By Nadia Maunsell
Like the majority of Australians this month, I went to see the final instalment in the Avengers cache, mainly to experience a sense of closure and to fulfil my responsibility in witnessing the grand ending to one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time.
What I discovered while listening to cosmic super-villain and symbolically brutal ‘conquistador’ Thanos, was that his rhetoric was uncomfortably familiar.
The catastrophic genocide he proposes, which then he enacts by wiping out the population of the universe, is not unlike the successful conquests of the Western leaders who systematically murdered and dispossessed First Nations landowners. Unlike our history, the revolutionaries in Avengers who fight back against almost-certain annihilation are not Indigenous leaders and protectors of the land, but rather a mostly-white crew of all-star American men and the cosmic female equivalent of a fail-safe.
The irony of the immense popularity of this film is that it tells a familiar story of domination and acquisition, except instead of being the perpetrators, white people are the victims. Then the victors. The same cannot be said for Indigenous people in the early frontier wars fighting against foreign invaders. Comedian Dulce Sloan convincingly says that the reason white people are so afraid of space is because they have learned, from their own actions, that extra-terrestrial beings have the threatening potential to conquer.
Hollywood movies continually invent disasters and enemies in space in order to emphasise the vulnerability of humanity, a trend which the Avengers franchise perpetuates. And it seems to be working. Avengers had the biggest opening weekend in global box office history with $1.7 billion in ticket sales. However, there has been an active effort in recent years to focus on the positive opportunity of space exploration to provide a more permanent solution to global issues, such as climate change and overpopulation, particularly with the influence of American institutions NASA and SpaceX. Vice-President Mike Pence galvanised the movement to Americanise space in March by ensuring political support for NASA.
“Make no mistake about it — we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher…the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay.” – Mike Pence
Ridley Scott’s 2015 film ‘The Martian’ proposed a fictional version of a scientific eventuality where NASA predicts humans will be able to survive and cultivate life on the planet Mars in the 2030s. Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched its first spaceship built to fly astronauts this year, the first step in their plan to send people to populate Mars. The conceptualisation of the ‘new space frontier’ is problematic not only because of the vernacular, but also because of the unresolved consequences of colonisation that have played out on every continent on Earth.
We haven’t learned from our mistakes.
As private companies and governmental space agencies rush to claim land rights on Mars, there is a similar struggle playing out in the heart of settled Australia. Indian mining giant Adani is attempting to usurp the land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people in order to establish the largest mine in the Southern Hemisphere. Never mind that Australia is signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, or that the mine will have a potentially devastating effect on the world’s largest collection of coral reefs. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council have specifically and unequivocally said that they reject the Adani mine. Despite the lack of Indigenous consent to use their land, the Adani company has continued unabated. During his time as Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott consistently supported the Adani mine despite the damaging impacts of coal mining on the lives of Indigenous people.
“Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.” – Tony Abbott
History shows us that the merciless extraction of natural resources at the expense of human livelihoods is a common consequence of colonisation and often the purpose for doing so. Perhaps unknowingly, Avengers Endgame depicts this in Thanos’ acquisition of the Infinity stones, which provide him limitless power in exchange for the sacrifice of others’ lives. The added advantage they give him as he collects each one symbolically mirrors how mining corporations acquire wealth more easily as they exploit new territory.
As more films about space and technology are disseminated into popular culture and lauded by critics, it is crucial that we recognise the values that are being promoted and the people who are being excluded. Conversations about representation of ethnic and gender diversity only scratch the surface.
Perhaps one person who knew this better than anyone else was African-American science fiction author Octavia Butler. Her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower predicts the reactions of poor, disenfranchised Americans to ecological devastation in 2024. In lieu of seeking employment with a private company forcing citizens into debt slavery, protagonist Lauren retains hope that one day her group of followers will travel to space. Butler’s reconceptualisation of space ensures that it remains accessible, even to those on the outskirts of society.
It is not enough to talk about the dispossession of Indigenous people and culture within a vacuum, when the systems of colonialism extend from the economy and entertainment industry to the advancement of science in space. The corporate interests which have guided and privileged ‘western’ values for so long continue to threaten our ability to genuinely empathise with and uphold the concerns of Indigenous groups. Without reconciling the damage done by colonisation in the past and present, we are beholden to powerful corporations such as Marvel and SpaceX imagining the future for us.