Marvel Comic Universe's Crowing Achievement: Thanos
Here we are. After ten years and nineteen films, Avengers: Infinity War has finally brought us the villain long promised: Thanos, the Mad Titan. Thanos is undeniably the greatest villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, and I’m about to tell you why. But before I do, I have two things to say. Firstly, if you haven’t seen it yet, go out and see Avengers Infinity War. If you are a fan of comic book movies you will absolutely not regret it. Infinity War does the impossible and somehow recaptures the awe and wonder of 2012’s Avengers, something I thought could never be replicated or outdone. This film transcends the medium and feels more like a living comic book than a movie. If you have any interest in comics you owe it to yourself to see this on the big screen. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, if you haven’t seen Infinity War yet, SPOILERS ARE AHEAD. SERIOUSLY. In order to properly illustrate how good of a character Thanos is I have to talk about the movie he comes from extensively. So if you still want to go into the movie unspoiled, go out and see it and come back to this article. Also, if you want my extended thoughts on the film as a whole, you should check out the Nine Weeks Til Sunday podcast on Avengers: Infinity War, run by my talented friend Maya Hanks and featuring the equally awesome Erik McRimmon. Anyway, with all that said, let’s talk about Thanos.
Avengers: Infinity War begins literally minutes after the conclusion of Thor Ragnarok, with Thanos (played by Josh Brolin) invading and taking the Tessaract (AKA the Space Infinity Stone) from Loki before killing both him, Heimdall, and besting the Hulk in physical combat with no aid from the Power Stone he possesses or the Black Order that has accompanied him. He beats Hulk so badly that Bruce Banner can’t transform into him for the rest of the film. Thanos effectively terrified the Hulk into submission all on his own. And in doing so, Thanos immediately cements himself as a threat, and only grows more terrifying as the film progresses. Though the most fascinating thing about Thanos is not his power, but the mind behind it.
One of the biggest problems people have had with the MCU are the villains, and their lack of personality or memorability, save a few like Thor’s Loki or Black Panther’s Killmonger. Many of the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) villains’ motivations have been unclear or bland; they all either want one person dead or some planet destroyed. Very clichéd, and well past overdone at this point. Thanos stands above every previous villain for two reasons: one is that his motivation is unique and clear. Thanos saw his people, on his home planet of Titan, wipe themselves out due to resources dwindling from their surplus population. This was something that could have been prevented, and something that he never wants to happen again. And so, as the last remaining member of his species, he resolves to collect the Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe, to save the other half from befalling the same fate his people did. Now, obviously, this is an insane plan that no one would consider. And yet, this brings me to my second point, and really, it’s what elevates Thanos to my personal number one favorite villain in the MCU.
And that is this simple fact: At no point in Avengers: Infinity War is Thanos a villain.
An antagonist? Absolutely. But a villain? No way. Every despicable, horrible thing that Thanos does in Infinity War is for what he considers to be a greater good. From extinguishing the last of the Asgardians, to torturing Nebula and killing Gamora: none of it is done with malevolence. It is done with pure, unwavering will. Never before has a villain’s mission been portrayed this way. The closest thing we have to this is in Black Panther. In that film, Killmonger’s mission was to liberate his oppressed people around the world using Wakanda’s hyper advanced technology. Considering everything that the African American people have suffered for hundreds of years, this is an understandable mission, and even potentially a sympathetic one. Yet, for all his belief that what he is doing is right, Killmonger still acknowledges that to do this he must commit acts just as evil as those who have oppressed his people to begin with, and he does not care. Conversely, Thanos has no preconceived notions about his actions. Every single thing he is doing is for the betterment of the universe, or at least that’s what he believes. At the end, when Captain America is grappling with him, Thanos looks on him not with anger, but in confusion, as he simply can’t fathom why anyone would try so desperately to stop him when he is clearly in the right. When Thanos stabs Iron Man, and leaves him to bleed out, he takes no joy in it. He speaks to Tony Stark with respect, almost admiration afterwards. When he sees Scarlet Witch in mourning for her love, Vision, Thanos sympathizes with her, having lost a loved one himself that day. Of course, he then reverses time to re-kill Vision, but only so he could take the Mind Stone in his possession. He never wanted to commit such acts of violence, but it was something he simply had to do.
Another huge part of Thanos as a fantastic antagonist comes from his relationship with Gamora. One of two adopted daughters along with Nebula, Gamora was always Thanos’ favorite, but Gamora has always hated him for taking her from her homeworld as a child and slaughtering half of her planet’s population. Still, despite all the resentment and vitriolic hatred she’s spewed at him, Thanos still holds a place in his heart for Gamora. Throughout the film, he speaks of how he always wanted Gamora to follow in his footsteps, and when he learns that Gamora made Star-Lord promise to kill her if Thanos got to her, he made him keep his promise before taking her (though Thanos rendered Star-Lord’s blaster incapable of killing Gamora), making sure he kept his word to her daughter. And, when it’s revealed that Thanos must sacrifice what he loves to gain the Soul Stone, he openly weeps before sacrificing Gamora to the cliffs on the mountains of Vormir. And finally, when the deed is done and Thanos has set his plan in motion, he convenes with a young Gamora, who asks him what his mission cost, to which he replies: “Everything.” Whether this was introspection on Thanos’ part, or some machination of the Infinity Gauntlet itself remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that Thanos is far more complex than any villain we’ve seen, or may see going forward in these Marvel movies. That is what makes Thanos such a compelling antagonist, and why I am chomping at the bit to see the follow up to Infinity War next year. I can’t wait to see more of this Mad Titan.