Heroes in the age of populism

Marvel has just released its latest offering: Avengers: Infinity War, and it quickly earned the distinction of making the highest grossing opening for a movie ever. The one before that, Black Panther, is now the third highest grossing movie of all time. The thing about these movies though are not really the heroes but the villains.

Black Panther introduced Killmonger, King T’Challa’s cousin, who ruled Wakanda for a brief moment on the promise of making Wakanda/Africa great again. Sounds familiar?

The Avengers are facing Thanos, a galaxy traveling being bent on collecting the Infinity Stones for the purpose of killing half of all living things in existence for the sake of the other half. It is his belief that with the universe’s limited resources, he cannot allow life to continue running as is and deplete it or cause the ruin of entire planets. He has seen the effect on his home planet, Titan, and vowed never to let it happen again even if it meant killing half of those living. Again, sounds familiar?

What sets these villains apart from say the Red Skull and Hydra in Captain America: The First Avenger, or Aldrich Killian and Advanced Idea Mechanics in Iron Man 3 is that Killmonger and Thanos are more complex characters. You simply cannot label them as “evil” and leave it at that.

Killmonger believes that the resources of Wakanda should be used to better the black man’s plight and is willing to go to war for it. Anyone from Asia or Africa can identify with his cause. Indeed, we wonder what the world would have been like had Africa not been enslaved or Asia colonized.

Thanos, for all the blood he spilled across the universe, is actually torn by the sacrifice he has to pay to get the Soul Stone. A soul for the Soul Stone. Many lives are lost but one in particular is too costly even for the Mad Titan. His heart breaks but pays the price anyway.

The world today is filled with politicians with promises of a new tomorrow but none are more worrisome than the populists whose solution to anything and everything is war, death, destruction or exclusion, hyper-nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism. To some, these populists with their views are god-send. People who have suffered or felt excluded find their messages comforting. But what of the blood that is spilt in their path to this new tomorrow? Many turn a blind eye. Many stay silent. All for the hope that their lot in life will actually improve.

To some Killmonger and Thanos are the real heroes but that age-old adage that “the ends do not justify the means” loudly rings against such illusions. This truth should always guide us if we want a truly better world. The Good Book phrases it differently: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Killmonger lost his life pursuing a mad dream. The story of Thanos has not been finished. He achieved his goal of collecting the Infinity Stones and killing presumably half of all living things according to his plan. We have to see what it shall bring. We know that the Avengers will come avenging. What we don’t know is whether or not Thanos thinks it was all worth it.

One cannot escape comparing Thanos with the Christian God with the sacrifice of a child and what amounts to a judgment of those living but the good Lord does not kill half for the other half. The thing is, with all the Infinity Stones, his solution to kill lacks imagination. With the ability to bend reality or even time itself, there has to be a better way. There may be another motive behind his actions (if you want to know more, then read the comics/graphic novel version) but whatever else it may be, it can never reflect the love of the Father. Had we been stuck with the God in the Old Testament, then they might get away with it but the God of Love and Mercy is different.

Heroes are not only measured by their motives but the means they choose to achieve those ends. Life — all life — is precious. Saving our world cannot be at the expense of others. There is another way. Always. To close your mind to that makes you the villain.

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