Hollywood and Climate Change (Part 3): The Bad Boy Phase

As discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Hollywood and climate change flirted and had awkward exchanges over the 2000s and 2010s. All the while, the science on climate change was growing clearer and the solution became perfectly obvious: Stop emitting greenhouse gasses. That’s the overwhelming scientific consensus and the way to manage climate change. That’s difficult to do in practice, but in theory, it is very simple. But in the 2010s, Hollywood also hit on another solution to climate change that could drive the plot of about a dozen or so blockbuster films. Cinematic gold for sure, and very simple, sinister, and very filmable solution:

KILL EVERYONE! Well, not quite everyone. But kill about half the human race to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in short order and solve our overconsumption problems. Logically plausible and ethically abhorrent. And man, was that everywhere for a while. This concept was best exemplified by Thanos, the ultimate supervillain of the Marvel films, a radical galactic environmentalist terrorist who aims to destroy half of all life in the universe to ensure everyone can live sustainably. To do so, he embarks on a scavenger hunt/genocide campaign to randomly murder half of all life to slow climate change. And he does. And it works.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the World’s Most Famous Environmentalist!

But Thanos wasn’t the first supervillain to road-test this idea, although he was the most successful at it. In the slick and insane spy film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, the villainous Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson) also aims to solve climate change by putting chips in everyone’s cellphones that send people into a violent frenzy when activated, ensuring a sizable portion of the human race is brutally killed in worldwide brawls to put an climate change. BUT THERE’S MORE! The villain in Aquaman also has the ultimate goal of a genocide against the human race, as payback for treating the ocean like a gigantic dump, to solve ocean acification, oceanic depopulation, the general destruction of nature, and climate change to boot. Thankfully, Aquaman stops him and we get to keep doing what we’re doing. There are further examples in Inferno, Godzilla, and even a James Bond film had a climate change activist as a bad guy. The murderous environmentalist maniac was a popular trend for awhile. Why is that?

I have several theories. On the one hand, it made great business sense at the time. The ‘evil, murderous climate change solver’ villain was a means for Hollywood writers and directors to sneak climate change into blockbuster films without really discussing it or taking a stance on it. If you were a climate-change denier, than seeing an evil monster using genocide to solve climate change offered some justification in hating environmentalists. Furthermore, if you didn’t believe in climate change or thought solving it was a waste of time, than you’re cheering for the good guys who were stopping someone stop climate change! Woo hoo!

At the same time, the urgency these villains have to solve our environmental woes resonated with climate-concerned people on some level. Not the murderousness (I hope), but the urgent dream for action on climate change. Thanos and Valentine’s evil plans and cruelty actually generated more genuine conversation about how to improve our consumption habits, even while the movies only sort-of addressed it while offering really insane and unworkable solutions. But these ‘evil maniac murders billions to save our climate’ movies got at a weird way of understanding climate change that is still discussed and feared today.

The ‘genocide solves climate change’ narrative makes a very odd assumption about climate change. This is, ‘if people are the cause of climate change, than the answer is solving people.’ After all, people are the ones burning fossil fuels and destroying the planet. But this assumption has a flaw and lacks historical context. First off, modern humans have had civilizations for over ten thousand years and climate change is a 20th and 21st century problem. It is not eternally bound to our existence. We existed for most of our history without being a major threat to Earth’s climate, and it is perfectly possible to stop being a threat. Thanos and friends don’t approach climate change, thinking, ‘how do we solve humanity’s terrible habits’ but think ‘humans are their terrible habits’ with no room for redemption and improvement. The evil environmentalist sees people as fallen, and people must be destroyed to restore order in the world. I wonder who was the first super-powered entity to try that…

Anyway. For all the evil of Thanos, his determination to act our on climate, in an age of inaction, was compelling in a way. Climate change sometimes feels like a global problem resting on the shoulders of every individual. That we all need to do better to prevent an unlivable planet, and reduce our carbon footprint. This is nonsense, as a steel foundry emits over 600,000 tons of greenhouse gasses a year, so walking to the mall over driving your car is not the crux of the problem, although the discussion of climate change likes to put the onus on the individual. So the idea of someone taking the future of our planet into their own hands, because the world’s leaders are paralyzed and ineffective, speaks to a very real frustration in the climate movement. Thanos, in some ways, was an acknowledgement of that frustration and want for drastic action, in a sense. Although I stress, again, that his drastic action was deplorable, reprehensible, and evil.

But that was Hollywood and Climate Change’s ‘bad boy phase’. A common and regrettable phase, and one to be excised without a look backwards. And so far, this series on Hollywood has entirely looked backwards. For our final part in this series, I’d like to ask: what comes next? Or, rather, what should come next? What kind of climate films do we need for this moment in the climate struggle? What could push for the world we need?

Well, you’ll find out in part 4!

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