Thanos: Thicc Boy With A Thick Skull
Written Review by David Carter
I think we talk about the quality of Marvel Cinematic Universe villains so much because they tend to vary so widely in quality in ways that pre-MCU movies didn’t. The chasm in quality between Darren Cross and Erik Killmonger is so wide that you could almost fit Avengers: Infinity War’s opening weekend box office gross inside of it. This is to say that within the more well-respected superhero franchises there were always standouts among the legion of fiends that crossed paths with our heroes, but you also had some consistency and some interesting choices. Sure, Nicholson’s Joker will always be the highlight of Burton’s Batman movies but Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and DeVito’s Penguin will always occupy that same space in my mind. Dafoe’s Green Goblin is untouchable but Molina’s Doc Ock, and Topher Grace’s Venom are interestingly performed and written in their own right. With Marvel, sometimes you get villains who want nothing more than a shiny MacGuffin that will grant them vaguely/broadly defined power, with a thin motivation stickered on to them to hide that there’s nothing going on under the surface.
Boy howdy does pre-Infinity War Thanos check all of those boxes.
When Thanos showed up in the mid-credits sequence of The Avengers you probably had the same experience as I did in the theater; a bunch of sweaty nerds gasping and immediately explaining who the smiling purple man was to people who have better things to do with their lives (I was one of these sweaty nerds, but I just nodded and waited until some asked who he was. Didn’t want to look TOO desperate). The reason for this excitement was because Thanos is a character that signaled that these movies may eventually exit the world of streamlined sci-fi and grounded magic (remember, Thor is originally accredited as being from an advanced alien civilization where their genetic makeup and weapons are just advanced technology) to full-on space opera complete with universe wide battles and team-ups between disparate characters and the physical manifestations of abstract concepts of Eternity, Infinity, and yes Death itself. It also signaled the arrival of a villain who was essentially an unstoppable force. Thanos the Mad Titan within Marvel Comics is an interesting character. He’s known for his ability to flawlessly carry out a plan (like say gathering up all of the Infinity Stones and the universe and deleting half the population of sentient life) only for his downfall to be a combination of hubris and imposter syndrome. He essentially succeeds only for the strands to unravel after a given amount of time. He’s also known for his crush on the living embodiment of Death who takes on a female form. The only reason Thanos even wipes out half of the universe is to impress her so she’ll smooch him. What a lot of people fail to mention about this aspect of the “Infinity Gauntlet” comic, is that Death rejects Thano’s advances or grand romantic gestures. Hell, most of the destruction he causes comes from the devastating rage waves he sends out into the universe when he throws a tantrum. By the end of his reign as cosmic ruler, he has imprisoned her along with the other cosmic entities and created an ideal woman in his image with no autonomy to speak of. Whether Jim Starlin and George Perez meant to or not, they created one of the best mainstream depictions of toxic male entitlement. To put it succinctly: Thanos was a galactic Incel.
But adaption is tricky and requires for you to make some tough decisions when translating to the big screen. Splash page worthy universes collided in Civil War but only amongst the more grounded characters. You got your space opera in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor films but outside of Ego The Living Planet, no Celestials or cosmic beings were seen (I still hold out hope that at least Eternity will pop up in a Dr. Strange film someday). These movies, while finally embracing the fantastical, still remained somewhat grounded. This meant that Thanos’ motives had to change. These movies were never going to drop in a wholly unexplained character like Death in the culmination of their 10-year project. Honestly, after Joss Whedon stepped down as the showrunner for the MCU ( I think he would have gone full force into the Death angle. The guy likes stories about emotionally abusive dudes getting beat down by women and misfits) I don’t think anyone at Marvel knew exactly what to do with the character that fit this more grounded approach.
I mentioned earlier that pre-Infinity War Thanos was nothing but a mustache-twirling McGuffin hunter because whenever he popped his head into these movies it was always just to smirk and posture. The most character development we ever got out of him was when Gomorrah would describe him to the other Guardians, or when she hashed out her feeling about their abusive father with Nebula. Those descriptions to me always leaned closer to comic characterization. It very much came as a surprise to me when the Thanos we got in Infinity War was a stoic and suffering headstrong nihilist with a plan in line with the beliefs of a British political economist.
Thanos’ entire modus operandi within Infinity War is the balance of all things, almost to the point where you wonder if his true offscreen origin is that he fell into a radioactive vat of scales. He believes that the universe as a whole is suffering because it is finite but the number of living organisms keeps multiplying. He comes to this conclusion because his homeworld of Titan refused to heed his warnings and crumbled underneath the weight of its population (or so we are told). He wants the Infinity Stones to balance the universe by eliminating half of all life in existence. He goes about doing this in the most burdened and righteous manner possible, because he believes with all his soul this is the right solution and any other way is just half measures. What’s interesting about the way the film executes his journey is by making him the main character. He’s a sociopath, sure but by making him the main character and giving him a traditional arc, you are put in a position as an audience member to sympathize with him on some level.
