If you haven’t seen the Black Panther or Avengers: Endgame, this article will spoil the endings of these movies and probably won’t make sense either. You have been warned.
In the Black Panther, the villain known as Killmonger has a very real issue that he is trying to solve. Is he power tripping hardcore? Yes. Is he going about solving the problem in a way that is inherently violent and imperialist? Yes. Has he decided, as all “villains” do, that the ends justify the means? Yes. But at the heart of his actions is the attempt to liberate black people all over the world, and this is good.
If the movie ended with T’challa killing Killmonger and then rolling credits, it would have been a bad movie. It would have made T’challa the bad guy. What redeems T’challa after killing Killmonger and his revolution is T’challa’s ability to listen to his villain and take seriously the issues that he brought up. It may be a literal afterthought, but ending Wakanda’s isolationist policy and starting a foreign aid project in Oakland shows that T’challa recognizes Killmonger’s struggle, legitimizes it, and deals with it.
Ultimately, it is this that brings the movie together and makes it one of the greats.
Sadly, all of this was missing from Avengers: Endgame.
After Infinity War came out, there were a whole lot of articles and an entire subreddit that popped up devoted to the idea that Thanos was not a bad guy and that he had not done anything wrong. The logic goes, that overpopulation is a real issue that only Thanos was genuinely willing to deal with. Once again, a “the ends justify the means” sort of situation. There is even a moment early in Endgame when Captain America points out that there are whales swimming up the Hudson River, citing a clear example of how Thanos was in some respect right. There was some good happening because Thanos dealt with a real issue.
We certainly do not think that the ends justified the means. There is a whole slew of reasons why merely eliminating half of all life will not balance the universe (or ecosystems for that matter). It was a stupid egomaniacal plan from the start.
All that said, overpopulation and mismanagement of resources is a huge problem. It is intricately interwoven into everything from climate change to inequality. Killing half of all life is not the right solution, but not dealing with the problem isn’t either.
Many of the articles that talk about why Thanos’ plan to save the galaxy was a bad idea cite human ingenuity as the actual solution to the problem of overpopulation (and all of the problems that stem from it). This is an open-ended solution that can sometimes feel akin to saying, “don’t worry, we will figure it out later”, but it isn’t altogether a bad one. Ingenuity has gotten us through many issues in the past.
The problem with Endgame is that it doesn’t even suggest ingenuity as the solution to Thanos’ problem. In fact, the ending of Endgame more or less treats the issue that Thanos brings to the table as though it isn’t an issue at all. No one spends any time trying to figure out what they will do after we regain the half of life that they lost. There are no scenes showing the Avengers planning political, social, or economic solutions to overpopulation. They save their friends, beat Thanos, and then the credits roll.
We wish that the Avengers had learned something from T’challa. T’challa was not the hero simply because he beat the villain, but because he beat the villain and actively pursued the same righteous ends as the villain, simply by better means.
The fact that the Avengers could only go as far as to beat the bad guy in a fist fight says something not only about them but about our culture as a whole. It seems that we are stuck in a cultural moment where our understanding of heroism is limited to reaction. It is the villain's job to construct a grand plan in order to fight for a grander ideal. It is the hero's job to thwart the plan at the last moment.
Perhaps this archetypal story is why we can’t get our shit together in order to solve issues like climate change. Perhaps our ability to react to villains comes at the expense of being able to proactively solve issues.
Perhaps T’challa gives us an example of how to be better.
If we can listen to and act to solve the very real issues presented to us by villains like Killmonger and Thanos, perhaps we can create a world where this sort of villain ceases to exist—because the issues they fight for have as well.