The MCU has been building up to Thanos for a while, but did Infinity War succeed in making him a fearsome villain worthy of the franchise?
Last year, as the hype for this year’s Avengers: Infinity War began to build, we had many questions about the future of the MCU, especially when it came to its villains. In a previous article, I explored the different approaches both Marvel and DC had taken to heroes and villains, and asked: Can Avengers: Infinity War and Justice League fix Marvel and DC’s villain problem?
It was important for both franchises to step up their game as they tried to develop into something more than just a collection of good characters with a following. DC tried and failed to make Justice League poignant with Steppenwolf as a villain — or perhaps they didn’t try at all; Steppenwolf, if anything, was even emptier a villain than any the DC movies or the MCU have seen. In the meantime, Marvel succeeded in creating its best villain yet: Black Panther’s Killmonger.
Killmonger was an effective villain because he had a much more nuanced and powerful motivation than just “defeat the heroes.” His motivations were believable, even relatable — and his reasoning was so logical that he actually persuaded T’Challa to share his point of view (though applying vastly different means). His story was a powerful tragedy, and perhaps the strongest part of Black Panther — a big difference from the MCU’s usual villains, who tend to be the weakest part of every film.
But of course, Killmonger’s villainy was confined to the small world of Wakanda — at most, the Earth. For Infinity War, which Marvel has been advertising for years as the ultimate Marvel film that will bring together the 18 films released since 2007, a new villain had to be introduced: and he absolutely had to be the most well-crafted and terrifying one of them all.
In a series of movies with such a vast number of villains and an even larger cast of heroes, making a truly threatening villain is no small challenge. Comic book readers may have been excited to see Thanos, but many of us were wary of what would happen — with Infinity War hinging almost solely on Thanos’ success as a character, his presence could make it or break it.
Spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War below!
And wow, did they succeed. Infinity War is not a perfect movie, but considering its scope and the million ways it could have gone terribly wrong, the fact that it managed to create a truly impactful story deserves to be commended. And the writers certainly didn’t pull any punches when it came to making Thanos a fearful figure.
From the start, Thanos is an unforgiving presence. In a series of films that has often given the heroes victory after victory despite impossible odds, the death of two main characters (and many more off-screen) within the first few minutes of the film gave us the shock of realizing that the characters really are at risk now. Trapped between mourning over Loki and Heimdall, and fear for the characters (whose deaths we have been speculating about for years), the audience is cleansed of experienced skepticism and finally fully vulnerable to the fear of Thanos and what he can do.
A big criticism of Infinity War has been its fixation on Thanos as a character. Some have said that Marvel was trying to make him a sympathetic figure, almost relatable, which made them uncomfortable. But it’s important to realize that it’s that relatability — the discomfort of seeing something reasonable, even sympathetic, inside violence — that makes it all the more disturbing.
If Thanos had merely been a murderous monster, caring about nothing and enjoying violence, he would be no different from all the other villains of the past. But this Thanos loves Gamora, protects her from seeing violence, isn’t necessarily cruel (just very effective at killing) and has an almost objective, reasoned confidence in his mission of genocide. These traits — love, kindness, common sense — are things that we admire in heroes and in ourselves, which is why they are so uncomfortable to recognize in villains.
But if we expect bad people to be thoroughly evil, it’s easy to underestimate the power of good traits channeled towards evil ends. Thanos is effective because he is sometimes kind and very often logical. He is scary because there are parts of him that we recognize: he is a father, a leader, even someone worthy of respect. And that makes his abuse of that power and respect, his violation of our trust as an audience and his brutality towards his children and the characters we love, all the more transgressive.
It is sad that the prevalence of Thanos’ story in Infinity War took away from the valuable screen time of our heroes. But the entire film was a gamble from the start, anyway, and it’s refreshing to see something different take place in this film. The MCU is finally branching out in many different ways, and turning their stories into something more than formulaic. And yes, formulaic was fun and comfortable — but the impact of Thanos in the Avengers’ story is fascinating.
For a franchise so often dedicated to developing the Avengers’ own characters at the expense of more profound villain character development, Thanos is an excellent addition. And however his presence in Infinity War made you feel, it’s indisputable that he constitutes an important evolution for the MCU, and perhaps signals good things to come.
(Now, if we can have all our dead characters back please…)