A Philosophical Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame
This movie provides a useful analogy to show how adult imposed solutions to challenging behavior in children actually work. They don’t.
I just finished watching the Marvel Comics film, Avengers: Endgame. It’s 3 hours long, so I just couldn’t find the time to go to the theater to watch it. Instead, I watched the movie over 3 nights on the Disney+streaming service. As someone who is hearing impaired, it was nice to have subtitles to help out with some of the dialogue — one of the bonuses of streaming movies.
I really enjoyed this movie. I enjoyed the humor, the sense of fellowship, team spirit and cooperation between all of the characters. I appreciated the empathy expressed between them and by them, too. And I did enjoy the action scenes with some dry humor peppered therein. I found the film engaging, entertaining and hard to predict in terms of plot twists.
As a movie viewer, I tend to deconstruct the plots of movies within a certain frame of reference. In that frame of reference, I tend to see plots in terms of punishment and reward. I tend to see how the typical response to challenging behavior exhibited by people is punishment. We punish people when they get out of line. The Avengers: Endgame is typical of this theme.
In most action movies, our protagonist is minding his own business when his day is interrupted by the antagonist. A series of melees ensues, with each trying to top the other until the climax of the movie. In the climax, the protagonist deals the final and usually fatal blow as judge, jury, and executioner.
The movie frames a battle between the Avengers, and their antagonist, Thanos (and his allies), a being who acquired the power of a deity at one point in the series of Avenger movies and used that power to wipe out half of all life in the universe. His justification for such an act? To ease overcrowding everywhere there is life. All takings were at random, he says, and with less life, there is less strain on the natural resources available to support life. He says that everyone should be grateful because in so many words, “I did this for your own good.”
The response was predictable, as implied in the trailers for the Endgame movie: An all-out mega battle between forces of good and evil. Yet, it’s clear in the movie that Thanos believed that he was serving the greater good.
The analogy I see here — I’d use the word “allegory” here, but I doubt the people who wrote the movie hid the meaning in the story that I’m about to imply here — is that Thanos is the parent, almost god-like in his power, and he uses his power to impose an “adult solution” to the problems experienced by all intelligent life in the universe. The result was rebellion from the children, and in the movie, that rebellion is framed as justice.
One of the underlying themes in this story is that overpopulation is the cause of most of our misery on earth. Thanos seems unaware that wiping out half of all life in the universe doesn’t actually solve any problems. The misery of humanity has more to do with ignorance than the numbers would suggest. Our misery has more to do with our lack of knowledge we must have to get along.
I’ve seen a few movies in the last few years that have a message about overpopulation. But the writers of every movie I’ve seen that has overpopulation as a plot element appear to be ignorant of current trends in population growth.
The rate of growth of the human population is slowing, and it is expected to fall to zero and go negative around 2070. And the studies that I’ve seen concerning population trends all have a common thread. All studies I’ve ready about on the declining birthrates worldwide find that controlling for all other factors, the biggest factor in managing population growth is education. Educate the girls and population growth will naturally slow down, and eventually decline.
The ignorance of humanity in the movie has several levels. The first I just explained. The second is that Thanos assumes that punishment is an appropriate response to resistance to his idea and his plan. There was no discussion, no planning, no negotiation on the part of Thanos. His plans came as a complete surprise to everyone. That’s how it usually happens with parents and their kids, too.
And now for the segue. The reason I tend to deconstruct plots into a tit-for-tat exchange of punishment and reward comes from my experience reading the work of Dr. Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. Dr. Greene has been working with kids for more than 40 years now. He’s developed an interesting theory to describe how kids behave. “Kids exhibit challenging behavior when they lack the skills or capacity to respond to the demands of their environment.”
This means that when presented with a problem that the child can’t solve on their own, they become “challenging”. Some of us might call that behavior willful, spiteful, annoying, and even “evil”. The solution proposed by Dr. Green is that the parents and the child collaborate to solve the problems that give rise to the challenging behavior in the first place. You can read more about his work here, and watch his videos on his YouTube channel here.
By now you’re probably wondering how the work of a child psychologist has anything to do with the plot presented by one of the most successful movies ever made. Although it’s a great movie, it still perpetuates this myth that punishment and reward is how you get humans to behave. I see this same theme throughout much of popular culture. And I believe that until we make a change in how we raise our kids, our suffering will continue.
The solution is education. Wherever I look the solution to most problems of human suffering is education, not punishment, not even a morality lesson. The assumption we make too often is that the object of our wrath knows better, that they could do better with the information they already have. But if someone is misbehaving, engaging in crime, abuse of others or has trouble meeting his own needs, that’s a signal, not the cause. Better to assume ignorance before malice, right? The cause of all human suffering, barring natural disasters, is ignorance of a way to live better.
Notice the focus of Dr. Greene’s statement above, on capacity or skill to do better. People are always motivated to do better. I don’t think people wake up in the morning with a plan to cause trouble unless they lack the skills, the knowledge, to do better. I believe that people are always motivated to do better. I’d rather live my life based on that assumption than to assume that the world is out to irritate me, get me, or just make my life a bit more inconvenient for the day.
When I’m dealing with someone who I think should know better, I reel it back in and consider the possibility that all of us are doing our best. I consider the possibility that maybe they really don’t have the knowledge or skills to do things the way I’d like to do them. So I believe that all of us would like to sleep at night knowing we did the right thing. And all of us would like to be forgiven for our mistakes.
It would have been nice if Thanos took the time to talk to the Avengers before taking out half the life in the universe. You know, so that they could consider another solution to life’s problems. But then who would see the movie with a plot like that?