone, somewhere is being screwed to secure wealth. For me, as well. I own a lot of electronics. Electronics and cheap shirts. I know exactly where those products come from and who they screw over to bring those goods to me at a reasonable price. I don’t say this to guilt trip people who are doing it tough and own things produced in sweatshops. Being connected to the Internet and a phone line is important for earning a living in developed nations. There is a phrase that I’ve seen around the Internet: There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. We all have blind spots in a complicated contemporary world. That doesn’t mean we live in hypocrisy. It means we try to change the world to reflect a world we can be ethically and morally proud of.
To bring this whole thing to a close. We have to believe that our skill set is the solution because anything else would be sacrifice. That is the flaw of Thanos. That might be the flaw of Musk. That is my fault as well. I could be doing more but I content myself with writing on the internet because that’s my useless submarine. However, it’s also true that I’m not a fucking billionaire, Elon.
Want to support my work? You can support me financially on Patreon.
If a monthly payment isn’t in the budget, you can chuck me a dollar via PayPal. Hopefully, Elon doesn’t stop me from using it because I spoke ill of him.
Got thoughts? Comment below or via social media.