Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Both the Mad Titan and the GOP need to learn there’s a better way to address a resource problem.
When Captain America meets Thanos for the first time in Avengers: Infinity War, the Star-Spangled Avenger stands his ground. For a split second, Thanos is taken aback by Steve Rogers’s grit. After all, he had just dispatched most of Cap’s caped colleagues with a flick of his begloved wrist. Yet despite having gathered the power to bend the universe to his whims, Thanos can’t break Captain America.
Facing a force with the will to resist him, Thanos loses his iron resolve, if only for a moment. A shadow of a doubt crosses his purple face as he grapples with our hero. In that window, Captain America might have stopped to ask him a simple question: Isn’t there a better way?
That question matters very much in Actual America, where a different single-minded force is playing purple space-god with the levers of power, reshaping the world in the name of an abstract cause. Spoiler alert: It’s the Republican Party.
In Infinity War, the umpteenth film in the sprawling superhero cycle from Marvel Studios, Thanos squares off against a full roster of Earth’s mightiest heroes. The nigh-omnipotent villain is running a single-issue campaign: He wants to wipe out half the population of the universe, in order to brings its resources back into balance. Black Panther, Thor, Doctor Strange, and all their franchise-wielding friends must unite to stop Thanos, in the hopes of saving trillions of lives (and earning at least as many box-office dollars).
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because the same story has been playing out on the main stage in American politics over the last year. In order to justify sweeping tax cuts, the Republican Party has proposed slashing the social safety net. Both the GOP and the Mad Titan aim to radically reduce the public’s need for resources—the former by cutting them off, the latter by obliterating them. Thanos must assemble six all-powerful Infinity Stones to fulfill his agenda; the Republican Party has marshaled all three branches of government.
In Infinity War, this central conflict is also one of the movie’s biggest wrinkles. (Some mildly spoilerish stuff follows.) As Thanos gathers the six Infinity Stones, each one invests in him control over a different elemental property of the universe: space, time, power, mind, reality, and the soul. If he obtains the complete Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos can eliminate half the population of the universe with a snap of his fingers.
This MacGuffin also has the power to tear open glaring plot holes: If Thanos has the power to destroy half the population of creation, why can’t he conjure up the resources to feed them?
After all, if an Infinity Gauntlet-bearing Thanos wanted to, he could put an end to need and want across the universe; he could build housing for every Skrull, provide healthcare for every Kree, and feed the entire Shi’ar Empire. Presumably such a powerful tool could turn every corner of the galaxy into a veritable Wakanda, or at least a good approximation of a high-performing Scandinavian economy.
The same might be said for the GOP, which has used single-party control of the American government to pursue (and in some cases enact) a sweeping reform agenda. Thanos aims to end hunger and strife by cutting the universe’s demand by half—never mind the impact that such indiscriminate slaughter would have on universal production. The GOP has worked to balance the economy through a tax cut for the wealthy paid for by spending cuts for the poor—despite the many drawbacks for the economy at large and for the poor in particular. One of those plots is from a comic-book movie. The other sounds like the work of Doctor Doom.
When he’s not lobbing planetoids at superheroes, Thanos espouses a tragic apology for the heavy burden that motivates him. More in sadness than in anger, he must destroy half of all life, because traffic is so bad (or something). He’s a leader in the mold of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who condemned the ugliness of dividing the country into “makers” and “takers,” rueing his own words while chasing an agenda that benefited one at the expense of the other. His 2016 proposal to turn all federal assistance into a single block grant that states could then do with as they please is not as far-fetched as wishing away the poor with the Cosmic Cube. But it’s close.
If fighting poverty were the true goal, then Congress might propose to beef up social safety net spending. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped lift 8.4 million families out of poverty in 2015. While costs for the program ballooned since the Great Recession, they have started to level off. Researchers from Dartmouth and Wellesley concluded in 2016 that a modest boost in SNAP benefits results in more dollars spent at the grocery store and more nutritious meals. Yet the GOP aims to both cut SNAP spending and introduce onerous work requirements. If they really wanted to save federal dollars, they’d pour more money into SNAP, not less.
Marvel’s film at least gestures at rounding out Thanos’s character with backstory sequences. In the comic books, he just worships Death; the film version is more like an overly literal reader of Paul Erlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb—an environmental nut obsessed with Malthusian predictions of doom. Ryan’s motivations, on the other hand, have always been paper thin. Slashing spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs are first-order goals for Ryan. Bringing balance to the budget is a talking point, since Republicans in Congress are willing to embrace deficits as a means to an end. That end, which they have pursued with Thanos-level intensity: tax cuts for the wealthy.
Just as Thanos has help from his frightening military retinue, the Black Order, members of the Trump administration share Ryan’s agenda and will continue to see it through after he leaves the series. Think of HUD Secretary Ben Carson as a Corvus Glaive bent on raising rents for families who receive housing aid. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue’s plan to replace SNAP benefits with Blue Apron–style meal delivery boxes is crazy enough to be a plot by Thanos’s fawning death-cult acolyte, Ebony Maw.
Unfortunately, none of the Avengers thought to hit Thanos with a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Explaining how expanding the social safety net builds opportunities that redound to the entire economy might have been more convincing than Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. Even an entity as radical as Thanos could come to see that a housing voucher for families with children under the age of 6 was worth a wink of the reality gem.
Ryan and his cohort, however, cannot be swayed from their apocalyptic vision—no matter the cost for the nation as a whole. But they can be removed, and if the benefits of the GOP tax cut don’t materialize before the midterms, the Republican majority might not make it to the sequels. Democrats, assemble?