Thanos is coming.
The hype around the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film is at a fever pitch. The release of the full trailer, as well as the announcement that Marvel/Disney moved the movie’s domestic release date up a week so that it premieres world-wide on the same day, preempting the effects of spoilers or cam copies which may flood the net, has fans scrambling to buy tickets for opening weekend. Black Panther generated huge advance sales that helped garner the film an incredible $202 Million opening weekend. Though it’s hard to predict accurately, reports suggest that early sales for the Avengers film are tracking even higher.
The main concern fans have expressed is that the film’s enormous cast may detract from its narrative flow. Can the Russo brothers produce a coherent film that features dozens of characters, each with their own story-line? The directors have dropped several hints suggesting they’ve found a solution to this seemingly unavoidable problem. To avoid sacrificing a clear through-line following the multiple story threads of the individual heroes, they will instead focus the story around the main antagonist, Thanos.
The character has been lurking in the background since popping up in a post-credits scene in the first Avengers film in 2012. He took a more active role in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and his actions indirectly led to the formation of the space-faring team. His pursuit of the Infinity Stones, the MacGuffin at the heart of various MCU films, has propelled several subplots in the overarching story the films form. Now, it’s time for Thanos to step into the foreground. The Russo’s have as much as confirmed it, as has Josh Brolin, the actor portraying the character. Putting the villain front and center marks a significant departure from previous comic book films.
Reviewers consistently criticize the MCU films for not featuring memorable antagonists. Dozens of “Why does Marvel have a Villain problem?” videos proliferate on the internet. Every aspiring critic weighs in on their roster of forgettable, unremarkable bad guys, seemingly taken from an assembly line without any clear motivation or characterization included in their creation.
Recent entries featured better efforts. Both Killmonger from Black Panther and the Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming are nuanced characters who elevated proceedings beyond limited genre tropes. Nevertheless, as compelling as these portrayals were, neither film focused primarily on its antagonist. Avenger: Infinity War is a Thanos story, even though the superhero team takes top billing.
So who is Thanos, and why should fans care?
Thanos’ first appearance in comics was in Iron Man #55, in 1973. Jim Starlin conceived him as an homage to a character created by Jack Kirby for DC—though not the one most aficionados assume. Starlin was a fan of Kirby’s New Gods, and his initial designs borrowed from the character Metron, the explorer who took a neutral position in the war between the good and evil gods of New Genesis and Apokolips. Upon seeing Starlin’s drawings, writer Roy Thomas suggested he beef up the character’s physique and model him closely along the lines of the more visually arresting and narratively interesting Darkseid, the lord of Apokolips.
The character wasn’t an instant sensation. Since his introduction, Thanos’ back-story has taken several twists and turns through various series and crossovers. Some writers have altered and retconned major details to distinguish his place in the greater Marvel Comics universe. When “The Mad Titan” took center stage in the company-wide event The Infinity Gauntlet, the series that superficially inspired the upcoming film, Starlin portrayed him as a lovelorn lunatic, seeking to impress the embodiment of death by killing half the living beings in the universe.
The story played up Thanos’ nihilistic aspects. Rather than power-mad, he was truly death-obsessed—death being an attractive, enigmatically silent woman in Starlin’s portrayal. Marvel’s efforts to redeem the character, make him a “good” bad guy, have alternated with those to portray him as the most frightening being in their comics universe, sometimes in the very same story. By the end of The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos had chosen to live out his solitary days as a humble farmer.
Jason Aaron set out to provide a decisive origin for the character in his 2013 miniseries, Thanos Rising. The story revolves around Thanos’ quest to alternatively understand and reject his true self, his love of death and destruction, and callous amorality. Although the plot featured several appalling scenes, it didn’t illuminate the character’s motivations beyond his pursuit of self-knowledge. Throughout the story, Thanos interacts and bonds with an odd girl who grows to adulthood alongside him. She is his only confidante, and she urges him on towards increasingly more disturbing acts of depravity in his search for self-knowledge.
Eventually, she reveals herself as the personification of death itself—yet it is unclear if she even exists at all, as Aaron suggests only Thanos can see her. Though likely unintentional, the implication is that despite his incredible intellect and unshakeable will, Thanos required something as ordinary as an excuse for what he did, so he projected one. Aaron’s portrayal of Thanos’ development diminishes the character. Initially, simply an eccentric boy deprived of a mother’s love, Death’s influence warps him into a serial killer. He ultimately evolves into a mass murderer on a global scale. When it’s revealed that the manipulation is a hallucination, the reader is left without any insight into the character beyond that he’s crazy. In the series’ ambivalent last panel, Thanos strides off alone, possibly hearing a voice he may or may not believe to be real.
The premise reflects an issue society struggles with; we are always shocked to learn that the most ordinary people among us perpetrate monstrous or shocking acts. However, Thanos doesn’t work when he’s portrayed as a mundanely evil character. It isn’t simply the scale of what he does, that should differentiate him. The majority of fans say that what they love most about Thanos is his relentlessness. By focusing solely on his madness, an enigma that defies explanation, a writer sacrifices the reader’s understanding of the character.
Recent comments from the filmmakers suggest they’re operating from the concept that, like all the greatest villains, Thanos considers himself the good guy. Though he wants to wipe out half of all existence, he believes it’s the only way to ensure the universe’s survival, so he’s justified doing it. He won’t be a caricature power-hungry conqueror, lacking any coherent motivation; he thinks he’s a savior. We’re likely to get a very different back-story than the comics have portrayed.
Despite being a villain, Thanos has been the main protagonist of several comics, with varying degrees of success. Now he’s going to be the central character in the final chapter of the most popular serial story in cinematic history. Kevin Feige et al have gotten so much right in these films over the last ten years, learning and improving as they’ve gone along; they aren’t likely to mess this one up. They know everything is now riding on the Mad Titan’s shoulders.