*Spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe below*
Thanos. A villain ten years in the making, with a lead-up of over 20 films before he finally appeared in a back-to-back clash with Earth’s mightiest heroes. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos became the ultimate victor, decimating half of the Avengers with a simple click of his finger (while rocking six powerful Infinity Stones, a metal gauntlet and the guilt of tossing his daughter off a cliff). When he subsequently appeared in the sequel, Avengers: Endgame (disappointingly not called Avengers: Avenged), the beaten-down team of superheroes search him out before a grief-ridden Thor beheads the Titan in one flailing sweep of his axe. Then comes the final 2 hours and 30 minutes of the film, where time travel – cinema’s magical ability to warp science for narrative purpose – and a whole lot of convoluted backtracking sets the Avengers to face off against Thanos one last time, and hold off doom for another couple of movies. Jokes aside, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is legendary for its craftsmanship and the set-up for Thanos helped make him become – bold claim here – one of the greatest movie villains we’ve ever seen.
From his origin story up to his final moments, the Thanos we see on screen is fundamentally the same and yet different across both Infinity War and Endgame. It is this difference that makes his victory in Infinity War almost feel deserved. Harbouring an extremely warped sense of utilitarianism – undergoing sacrifice and setting out to achieve something that vaguely resembles a ‘good’ outcome – is it possible that the Mad Titan’s quest to save half the universe from a similar fate his planet suffered means that he isn’t such the villain but more an ambiguous, self-appointed kind of hero, one that is willing to make a call that no one else makes? Is the Thanos of Infinity War somewhat justified in his goal and actions, and if so, what changes in Endgame make him no longer deserving of a defence?
Much of this justification could come from Thanos’ backstory. This isn’t the backstory of him amassing an alien army, travelling from planet to planet and, in a cult-like manner, wiping out half of all its inhabitants to save the other half (in one case, adopting one of these people as his ‘daughter’). Rather, the backstory we’re interested in predates this, centred on the events that occurred on his home planet Titan. Depicted as a thriving, advanced society, Titan’s biggest failure was its inability to come to a solution when its population grew out of control and food resources failed to meet demand. Its citizens starved to death and the planet fell to ruin. As bleak as it sounds, Earth has finite space and resources to make food too and, as population exponentially increases, demand will raise until one day it cannot be met. In Infinity War, Thanos advocates his solution: genocide. With an indiscriminate culling of half the population, Thanos recognises a potential chance for his planet – one that saves half of those he loves, instead of condemning all of them to death. This works in humanising Thanos because his motives are driven by a desire for the universe to survive, which in turn blurs the line between the distinction of hero and villain. Unlike Hela, Dormammu or Ronan the Accuser, Thanos isn’t driven by desires of world domination or complete annihilation. Thanos seeks to save the universe from destruction by erasing half of its inhabitants, so that its other half may thrive.
It sounds absurd. It sounds like a justification for genocide, which of course is never justifiable, and yet audiences have glimpsed a sense of logic in Thanos’ ideas. Ultimately, they establish him as a villain unlike any other seen in the MCU. He hasn’t got the binary distinction of being wholly ‘evil’, because his goal is geared not around him but the universe’s survival. In Infinity War, he is simultaneously fighting to save half of the universe while destroying the other half. While the acts of slaughter on display give him no moral high ground, his goal starts to exert an extreme quandary of whether the ends justify the means. Boiling it down to its simplest form, as if Thanos is designed to ask audiences a moral question: is it better to save one person, or let two people die? As Infinity War draws to a close, Thanos wins, erasing half of the universe with a snap that only Beyoncé could match, and it isn’t clear-cut enough to say Infinity War lets evil prevail but, instead, that its heroes fail to hold off what they deem as a threat. In a sense, Thanos is essentially the main character in Infinity War – the plot revolves around him in a way that the audience is constantly confronted with his vision and his warnings over continuing at the present rate of population growth.
It’s important to note, however, that the Thanos in Infinity War isn’t the same Titan we see in Endgame. His attitudes toward saving the universe become undone in the face of failure. Thinking back to the Thanos that asks us whether it is better to save one life rather than none, Endgame sees Thanos adopt a new mentality that the universe must, in fact, be purged of all its memory, a goal only achievable by starting anew. Where his previous motivations were to pre-emptively prevent the death of all living beings, this all becomes undone when he seeks to wipe everyone out in order to start the universe in a way he deems its survival is ensured. He no longer fights for the survival of the indiscriminate half but for complete chaos and destruction, and with that aligning himself with the more traditional ‘evil’ villains of the MCU. In the end, his defeat feels timely in Endgame because he has lost any sense of moral alignment that the audience may have felt towards him while watching Infinity War.
Thanos is complex. He is not a straightforward villain that audiences can automatically view as inherently evil. The character’s motivations are complex, his view for the universe profoundly pessimistic and based on the assumption that it will eventually face the same issues that his home planet did. While it’s undeniably true that his logic is faulty (the Infinity Stones helped create the universe, so why can’t they bloody make more of it?), Thanos as a villain is such an accomplished MCU character because he sets out with a goal to save lives and not destroy them – or rule over subjects, something that other villains in the universe have milked a bit too much in the past. Thanos is an evolution of the nuance a villain can present, and, in Josh Brolin’s killer portrayal of the character, so darn charismatic that it’s hard to shrug off his ideals.
Watch the trailer for Avengers: Endgame below: