Rhodri Davies: Are Marvel's Avengers just modern-day philanthropists?

Avengers: Endgame looks set to be a box-office record breaker. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe could also be a go-to place for insights about modern philanthropy (no spoilers for the latest film)

Rhodri Davies
Rhodri Davies

Despite an appetite for stories based on real-life characters and the amazing tales to be found in the history of philanthropy, we are still waiting for the great philanthropic biopic. And where fictional philanthropists do occur, they either play the part of an inexplicably wealthy outsider who is contrived to assist plots with a far-fetched premise – think Jurassic Park’s John Hammond or SR Hadden in Contact – or a handy villain whose feigned altruism is supposed to alert us to the fact they are up to no good, such as Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor.

But Marvel might just have changed all that.

Bad money begs redemption

One of the big questions philanthropists face is whether the good they do through giving outweighs any harm they might have done when creating their wealth in the first place – or, indeed, whether charity can be used as a means of gaining redemption from morally dubious acts.

For charities, this also raises thorny issues about whether it is better to take "tainted donations" in order to turn them to good ends, or to refuse them in order to remain morally pure. This question has made headlines recently with the controversy over the philanthropy of the Sackler family amid the US’s opioid crisis, which resulted in the family’s foundation halting all new grants in the UK.

In the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is at first unapologetic about his family’s arms manufacturing business. But then a series of life-changing events lead him to renounce his former ways and devote his life to the public good. Like many philanthropists, he sees this as a way of making up for past sins, albeit by means of dressing up in a cool futuristic suit.

But the question is: are his efforts as a superhero (or, indeed, his philanthropy) enough to counterbalance the harm of his arms manufacturing?

Place vs identity

In Black Panther, T’Challa is the superhero ruler of the technologically advanced and resource-rich kingdom of Wakanda. He is challenged for the throne by his cousin, Erik Killmonger, who accuses him of taking an isolationist attitude and putting the needs of Wakanda over those of oppressed fellow black people around the world.

This tension between geographic identity and identity based on race or shared culture raises big questions for philanthropy. The old saying that "charity begins at home" has been used and abused throughout history, but it is certainly true that we are seeing a renewed focus on place-based approaches to philanthropy.

Yet technology is also opening up new means of communication and organisation, creating communities of shared identity or purpose that cut across any traditional geographic lines. One has only to look at the success of the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter to see this in action.

For philanthropy, will it be the place-based approach of T’Challa or the identity-based approach of Killmonger that prevails? Is there a balance between the two out there?

Effective altruism

Effective Altruism is a movement that seeks to place philanthropy on a purely rational footing by encouraging donors to make choices based not on emotion, but on an objective assessment of how to do the most good with the money.

It has developed a keen following in some quarters, but has also attracted a fair amount of criticism, including the idea that it is too narrow an understanding of philanthropy and can lead to unintended consequences if results-based giving becomes the be-all and end-all.

In the previous Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos uses the powers he gains by capturing all six infinity stones to eliminate half of all life in the universe. Intriguingly, he doesn’t do this just to be evil: instead, he rationalises that this is the only way to rebalance population levels and ensure there are sufficient resources for the remaining half of life-forms to live free from suffering and want.

This (admittedly extreme) example positions Thanos as an "effective altruist" and raises questions about the trade-offs that we would be willing to make in order to address huge global challenges such as climate change, overpopulation and inequality.

Avengers: Endgame might not be the stuff of doctoral theses just yet (and my ticket probably won’t count as an actual expense!), but it does show that if you are willing to scratch just a little bit below the surface, the Marvel universe raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions when it comes to charity.

Food for thought alongside the popcorn.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation

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