Not Today: Thanos, The Night King, and Cultural Nihilism

If you somehow didn’t guess from the title, this article is going to have spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones S8E3, “The Long Night.” You’ve been warned. With that out of the way, today I’m going to be looking at two of the most fascinating examples of nihilism in the culture- Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Night King (and more broadly, the White Walkers and Wights) from Game of Thrones. It’s going to be beneficial to have read The Desert of Nihilism and the Throne of God before this one. Along the way, we’re going to touch on how the Avengers are the new Greek pantheon, the fact that the Lord of Light (R’hllor) represents the force of life, and that both shows are notable for being centered around fighting nihilism as the core theme.

Let’s get it.

We’re going to start with Avengers. The overarching MCU storyline is fascinating because it bucks the trend of the normal superhero plot- in most of the movies, you have some random villain who wants either power, money, revenge, or some combination of them. (A handful are genuinely evil, although modern trends tend to attempt to humanize evil characters.) These are normal stories, and they’re easy to digest- we can all relate to the concepts at play, because everyone has at one point thought about power, riches, and vengeance. However, Thanos’ motivations are wholly different- unlike Ronan (Guardians I) or Dormammu (Dr. Strange), he’s not maliciously evil.

No, Thanos isn’t out to torture people, and he’s not seeking any sort of power or wealth, as evidenced by the simple life he adopts after Infinity War. This is what makes him so supremely menacing- he is a man of absolute conviction, who genuinely believes that what he’s doing is right. Now, aside from the fact that the general idea of his plan is pretty dumb (probably the largest plot hole in the series is “why doesn’t Thanos just make more resources instead of less people”), there is some sort of sick logic to the whole thing.

See, in the modern world, there are plenty of people who think that human life is a bad thing. From anti-natalists (people who are against having kids) to extremist environmentalists (who think that human life is less valuable than plant life- I’m looking at you, vegans) and a number of other strange fringe groups, there’s a growing number of people who, in one way or another, think that the world would be better without humans. Now, if an individual thinks the world would be better without themself, they’re suicidal, and if they think the world would be better without others, they’re homicidal, assuming either acts on it. By the same token, we have to understand that these different groups with their anti-human philosophies are really some mixture of the two- they’re anti-life.

That’s where Thanos comes in, and partially why I’m so astounded by their use of him as the ultimate bad guy. The name Thanos almost certainly comes from the Greek word Thanatos, which means Death. (Side note, in the comics, Thanos’ goal is to kill half the universe to impress Mistress Death, which is a pretty lame motive in my book.) I’m going to argue that Thanos represents the same anti-life philosophies I mentioned earlier. He wants things to be controlled, but the move towards freedom is a fundamental aspect of life and the living. Control, as well as predictability, is against the very force of life itself.

I think that one of the reasons that superhero movies are so popular is that we’ve essentially resurrected the Greek pantheon of gods, albeit with a few modifications. Let’s imagine that all of the Marvel characters are personifications of specific values or concepts, just like Ares is the personification of war in Greek mythology.

The newest “god” is Iron Man. Iron Man represents the “deification” of the rational faculty of man (perhaps the Logos as well, due to the sacrificial aspect in Endgame), because it’s Tony Stark’s mind that makes him a hero, not any natural strength or actual superpower. We see Tony make mistakes throughout the series, representing the capacity for reason to hold itself above suspicion, but he always finds a way to fix things.

Next, we have Captain America. This is another really fascinating one for a few reasons. Steve Rogers starts as a weakling, and again, via science, is made into something more. However, his defining quality is his virtuous set of ethics, which is why he was selected. This is also a pretty profound idea, because it represents something like the inscription on the Statue of Liberty-

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Because Steve is virtuous, he embodies the essence of America, the first nation founded on principles and not power (as in kingship). By these virtues and American ingenuity (interestingly enough, via Tony’s father), he becomes something greater- he’s the human representation of the American Dream (which he basically gets to live out at the conclusion of Endgame).

So we have reason and Americanism as gods in the pantheon, who is next? Black Widow represents the femme fatale, the life-taking power of the Hindu deity Kali. The Hulk is a counterpoint to Iron Man- the uncontrolled destruction of technology gone wild, although in Endgame we have Professor Hulk, who is more or less the ideal man balanced in body and mind.

Thor probably represents the traditional masculine hero in some way or another, and the transition from him in the early movies as a hardcore warrior to a fat guy and the comic relief is likely some reflection of shifting opinions towards the old masculine ideals, or the decline of the modern man.

Ant-Man is the trickster-thief hero, who, while kind of a dumb everyman, is clever and crafty. Notable that the central plan in Endgame is the “time heist,” because it’s this cleverness that allows the heroes to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and conditions.

Hawkeye is probably the lingering deification of the hunter, and I think his broad unpopularity as being pretty useless is representative of this. (Compare to Katniss in The Hunger Games as Artemis, goddess of the hunt.) He also represents the most primitive man, the use of simple tools and extreme skill that made Man superior to all other predators.

War Machine is likely the embodiment of the military-industrial complex, like the intersection of Captain America and Iron Man, minus the virtuous part. He’s honestly pretty redundant, in my opinion, but my argument is that these characters are embodiments of significant cultural forces, so we get what exists, not necessarily what we want.

