Updated: Jun 14
Climate enthusiasts, assemble! The MCU is changing the way we view climate fiction.
Released in December 2021, the film Spider-Man: No Way Home made us go down memory lane of the many past Spidey movies. Our favourite Marvel superhero, the (eco-)friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, has often been seen caring for animals and avoiding damage to the environment during fights even as he shoots his webs through New York City. You must be wondering—why am I mentioning this. It is because the MCU, like much media today, has started to discuss climate change and climate solutions within storylines. What remains to be seen is the approach taken in this discourse, and the effect it can or should have.
In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Dr Otto Octavius is found to be obsessed with fusion energy. One of his famous quotes while handling the core of a fusion reactor is "The power of the sun, in the palm of my hand". In Spider-Man: No Way Home, he is seen holding a Tony Stark-designed arc reactor in his hand. This arc reactor previously appeared in The Avengers, where the Stark Tower becomes a “beacon of self-sustaining clean energy”. Nuclear fusion as a reality is also depicted in the movie Iron Man 2.
While talking of clean energy is all well and good, Marvel’s depictions can raise eyebrows on whether showcasing distant, unproven technology as a decarbonisation tool can actually be helpful when readily available and reliable renewable energy sources (solar, wind, hydro, and more) can provide similar value. Giving viewers the false impression of the essentiality of far-off solutions may arguably be considered unproductive to the cause of discussing clean energy.
(Also Read: 2022: The year of clean, green and lean tech)
Put under a realistic, 2022-grounded lens, MCU fiction seems to have no good solutions for climate change. The 'overpopulation as a cause of devastation' narrative portrayed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War creates a distorted image as well. Morals aside, it has pushed many into wondering if the villain Thanos did anything wrong at all by wiping out half the population of the universe to create a world free of suffering.
Overpopulation has regularly been blamed for the social and environmental problems we face today. However, you will be surprised to know that the climate effects of overpopulation are exaggerated in the global context. Overpopulation can never be an issue for climate change, resource depletion, or world hunger once one considers the inequitable distribution of power and access to resources. Interestingly, research at Yale-NUS College by Schneider-Mayerson et al. (2020) suggests that well-intentioned climate fiction may reinforce ecofascism sentiments in real readers, where ecofascism is defined as the argument that minority groups, primarily due to lack of birth control, are the cause of environmental damage and climate change.
(Also Read: Do fewer people guarantee a greener planet?)
The controversial concept of overpopulation has been used by western countries as a justification for poverty and for imposing population control policies in the Global South. Evident in history, this signifies that poorer countries do not have too many people using up resources, but that richer countries exhaust more resources than they need to. Ecofascism being inherently colonial in nature points to the same problem.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million [sic] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”
Building on the overpopulation concept, the Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier goes into the geopolitics of a world where, for five years, 50% of the population had been ‘blipped’ away by Thanos. Borders in this new world were open and immigration-friendly, but when the full population strength returned, previously accepted immigrants were expelled. Many people lost their jobs and terrorists known as the Flag Smashers emerged. These terrorists rebelled against the idea that five years of their life, where they had transitioned between countries and created a new life for themselves, were suddenly being reset. Undoubtedly, in this case, Thanos was proven right. The return of the blipped-away population would have certainly caused sudden additional energy demand, or public health issues as well.
As for climate change itself: the MCU depicts it as a series of horrific apocalyptic natural disasters. The Disney+ show Loki is climate-centred, especially in episodes 2 and 3 of Season 1. As Loki and Agent Morbius search for a fugitive variant hiding in apocalyptic moments (alternate versions of the God Loki himself) in the past, they witness various natural disasters.
Morbius lists all the happenings in the 2040s as a direct result of climate change, "God, it’s just one damn thing after another, isn’t it? Cyclones, famine, volcanoes, floods."
Loki mentions quickly, thoughtlessly, that "it’s not the climate disaster of 2048 or the tsunami of 2051. The extinction of the swallow, is that a thing?" Mobius responds that, like the endangerment and extinction of many of our needed animals, it is very much a thing, and "it completely ruined the ecosystem."
Eventually, Loki and his variant escape a capitalist dystopia (Alabama in 2050) to arrive at a fictional apocalypse. Here, the moon Lamentis-1 is about to be crushed by a planet, and an ark awaits to evacuate its population. This brings to notice the intersectionality of climate catastrophes. It becomes clear that only the wealthy are going to be given board on the ark, and riots occur outside its gates. Marginalized communities, often the lowest contributors to environmental damage, are most likely to be severely affected in case of crisis as compared to others. Tribals, farmers, women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and so on are always the first to suffer due to climate change despite having little culpability.
All is not bleak, however. In the most recently released Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Strange and America Chavez happen upon a parallel universe where (mild spoilers ahead) New York City’s building facades are entirely covered in moss, leaves, and flowers. The aesthetic is reminiscent of the solarpunk genre of art, defined as “a movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability, human impact on the environment, climate change, and pollution”. This movement is the antithesis of cyberpunk, prominent for decades in mainstream media for depicting dystopian futures a la Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ready Player One, and more.
Arguably, Doctor Strange walking around in a solarpunk New York City is Marvel breaking new ground. However, it could be argued that the movie could have gone a step further, even mentioning in passing the sustainability of this parallel world. Marvel, with surprisingly nuanced scriptwriting already on intersectional climate justice, has the potential to spark important conversations on the crisis through its fiction. After all, several of its stories are essentially showing us what it really means to be human in a constantly evolving world. How is living through a changing climate—both literally and politically—any different?
(Also Read: Movies that Got Disasters Wrong)
Isha K. ( 2022, January 8). #2: Looking Up from a Marvel-lous month. Climate in Fiction.
Terasaki K. (2019, September 3). The True Villainy of Fictional Eco-Terrorists. The Mary Sue.
Anonymous (n.d.). Which superheroes are the most eco-friendly?. Save on Energy.