Someone clever on the internet quipped that this weekend is “peak geek culture,” with the convergence of Avengers: Endgame, which I saw with the family Friday night, and The Battle of Winterfell in Game of Thrones coming tomorrow.
I’ve been thinking about how these twin mega-blockbusters embody our culture’s growing awareness of climate change. Are we beginning, as a global mass culture, to replace familiar conflicts against human evildoers with a too-big-to-comprehend struggle against impersonal forces? Or at least, highly personalized, magical, and bejeweled figures that represent impersonal forces?
Thanos, the purple God-Malthus of the Marvell Comic Universe literalizes a fairly common criticism of what environmentalists want, namely that in order to preserve ecosystems they will murder humans. (A smart essay in Yale Climate Connections elaborated the ways that Thanos caricatures environmentalism when Infinity War came out last year.) In Endgame, the Big Mean Purple guy isn’t quite as threatening, and in fact he manages to get himself killed twice, but his tag line — “I am inevitable” — follows Malthusan logic. (The quip-riposte — “I am Iron Man” — combines superhero ego-individualism with our culture’s deep love for technology.) In order to preserve the universe, Thanos must cull all populations. The grim first hour-plus of the latest movie suggests that following the Malthusan path of reducing populations to match finite resources creates, at best, a world in which Captain America facilitates a twelve-step program.
The Night King doesn’t speak about his own inevitability, but
his tag line also emphasizes the impersonal: “Winter is coming.” He may simply represent death, as hunky but not very clever Gendry tells Arya. But in environmental terms the Night King might be better understood as Thanos without the snap: he blankets the landscape as absolute privation, the exhaustion of all resources, including life and even memory. To endure in winter, as Stark family maxims recall, requires social solidarity, being loyal to the pack rather than the lone wolf. Much has been written about Game of Thrones as a semi-allegory of climate change. As it grows each week less likely that the Night King will grow a personality (unless he’s Bran Stark?), the allegorical meaning becomes almost inescapable. George R.R. Martin has apparently given the climate change interpretation authorial approval, though I’m not sure that binds the writers for HBO.
It’s not surprising that mass culture’s two most iconic villains of 2019 might assume climate change-inflected shapes, given our collective growing awareness of eco-anxiety. And too much can be made of the how much these figures have to depart from traditional models to allegorize a changing climate. Thanos first appeared in Marvell Comics back in 1973. Nonhuman super-evil bad guys have been core elements of the machinery of modern fantasy at least since Tolkien’s Sauron started Dark Lord-ing across Middle Earth. These villains work as strange attractors, inciting maximum fear and requiring maximum sacrifice to vanquish. Tolkien’s fantasy laments the loss of the pastoral Shire to proto-industrialization from Barad-Dur to Isengard, and that criticism of modernity seems compatible with today’s fear of climate change as industry’s destructive progeny.
But the now-emerging truths of climate change as global experience won’t really wear the clarifying colors of Purple Thanos or the White King. Neither the instantaneous snap of mass murder nor the visible advance of Walkers across the landscape will overwrite our world. Instead, climate change strains all levels of all systems, motivating climate refugees and authoritarian regimes, drought and civil war, wildfires and the desire of the wealthy to build futile walls. As our awareness of climactic change deepens, we are responding multiply, in our popular entertainments and our academic conferences. Climate change touches everything and can’t be separated from many other causes.
It’s no wonder we’d rather imagine that our problems are homicidal Titans or zombie hordes.
Happy watching everyone!