Do you want a story where the villain isn’t a mustache-twirling baddie who does terrible things just “for the evulz”? Instead, would you prefer a semi-sympathetic anti-hero antagonist who does terrible things for the greater good? Do you want your heroes to oppose the villain’s plan because its means are so awful they aren’t justified by the admittedly good ends? Then don’t write a story like Avengers: Infinity War; write a story like Star Trek: Insurrection.

The Blunders of Infinity War

I can see what the creators of Infinity War were going for: they wanted to explore the complex moral question of “Is it right or justified to kill half of all living beings for the sake of the other half?” On the one side is Thanos, who wants to fight the issues of overpopulation that destroyed his homeworld. He is willing to attain items of cosmic power by any means necessary, items that will allow him to destroy half of all beings with a single snap. This way, he reasons, there will be enough resources left to preserve the remaining half. On the other side are the Avengers, who try to stop him because they believe that destroying half of the universe’s creatures is morally wrong, no matter what the positive outcome might be for the remaining half.

For this dilemma to be played out, Thanos’s plan has to be effective, if unethical. Accordingly, the movie portrays destroying half of all life as morally wrong but practically sound. No one in the movie seriously challenges Thanos’s claim that life would be better or more sustainable for the remaining people with half of them dead – they only challenge him on moral grounds. But the fact is that Thanos’s plan wouldn’t work.

As other articles have covered, neo-Malthusian ideas about population control are inaccurate because:

  • If culling half a population helped at all, it would only be a temporary solution. It would need to be repeated ad nauseam as the population regrew. Yet Thanos seems convinced it’s a one-time panacea.
  • On Earth, and therefore on any planet like Earth, a lack of resources isn’t the problem – we have enough food to feed the world. What we lack is distribution and political will. Neither of those deficits would be solved by the Snap.
  • The techniques that are actually proven to help with overpopulation issues are things like education, contraceptives, technological innovation, and women’s empowerment.

Malthus aside, Thanos’s plan is also flawed because:

  • All beings are not equally responsible for the problems of overpopulation, not equally positioned to help combat it, nor equal consumers of resources. Indiscriminately taking out half of everyone ignores the societal and political roles that affect resource cultivation, distribution, and consumption.
  • To achieve the Snap, Thanos assembles the Infinity Gauntlet, which basically gives the wielder unlimited power over reality. So it’s not as if the Snap is Thanos’s only option to solve this problem – there are dozens, if not hundreds, of more effective ways a being with that much unstructured power could address issues of overpopulation. For instance, he could create more resources, transfer resources from those with a surplus to those with a deficit, or take control of all governments to force reforms. Therefore, it makes no sense that he is hyper focused on this one unethical method.

Now, you could have a morally ambiguous villain who truly thinks his plan will succeed, only to have it fail tragically. But that only works if the villain had no way of knowing his plan would fail. Even if Thanos somehow had no access to the above information, he still could not plead ignorance as a defense. His plan is not a hypothetical scenario he wants to try now for the first time; he’s been killing half of populations for decades. He did it to Gamora’s world and Thor’s ship, to name two.

In fact, he claims Gamora’s world is now a paradise, and neither she nor the Avengers dispute him or go to see for themselves. Nor are we as viewers shown this outcome – we and the Avengers have only Thanos’s word to trust. The heroes do trust him. A large cast of competentintelligent, and powerful characters all fail to investigate or analyze appropriately.

To avoid such a thing, Gamora could have pointed it out succinctly, saying, “I revisited my planet after he did this to us, and it didn’t fix anything.” Or, instead of saying, “We don’t trade lives,” Steve’s main objection to Thanos’s scheme could have been, “Germany thought mass murder of some of their citizens would help the rest, but it didn’t.” As a WWII hero, he actually witnessed some of the real-world atrocities this movie tries so hard to avoid.

But neither of these things happen. Instead, the filmmakers pretend Thanos’s previous purge solved the problem, and even the heroes agree it is an effective, if unethical, solution. This creates a bigger problem, as it can serve as a justification for this kind of atrocity in the real world, which is a gross moral oversight. Why did the creators allow such a thing? If they admit his previous attempts didn’t work, they lose their sympathetic antagonist.

Why Did the Filmmakers Use the Snap?

Despite these issues, the filmmakers stick to the Snap as Thanos’s grand plan. Why? I can’t be sure, but some likely theories present themselves. They attempt to keep Thanos’s plan morally ambiguous by distancing themselves from problematic associations such as the discriminatory nature of genocide. This explains his emphasis on killing half of everyone randomly instead of focusing on any one race, species, culture, class, etc.

