The end of the world hangs heavy on our minds.
Or at least in the mind of the big summer movies.
In Oppenheimer, atomic bomb scientist Robert Oppenheimer channels the Bhagavad Gita as he proclaims, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny, a Nazi-turned-Nasa scientist wants to travel back in time using the Dial of Archimedes to change the outcome of World War II so that the Nazis can win.
In Mission Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, the evil genius mastermind is no longer human. The new Dark Lord is AI.
In the upcoming Expend4bles, the old grizzled gang of Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham et al has to come back to save the world yet again because a gang of terrorists has seized a submarine with nuclear warheads.
Even Barbie cannot escape the feeling of impending doom.
“Do you guys ever think about dying?” asks Barbie as she twirls around pinkly in the new Barbie film with her fellow Barbie gal pals in Barbieland, where every day is the “best day ever”.
The party around her screeches to a halt. She hurriedly course-corrects and explains she’s just dying to dance, and everything returns to perky party-girl normal.
Barbie inadvertently makes more of a comment on us and our times than Oppenheimer. In a time of climate change, when ice caps melt at the poles and wildfires shut down chunks of Europe, we are still partying like it’s 1989. When Weird Barbie asks Stereotypical Barbie to choose between her old party life (high heels) and the truth (Birkenstocks), she tries hurriedly to choose the high heels. Who could blame her? There’s no party quite like a denial-of-reality party and we have all been there.
The old Dark Lord out to destroy the world feels almost old-fashioned now. It is rooted in the idea that the Destroyer of Worlds is one malevolent entity. In fact, the AI supervillain of Mission Impossible is called Entity and everyone talks about it in the same hushed tones once reserved for Voldemort in Harry Potter. But the answer is always the same. If our knight-in-shining-armour can eliminate that one entity, we can go back to business as usual. That solution has been clear from the time of The Lord Of The Rings. We just need that one charismatic superhero or a band of them to come together and save civilisation. These days we have just upped the scale. Instead of the country, we need to save the planet, and then the galaxy and eventually the multiverse (and also the franchise).
Sometimes that superhero is a Superman with real superpowers. Sometimes it’s just a small, scared hobbit who rises to the challenge. Either way, the Sauron figure of evil must be destroyed. And the ring/dial/crucifix/orb/Infinity Stone (or six) must be thrown away because no one can be trusted with that much awesome power.
It all boils down to a singular evil figure whose modus operandi varies. It might want to seize the nuclear arsenal or biological weapons and hold the world hostage. Or time travel and change the course of destiny. Or just wipe out all competition so it can enjoy a monopoly, whether it’s in microchips, cocaine or crude oil. Or land. In the original Superman (1978) film, Lex Luthor wants to use a nuclear missile to trigger the San Andreas Fault to sink the western part of the US into the Pacific Ocean so his desert land can become the new West Coast, setting off a real estate boom. Our homegrown Mr Mogambo of Mr. India (1987) just wanted to conquer India. The legendary Gabbar Singh was even more modest in his territorial claims. But these are the usual things a megalomaniac villain aspires for—land, money, power.
In the latest Mission Impossible, the Entity is being hailed as a quantum leap in the way we conceptualise evil. It’s “godless, stateless and amoral” and as it alters information in real time, “truth as we know it is in peril”. AI is also literally state of the art as villains go. Recently, a group of over 350 industry leaders had signed an open letter (actually a 22-word statement) warning that “mitigating the risk of extinction from A.I. should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war”. They worried that AI unchecked could pose an existential threat. Earlier this year, over 1,000 tech leaders, including Elon Musk, had signed another open letter urging a moratorium in developing powerful AI systems until the industry could come up with shared safety protocols. How can cinema visualise that kind of evil without anthropomorphising it? We will see what Part Two of Mission Impossible—Dead Reckoning comes up with but it’s hard to really imbue computer code with the kind of cinematic menace a Darth Vader has.
In the end, all these villains, from Ernst Blofield and his white Persian cat in James Bond to Darth Vader in Star Wars, want to control the world and set up their own versions of the Evil Empire. The Asgardian Loki of The Avengers (2012) wants to use the powerful energy of the Tesseract to subjugate Earth. Even when Karl Stromberg, the villain of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, wants to trick Britain and the USSR into a nuclear war, his end goal is to repopulate the earth with his own followers, who are hiding in secret underwater bases.
But what if there is no world left to control? Or repopulate? And even worse, there’s no one Entity, no Lex Luthor, no Ernst Blofield? When we are all active participants, in ways big and small, in the destruction of our over-populated planet, what dragon will the hero we are holding out for slay?
Avengers—Infinity War (2018) came close to grappling with that existential question. In it, Thanos assembles the Infinity Stones into a gauntlet and uses it to destroy half the universe with a snap of his fingers, the victims selected at random. While Thanos is a villainous warlord, he is not wiping out half of all life just because that’s what villainous warlords do. He wants to prevent what he thinks is the inevitable outcome of overpopulation—extinction. Then he uses the stones to destroy the stones so that no one else is tempted to undo his work. The film briefly mulls the thorny ethical question as it shows a beleaguered planet slowly coming to life versus the deadly price paid for it. This was not unlike all those dolphins returning to the canals of Venice videos when the world ground to a halt during the covid-19 pandemic.
Of course, superheroes might die but the franchise cannot. So in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, Thanos’ actions are reversed with a bit of handy time travel and the dead come to life. But a Reddit subgroup /r/thanosdidnothingwrong remained to remind us that not everyone disagreed with Thanos’ motives even if they could not support his methods. It all led to The Atlantic calling Thanos “an unexpectedly resonant monster, filled with sadness and even a perverse sense of honour”.
At a time when the Doomsday Clock points to 90 seconds to midnight, we are rapidly running out of time (and heroes). It has almost become trite to say the clock is the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. But the ticking Doomsday Clock is not a story that lends itself to a summer movie because ultimately the end of the world could come not because of megalomaniacal villains with dreams of domination but just because we simply used it up.
We could literally run out of world.
Unless some bureaucratic aliens just destroy it first to make way for a hyperspace bypass.
But if it can be saved, it will require all nations to do their bit, not just a few select guardians of this galaxy. Robert Oppenheimer himself said, “The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.”
But that’s not a quote of his that most of us choose to remember.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He tweets @sandipr.