And when I say traditional arc, I mean a decently dedicated following of a hero’s journey narrative. We don’t see his crossing of a threshold, or meeting of mentor but he tells us about his refusal of the call. We see his road of trials, literally going up against a whole gaggle of supers and collecting a new tool to further his journey (like some big beefy Megaman). We see him face an ordeal which costs him so much but is rewarded handsomely. We have his second act low point and then a complete rebirth in which he comes out victorious in a way. Even the ending plays this as a triumph for him, as he watches the sunset on a job well done and a rest well earned. It’s an ingenious way to structure a movie with a cast of characters in the 20’s and build a character who was essentially a blank slate. The heroes are the army of henchmen and the villain is on a journey. Even certain heroes exist as cracked mirrors for Thano’s to see parts of himself in (all that’s missing is one of them saying “we’re not so different, you and I”).
This is all wonderful and great, but there’s one big problem with Thanos; his plan sucks and is bad. I know I’m not the first person to point this out and I won’t be the last, but even outside of the logical corner The Infinity Gauntlet puts the writer in (it can literally do anything, including make an infinite number of resources for the universe) Thanos’ plan is born out of a conservative, and misguided idea that the overpopulation is 100% the reason why the planet is falling apart and there isn’t enough to go around. He believes by dispassionately selecting people at random to become unstuck in existence it will free up all those plump resources. Problem solved, right? No! Because randomly selecting 50% of a population or ecosystem of organisms will just throw everything off balance and into chaos. What if that 50% consisted of 80% of all the doctors or farmers in the universe? Or it only took 2% of the people who own 99% of all the resources on any given planet? Yeah, that’s another problem with this philosophy, it assumes that all societal systems are inherently balanced, which is strange for a villain whose whole deal is the very concept of balance. This whole idea is seemingly (no one to my knowledge has spoken on it) inspired by the writings of Thomas Malthus who believed that in order for there to be enough food and land to go around, we would need to slow down population growth abstinence, especially among the poor. These ideas were written in the 18th century (pre-Industrial Revolution) so he couldn’t have predicted that modes of production would increase exponentially, but the ugliness in the idea is the same. In order to protect ourselves (the rich and/or powerful), there needs to be less of those other people. Obviously, this is not what Thanos outright says or even alludes to, but the self-preservational nature core of it exists. His planet didn’t listen to his warnings, so now he must get in everyone else’s business.
You say “David, this is what any good villain’s plan looks like! Something that sounds good on paper and maybe partially in practice, but is ultimately short-sighted and bad.” To an extent you would be correct. Thanos is a sociopath who is at some point in the film, also in deep grief. His plan isn’t supposed to be sympathetic. Hell, Marvel’s last villain Killmonger certainly made some waves with his plan that a large group of people in the real world agreed with (even if they didn’t look deeper into the text of what the movie was trying to say) but where Marvel and the creatives behind Infinity War really goofed up, was when they decided to tell the audience that his plan works. At one point in the film when he meets Lil’ Gomorra we see him enacting this plan on her planet. Later in the film when she confronts him about it, he says that people on her world are happier and more well fed than they’ve ever been. Now since we never see her planet at this point, this is could be a lie to validate his blind ambition. However, he’s never once given the audience any reason to believe that he’s anything but honest, even with someone he wants to sway. By giving his garbage plan power the Russo brothers (the directors of the film) have effectively taken any complexity out of play with the character. He is a sociopath and his narrow minded drive is validated, which is the opposite of what you do with your main character. You have to twist the screws and make them question everything about themselves and the world around them. Even something as blunt as someone pointing out the very idea of the things that I’ve written here, just for lip service. Maybe that’s what we have in store for “Next time on Infinity War” but then the ingenious structure is incomplete and incohesive.
I’m never one for these movies to be 100% comics accurate. I actually enjoy the remixing and subverting of characters and plot lines (Iron Man 3 anyone?), but I can’t help but wonder if the original motivation may have been the best one to go with. Not even just given how cool it would have been to see Marvel tackle something as topical as male entitlement (that’s a large part of it though) but to have Death actually be in a movie that’s essentially about the inevitability and soul-crushing notion of “the end.” Everyone going into this movie already wants to know who beefs it, why not make that subtext physicalized text? It’s better than a man who looks calm and collected on the surface but whose reasoning is fundamentally tipped in the wrong direction. So much for balance.