Thanos and the Problem of Exponential Growth

Spoilers for the latest Avengers movie. You have been warned.

Yesterday I explained why Thanos’ victory – and the reasons for him achieving it – made the latest Avengers movie a more interesting and serious film. But it’s achievement is stained by a couple factors:

  1. This is not the end of the story arc, and the next film will surely nullify the events of this one.
  2. The “end” toward which Thanos has struggled for and reached does not make any sense at all.

Let’s start with #1, which is easier to explain.

Thematically, the former movies of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe series have set a heroic tone (as opposed to tragic).

This latest film was a pleasant surprise, but let’s face it, it doesn’t make sense that such a series  – one where most movies up until now ended in a positive way – should be committed to a tragic outcome. It would be the equivalent of ending Sesame Street with a funeral!

And this is not too bad. I enjoyed the ending of this movie, but I also appreciate a body of work that has thematic consistency.

Point #2 is more problematic, as it isn’t coherent with the character of Thanos; a villain, yes, but a controlled, rational, and stoic villain. Let us start with a step-by-step deconstruction of Thanos’s quest:

a) Thanos’ concern: That life in the universe is spreading faster than the universe can sustain it. The exacerbated consumption of resources will eventually result in total extinction.

b) Thanos’ solution: Let’s eliminate half of all life in the universe.

c) Thanos’ initial method: Traveling from planet to planet and randomly executing half the population. (Not very efficient.)

d) Thanos’ plan: Combine the power of the Infinite Stones to gain the divine ability to manipulate reality. With this power, Thanos can, with a simple thought (and apparently a snap of fingers) annihilate half of all living things in the universe. (Very efficient.)

Concern (a) seems legitimate to me. But the original solution (b) does not look great. This is because life spreads exponentially, while the resources that sustain it do not. That is, the best that Thanos can hope for with his extermination strategy is to delay universal extinction by a googolplex of years, give or take a decade.

But given the extremely limited means that Thanos possessed (c), I could not find a better solution to the problem. It is extraordinarily easier to kill people (we have the adequate technology ever since the first primate grabbed a rock) than to generate resources at a rate that equals or exceeds reproductive factors.

The problem is that (d) changes everything. By acquiring the capacity to manipulate reality on a universal scale, a minimum of imagination and intellect – two things that Thanos has to spare, as he has proved through his victory – would be enough to come up with a better solution than (b).

There is no logical reason why a being with the ability to eliminate half the life in the universe with the snap of his fingers does not have equivalent ability to multiply resources. Certainly, a being of such power can create empty parallel universes, ready for colonization; or increase the expansion rate of our own universe; or originate new, infinitely increasing sources of energy.

Conceptually, none of these things should be more complicated than making half the population of the universe randomly disappear. And there is no logical reason for Thanos not to have the ability to understand this.

It’s a shame that Thanos’ brilliant character conceptualisation in this movie  has been tarnished by such a narrative hole. A great villain, yes. But he’s no Ozymandias.