While recently shopping in Los Angeles, I overheard a man in a crowd turn to his buddy and declare, “Thanos was right.” That man probably isn't the only person in a large, overpopulated city that’s agreed with the Mad Titan from Avengers: Infinity War in a fit of frustration. Heck, there's a whole subreddit dedicated to people who approve of Thanos' goal. Yet, overpopulation isn’t just something that ruins your shopping trip. It's an actual problem that environmentalists say contributes to all sorts of problems ranging from climate change to food insecurity. So, is it true? Was Thanos actually kind of… right?
Over the course of 2018, three superhero films featured supervillains who some saw as having a point. The year started with Black Panther, whose Killmonger wanted to empower historically oppressed people of color. In late April, Infinity War’s Thanos wanted to combat overpopulation by wiping out half of all life in the universe. Finally, 2018 ended with Aquaman, in which King Orm wanted to punish land dwellers for their abuse and misuse of the ocean.
There have been several superhero movie villains with social concerns in the past. For example, Magneto fought for the rights of the mutant race in multiple X-Men films. Additionally, HYDRA wreaked havoc across the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its quest for world domination, which it claims to have done in the interest of keeping humanity safe, though at the cost of freedom and privacy. However, it’s unusual for so many supervillains to openly express such modern concerns.
The genre’s movies aren’t alone in turning their attention to social causes, of course. This season of the CW’s Supergirl has seen the titular hero battling anti-alien crusaders — a not-so-veiled metaphor for supporters of anti-immigration policies. And Doctor Who Season 11, which stars Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, has tackled and commented on all sorts of injustices, even featuring a mission to help Rosa Parks in the American South during the Civil Rights-era.
Clearly, we’ve entered a time where superhero TV and movie creators are less interested in using metaphor and allegory to indirectly address what’s happening in the world. Instead, the characters in these franchises are directly taking part in ongoing conversations.
The internet and social media are making social causes more visible and enhancing the voices of ordinary people who speak out against injustice. This has led to heightened awareness but also greater polarization.
Superhero movies reflect this environment by using their stories to focus on social concerns. However, when it’s the villains who give voice to these causes -- who take action to right social wrongs -- it adds a new dimension to the conversation. While the heroes continue to protect humanity as they’ve always done, the bad guys have a point, which puts audience in an awkward position
Viewers understand the villains’ goals, but they also side with the heroes’ desires to protect the population. Nonetheless, villains with a point may actually shift audiences’ perspective on a film’s supposed heroes. Let’s take a look at how this played out in 2018 with Aquaman, Infinity War and Black Panther.
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