Scarlet Witch is another weak character that probably represents the lingering belief in the purely supernatural, which is interesting when contrasted with Dr. Strange. Where SW is just magic “because reasons,” Strange had to actively learn and train, and as such represents the power of the mystic traditions. It’s an interesting dynamic, and probably explains why I like the good Doctor and can’t stand Scarlet Witch.

Captain Marvel (specifically the MCU version here) is interesting for a few reasons. One, I think she was really poorly cast, so a lot of people’s complaints probably have to do more with that than the actual characterization. She seems to be the product of the culture’s changing attitudes towards the feminine. One theory that I’ve had is that our culture is actually attempting to produce a proper feminine equivalent to the Hero’s Journey (which is basically male [watch Highlander and tell me that’s not the most pure masculine wish fulfillment possible]) and generate not comic book heroes but a living female hero in the world. I also think we’re not yet sure what that looks like, and Captain Marvel is a good example of that. She’s pretty one dimensional, and feels clunky, which is rare considering the overall quality of the MCU.

I could keep going, but that covers the main cast of Endgame, so you probably get the point by now. I may do a larger article exploring this in more depth later.

Now, when we look at the whole story in this lens, we see that this isn’t just a fight between superheroes and a bad guy, it’s a conceptual conflict between Reason and Americanism (and some of the other prominent values and concepts) against the embodiment of Nihilism itself, Thanos.

As I outlined in The Desert of Nihilism, this is the overarching conflict in the world today, and it’s a testament to how well the MCU has mirrored this in their films that they are as popular as they are. We’re desperately searching for a solution to the loss of meaning, and the MCU has provided a halfway-solution by giving us a new cast of gods to worship- the temple is the cinema. As I’ve said before, we ritualize things before we internalize them, and I think these movies are exactly that- we’re reaffirming what we believe in, we’re creating this dynamic where vastly different conceptual figures all unite and come together. Reason and the mystical, black and white, masculine and feminine- all of these various elements of the modern world have to unite under one banner to fight the ultimate threat.

On that note, let’s segue into Game of Thrones.

First off, despite being literally dark as hell (I could barely see what was going on for the first half of the episode), The Long Night had to be one of the best GoT episodes of all time.

Alright, now that I got that out of my system, let’s dive in.

Unlike the MCU, GoT has a long track record of being extremely pessimistic- most of the traditional heroic figures in the show died long ago, and for the majority of the show, the successful characters who survived all tended to be Machiavellian political types. Even Sansa had to learn to play the Game. However, in the last season or two, they’ve started to move in the direction of having more good things happen than bad things. Whether or not that’s another George R.R. Martin bait-and-switch remains to be seen, but if it holds out, it’s another overarching story that represents the fight with nihilism.

For much of the show, we basically get political conflicts and the resulting military actions taken. I think this is representative of America’s obsession with bullshit political theater, but I won’t go too far into that. However, at a certain point, Jon Snow (now Targaryen) realizes that the real threat is the White Walkers, and that everyone is too distracted by their power games and infighting to see the real threat (nihilism).

We can hit some really basic symbolism here. Fire is a symbol for life (energy), ice is a symbol for death (entropy), and obviously the series is originally called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The eternally silent Night King is not only death incarnate, but the heat-death of the universe, the cold that comes when life expires. His army is undead, but not like traditional brainless zombies in other media- they’re slaves to his will, the fallen soldiers of life turned against their former cause. He represents the deep meaning of the myths, forgotten- the world stopped believing in the White Walkers, just like our world forgot the meaning of the old myths.

On that note, let’s look at the major deities in GoT.

First, we have the Old Gods- these are worshipped in the North, but they’re basically gone. They represent the mythic era of human history, which we can never return to. Next, we have the New Gods (the Seven), worshipped in the rest of the seven kingdoms- they are the more human-centric values adopted in the modern age, and they’re almost certainly impotent (because they didn’t do anything to stop Cersei from blowing their temple all the way to hell.)

The most important here is R’hllor, the Lord of Light (who the Red Priests and Priestesses serve). He is symbolized by fire, and as I mentioned, fire here equals life. His enemy (ostensibly the Night King) is the Great Other, the god of ice and death. I’d love to make this more complicated but I think that these figures really represent the most central principles of the universe- energy and entropy, which are intimately related to life and death.

Avengers focuses more on the human elements of Nihilism (Thanos is a conscious actor who wants to balance the world), while GoT instead focuses on the struggle of life itself against the cold death of an indifferent universe. The Night King basically has no motivation, and is calm, steady, and relentless.

The other notable difference is that the defeat of Thanos was the end goal of the MCU, but in GoT, there is still politics and infighting to return to. If I were to extrapolate from that, I’d say that Game of Thrones’ overarching plot is closer to the plight of the individual, and Avengers is more the struggle of society. Where the Avengers have to join forces to defeat the negative cultural elements of nihilism, in Game of Thrones, the story is much more about the living choosing to fight on the side of life at any cost (hence the massive casualties of the battle with the Night King).

There are a few takeaways from this article. First, it’s essential to be able to look beneath the stories that the culture provides to us to decipher the underlying themes- pop culture is the mythology of our times. Second, despite the overwhelming negativity that we see in the modern world, the stories that underlie our mythology are extremely positive, and they point to the fact that we will fight for life and meaning, and that these life-affirming values resonate with a large portion of the population. There is yet good in the world.


“What do we say to the God of Death?”

Not today.

Originally Published as: