Can Marvel Get Thanos Right?
I am deeply skeptical of Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
My skepticism comes from three places. The first is the simple, indisputable fact that Marvel has had a real problem creating strong villains. While Loki is excellent and The Red Skull was pretty good, most of the other villains have ranged from iffy to downright terrible (hi, Malekith). One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Captain America: Civil War is that it’s obviously not as villain-oriented as other Marvel films, which means that if Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo sucks we’ll still have Steve vs Tony to tide us over. I don’t think the lackluster villains have ruined the Marvel films thus far, but there’s no question that the movies would have been much, much better with much, much better villains.
The second reason for my skepticism is that Marvel doesn’t seem to have gotten Thanos right yet. Sure, he’s only made small appearances, but most of those appearances don’t work. His best bit was at the end of The Avengers, as he smiled when told that challenging The Avengers would be ‘courting death itself.’ For newbies this just made him seem fearless, but fans know that in the comics Thanos is actually in love with Death, and that was a nice little nod. But his appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy stinks, and he’s reduced to an ineffectual blustering doofus. When he pops up at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron he’s almost in a snit, and he sneers ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself,’ which just doesn’t track as the kind of line that the grandiloquent Titan would utter. This is a guy given to monologues, not pithy throwaway lines.
The third reason might be the biggest: Thanos is one of the most difficult villains to bring to life because he operates at such a cosmically operatic scale. His motivations and his methods reach so far beyond the scope of anything that we have yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he could appear absolutely cartoonish. He is, quite simply, one of the weirdest and most bizarrely emo villains of all time.
For those who don’t know, here’s a crash course in Thanos: he’s an Eternal, a godlike evolutionary offshoot of humanity that lives on Saturn’s moon, and he’s one of the few ugly ones. Maybe that’s why he grew up bitter, angry and obsessed with death. That first manifested itself as an urge to power, but eventually he met the actual anthropomorphic embodiment of Death and fell in love with her. I told you this shit was operatic and weird.
Thanos found that Death was a cruel mistress and she sort of friendzoned him very early on. Desperate to win her love he assembled the Infinity Gems in order to give himself almost complete control of the universe and he used their power to kill half of all life. All life, everywhere. Every other being simply became dead in the blink of an eye (or snap of a finger, in this case). That caught the attention first of Earth’s superheroes, all of whom were killed trying to stop him, and eventually all of the big cosmic beings, the embodiments of metaphysical concepts like Eternity and The In-Betweener and Lord Chaos and The Living Tribunal and Love and Hate. He defeated all of them as well and left his body and became God.
Thanos had gone that route before, and every time he was winning he ended up getting undercut by his own arrogance or self-doubt. In the Infinity Gauntlet story, the defining Thanos tale, he didn’t take into account that his niece Nebula could just take the Gauntlet off his body when he went astral and became God. Previously he had owned an omnipotent Cosmic Cube and threw it away when he thought he had drained it (he hadn’t). Every time he was defeated Thanos was his own undoing, and eventually his enemy Adam Warlock realized the Mad Titan undercut all of his own plans due to self-doubt and anxiety. After all, how dumb would you have to be to leave the ultimate weapon just sitting around when you went fully non-corporeal?
That’s the key to Thanos as a character - he’s always getting in his own way. It’s hard to show that without making him look like a buffoon, and it’s hard to make that self-doubt properly tragic. Thanos is his own worst enemy, and in the end the nihilism that he serves undoes himself, as he believes in nothing, not even Thanos.
How do you even make that work in a movie? One way would be to contrast Thanos’ Death-loving nihilism with the optimism and hope of the Marvel characters. Here is the starkest contrast in fictional history - the bad guy is fighting for literally NOTHING and the heroes are fighting for EVERYTHING. The stakes are high on a cosmic level, but they’re even higher on an emotional and thematic level - can the outgunned superheroes prove that their positivity can defeat Thanos’ overwhelming negativity (well, the answer is no, Thanos’ negativity conquers itself, but it’s all the same)? Coming out of Civil War, with the heroes possibly torn asunder, distrustful and without direction this thematic conflict becomes even deeper, as the good guys must get back to their default position of hope before confronting Thanos’ monstrous nihilism.
I’m not sure what direction Marvel is taking with Infinity War, but I do hope that all of their story meetings start from one place: nailing the character of Thanos. I have to believe that at this point the powers-that-be understand that they haven’t figured him out, and that while Josh Brolin is an interesting choice for the role he’s not quite enough to elevate the Mad Titan to the greatness he deserves (between you and me I would have cast the voice of Reg E. Cathey as Thanos). It’s going to come down to the writing on this one; Thanos needs to get a huge chunk of screentime in Infinity War Part I, an amount of screentime that almost seems counterintuitive. But the reality is that Thanos needs to be as central to everything as all of the Marvel superheroes who will be showing up to fight him, and since Marvel hasn’t been able to define the character in his cameos yet they will need to dedicate feature film real estate to it.
If Marvel can’t get Thanos right, if they end up with yet another generic villain smashing shit up, it will tarnish the entire MCU to date. The build-up will have been for nothing, with the grand finale of the first master plan being a fizzle. Avengers: Infinity War needs to be spectacular, and part of that must come in the form of a villain who is iconic in every way, who stands apart from every villain that we’ve seen before in any other comic book movie, whose threat and whose humanity are equal. It’s a challenge that Marvel has shown to be almost always beyond their grasp over 12 films; while their heroes have been incredible and rich and nuanced they have been unable to match Loki yet. Thanos needs to not match Loki but to blow past him, to be an antagonist on the level of Darth Vader.
Can they do it? I’m skeptical, but there’s plenty of time for them to get it right.