However, the remaining plan is not free from problematic implications. Its neo-Malthusian basis draws terribly near to eugenics, forced sterilization, and mass murder, all of which are bad enough on their own and have historical associations with real-world atrocities, including genocide. To avoid ties to genocide, it’s not enough to just make the killing “indiscriminate.” Any usage of these extreme methods comes with historical baggage. That baggage could have been examined as part of the story, but the movie tries to pretend that just because he is not picking and choosing victims, his methods are free from historical precedent. They are not.

Another reason the Snap seems appealing is that it is a quick solution – literally one snap and it’s done. That provides a dramatic climax for the narrative. However, as shown before, it would not fix the problem and would undoubtedly create more problems in the aftermath. The film even acknowledges this by showing widespread chaos after the Snap, although somehow no one in the movie predicted this obvious consequence or used it as an argument against the efficacy of the Snap.

Also, the Snap appeals as a villainous plan because it is morally wrong – and can therefore be used for angst. The filmmakers want to show Thanos wracked with guilt over the terrible thing he has to do to the many for the sake of the other many. He even murders his daughter* in cold blood to achieve this vision. He is therefore willing to achieve his vision by any means necessary. But if he is truly willing to do anything to fix overpopulation issues, and if he feels bad about doing these things, then shouldn’t he be eager to do less awful things that would be more effective in achieving his end goal?

Instead, the camera lingers on his tears as he performs worse and worse deeds in pursuit of his lofty goal. We, the audience, are supposed to sympathize with him because he has feeeelings, because he sorrowfully does what must be done. But the thing is, he doesn’t have to do it. If he had thought the problem through, consulted with experts, or done more research, he would have realized that these methods he claims to hate are unnecessary for the goal he wants to achieve. This self-indulgent villainous angst is no substitute for actual moral complexity. Remorse without reparations does not require absolution; abuse survivors do not need to sympathize with abusers who display contrition, and we do not need to put up with Thanos’s rubbish emotional manipulation.

The Snap is also included because it is narratively dramatic and simple, much simpler than the actual problems and solutions involved in overpopulation. But I believe the filmmakers are underestimating themselves and their audiences if they believe they couldn’t address such a multifaceted topic in a nuanced way and still make an exciting film. If they would rather stay away from that intricacy, then they should pick a less complicated issue to put at the center of their film.

The final reason the film has Thanos kill half of everyone is quite simple: it’s in the comics. However, in the comics Thanos is in love with a personification of death and wants to send her that many souls as a courting tribute. That, while messed up, makes more sense. A universal mass murder is more likely to charm death than solve overpopulation problems permanently. In the comics, his goal, while unethical, has a chance at achieving his desired ends. In the movie, it does not. By keeping a plot point but changing the motivation, the film tries to make Thanos seem more morally sympathetic. But because his plan is so irrational and impractical, the effort fails miserably.

What We Can Learn From This

Even if the next Avengers movie shows that the Snap was not as effective as Thanos thought it would be, that won’t fix the problems in this movie – namely that everyone should have known it wouldn’t work before it happened, that the movie never acknowledged that it couldn’t work, and that, worst of all, the movie actively pretended that it would.

From seeing the flaws in Infinity War, we can learn how not to make an effective, morally ambiguous, villainous plan:

  • Don’t pick a plan that won’t achieve the good end it’s supposed to (and then pretend it would).
  • Don’t substitute empty angst for actual moral struggles.
  • Don’t try to divorce methods from their real-world historical contexts to try to make them less problematic.
  • Don’t have intelligent characters accept the villain’s methods as the only way to achieve the proposed end without investigating its efficacy or proposing alternate methods.

Now, if that’s what you don’t do, then what do you do? I’m glad you asked.

The Moral Dilemma of Star Trek: Insurrection

This Next Generation Star Trek movie expertly accomplished what Infinity War failed to achieve. It addresses the complex moral question, “Is it ever justified to forcibly relocate a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a much larger group?” On the one side is Admiral Dougherty, who has discovered a planet that creates eternal youth and health. He wants to bring those benefits to the rest of the Federation by relocating the local people, called the Ba’ku, to a similar but ordinary planet. That way he can harvest the metaphasic radiation that causes that effect, assisted by the Son’a, alien allies who have the technology to accomplish this. On the other side are Captain Picard and his crew, who try to stop Dougherty and the Son’a because they believe that forcibly relocating a culture is ethically wrong and that bringing perpetual youth and miracle healing is not worth that moral cost.

This dilemma actually works because, within this scifi world, Dougherty’s method would almost certainly be effective. We see the effects of the metaphasic radiation firsthand, not only on the locals living on the planet but also on Picard’s crew. Worf experiences symptoms of Klingon puberty, proving that the de-aging powers work. Lieutenant Geordi La Forge gains biological eyesight for the first time in his life, proving the potential health benefits beyond eternal youth. We are told that the Son’a technology can harvest the metaphasic radiation, though that process will kill anything currently on the surface and make the planet uninhabitable for a generation.

Uncomfortable with the forced relocation, Picard discusses alternatives with Dougherty. Being an intelligent Starfleet officer with some remaining shred of moral fiber, the admiral already thought of, tested, and discounted each. Dougherty assures Picard that this is the only planet where they can harvest the metaphasic radiation, that they can’t duplicate the Son’a technology, and the dying Son’a people wouldn’t survive the ten years of normal exposure it would take for the metaphasic radiation to heal them.

Given this context, the plan to simply and secretly move the locals elsewhere is logical. It could even be considered a compromise, as it would preserve the lives and ignorance of the natives while also allowing the Federation to harvest the life-giving metaphasic radiation and share it with everyone in their reachable universe. Here we have what Thanos’s plan tried and failed to be: a morally dubious but definitely effective method of achieving an undoubtedly positive end.

The only remaining counterargument is a moral one. And it concerns a moral that is vital to the Federation, of which both Dougherty and Picard are a part: their Prime Directive, a strict policy of noninterference in developing cultures. Picard argues that by enacting this plan, “We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded. It’s an attack upon its very soul.” Dougherty’s concern for the Federation is not for its moral core. He wants to rebuild its standing after recent losses to enemies like the Borg and the Dominion, and he’s willing to break the Prime Directive to do it. Picard accepts that Dougherty has good goals that are achievable through his plan, but still opposes the methods he suggests solely on principle, both modern and historical. He believes that they have no right to step in and “determine the course of evolution for these people,” especially not by the methods Dougherty suggests. He would not relocate 600 people to help billions, even if it would work, because he views the act itself as wrong.

Unlike Infinity War’s pretense that Thanos’s methods are new and therefore free of problematic historical association, Insurrection is willing to reference the oppressive history of forced relocation. Picard continues, “And it will destroy the Ba’ku … just as cultures have been destroyed during every forced relocation throughout history.” Elsewhere he says, “some of the darkest chapters of the history of my world involve the forced relocation of a small group of people to satisfy the demands of a large one. I had hoped that we had learned from our mistakes, but apparently we haven’t.”

Admiral Dougherty doesn’t deny that history, but only seeks to justify by scale: “We’re only moving 600 people,” to which Picard replies, “How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? How many people does it take, Admiral?” That is the line in the sand, the moral center point of the film, the hill that Picard and his bridge crew are determined to fall upon. This is what Steve Rogers’s “we don’t trade lives” line in Infinity War was supposed to be, except in Insurrection this principle is actually the only reason to oppose the antagonist’s plan, whereas Steve could have presented loads of other practical reasons to oppose the Snap.

After this complex but solid moral divide is drawn, the battle between the two sides begins in earnest. Picard disobeys a direct order from his superior officer in order to protect not just an idea, but also a large group of living people, and his bridge crew joins him.

Later, Dougherty is murdered by the Son’a leader, Ru’afo, who then becomes the main antagonist. Ru’afo’s goal is still more logical than Thanos’s – he and his people are dying, and he needs the metaphasic radiation to heal everyone. Initially, he went along with the plan to relocate the Ba’ku, thus preserving their lives while obtaining the means to heal his people. When the relocation plan fails, he is willing to proceed with collecting the metaphasic radiation even though it will kill the Ba’ku. This is morally worse than relocating them, but his plan will let him achieve his goal. The practicality is still sound, and the moral stakes have been raised.

If this summary makes it sound like the movie is all talk and no action, that isn’t so. It has plenty of excitement and adventure in its hand-to-hand fights and ship-to-ship battles.

What We Can Learn From This

From seeing the effectiveness of Insurrection, we can learn how to make a villainous “ends justify the means” plan:

  • Pick a clear, praiseworthy goal the villain is striving toward. Have them focus on the benefits they’re trying to achieve as well as regret the distasteful methods they plan to use.
  • Pick a plan that would actually achieve the good end it’s supposed to.
  • Have intelligent characters properly investigate the efficacy of the villain’s plan and discover that alternate, morally superior means could not achieve that good end.
  • Acknowledge the real-world historical context of atrocities, and use that history as a reason not to repeat those methods.
  • Raise the stakes without losing the efficacy of the evil plot.

Science fiction movies have a two-fold responsibility: to be entertaining to audiences, and to leave the world no worse than they found it. These two responsibilities are linked; movies that reinforce oppressive norms are not enjoyable for audience members affected by that type of oppression. It is not only possible but easier for a movie to be both ethical and entertaining. Avengers: Infinity War proves that sloppy morality is not only unethical but also compromises enjoyment of the story. Star Trek: Insurrection proves that you don’t need to sacrifice entertainment value while presenting a complex moral dilemma. It raises the stakes and provokes thought and discussion among the audience about the actual issue presented in the movie, not about its plot holes. In fact, a well-constructed moral dilemma heightens viewer enjoyment of the film.

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