The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t always followed the comics its stories pull from beat for beat, but the original stories are good enough that years and often decades later, these stories can be adapted to the big screen without losing crucial elements. Sometimes, though, things have to change. Avengers: Infinity War introduced us to Thanos for real, and one crucial change made him a much more interesting character than his comic-book counterpart.
We’re going to be going into spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War and the original “Infinity Gauntlet” storyline below, so don’t scroll past this gallery if you haven’t seen the film or care about spoilers.
Marvel has, since almost the beginning of the MCU, had a major villain problem. There are a few great ones, but a lot of the villains, like Yellow Jacket, Whiplash, and Aldrich Killian, have just sucked. That’s not such a big deal when the heroes are such strong characters. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Hela was boring, but it’s one of my favorite Marvel movies. But this was my biggest worry, perhaps, going into Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos had to be good for this massive two-parter to work. I was pleased coming out of the movie to see that the writers had taken important parts from the original Infinity Gauntlet series in the comics without slavishly reproducing every element.
In the comics, Thanos is kind of a dork. A dangerously powerful one, but a dork none the less. His main motivator is – wait for it – his quest to impress a girl. See, Thanos (whose very name sounds like the Greek personification of death, Thanatos) has it bad for Death. The female personification, not the concept. Things get weird the further you get out into Marvel’s cosmos. Death resurrects Thanos to help balance the universe out by killing half of all life, but Thanos falls in love with her. Accomplishing his given quest becomes secondary to impressing a woman who clearly has zero interest in him.
The story ultimately becomes about a cluelessly-obsessed character trying like a relentless suitor-turned-stalker to impress the target of his affections.
The MCU might sound big when you count up how many hours of film are out there, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of pages the Marvel comics had preceding Infinity Gauntlet. The MCU hasn’t had the time or interest in characters like Death, and they had to dig into Thanos to find his motivation, and this helps turn him into an interesting character that we can really follow along with.
He’s got a point, you know
Thanos’ drive comes from inside. His story starts kind of like that of Superman’s home world, Krypton. He watched his world die even as he cried out to save it. This drove the Titan mad, and he embarked on a quest to save the rest of the universe from the fate suffered by his planet. We see this in action in a flashback to Thanos’ first meeting with a young Gamora on her home planet of Zen-Whoberi. While Thanos distracts the child he’s found, his soldiers kill, quite literally, half of the people on the planet. Thanos says later on that the people still alive on the planet are well-fed and live in a clean, utopian world because he did what they could not to save their world from imminent destruction.
Instead of trying to impress a woman, Thanos is doing something he believes in to the core of his being, something he wants. It’s his burden to bear, and one he bears with pride.
Like the best Marvel villains, we can understand his point, even if we can see how twisted it is. The same way Vulture’s struggle to support his family made sense in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Killmonger’s point about the treatment of black people outside Wakanda rung true in Black Panther, this makes sense. Overpopulation is a real problem. If half of us suddenly disappeared, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that those left might find an easier life awaiting them after the memory of the events fade.
With the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos can do this all at once. He’s worked for decades to accomplish his goal, and the literal snap of a finger brings an end to his quest. Our last look at Thanos shows a tired man resting, relieved of his burden. We watched him sacrifice the few things important to him to accomplish his goal, and he did it.
Thanos’ confidence and utter faith in his mission made him believable. He wasn’t a mustache-twirling idiot like Yellowjacket, or a sad, scary murderer like his comic incarnation. He’s a man on a mission. A meticulous planner, a dangerous warrior, a charismatic leader, and a rock-steady zealot.
This, more than any one aspect of the movie, makes Avengers: Infinity War work, and it shows what a good job the writers and producers have done of picking the parts of these stories that still work while filling in gaps with details that make sense.
As we go into the still-unnamed Avengers 4, we’re getting ready to watch these characters we’ve grown to love go into a deadly battle with the highest possible stakes, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Thanos himself than I could’ve hoped after a decade of build up.
Avengers: Infinity War is in theaters now, and Avengers 4 hits on May 3, 2019.