And, unlike many of Marvel’s villains, Thanos lives up to expectations. The Mad Titan is the gravest threat the universe has ever faced, but he is also an actual character fighting for a purpose he believes in, even if that purpose is ultimately… mad.
But a few things changed as Thanos made his way from the comic page to the cinema screen, leading one to wonder, is this really the same Thanos at all?
The answer, as with all things Thanos, is complicated and full of nuance.
From Thanos’ earliest comic appearances, he sought power not for his own ends, but because he was in love with Death and wished to serve her better. (Not death as a general concept, but the actual manifestation of Death, one of the Marvel Universe’s cosmic entities.) Initially he did this by causing death on a grand scale through traditional means like putting a team together and murdering a bunch of people.
The problem was that while Death certainly seemed to like having someone commit on those murders on her behalf, she didn’t really reciprocate Thanos’s love. So his ambitions got a bit grander: if he could assemble the right tools, then he could cause death on a truly cosmic scale, and maybe finally become worthy of Death’s love.
And so, Thanos decided to collect the six Infinity Gems (then known collectively as the Soul Gems).
Thanos actually did this twice. The first time, he didn’t really understand what the Gems were, and simply thought they were a cosmic power source he could utilize in his plan to wipe out all stars (and all life) in the Milky Way galaxy. That plan didn’t work out so well, and ended with Thanos himself dead.
But, Thanos was always more useful to Death when he was alive, so she eventually brought him back and gave him a new mission. According to Death, more creatures were alive across the universe than had ever died. This threatened to create massive cosmic imbalance, threatening the existence of life everywhere. And, if life ceased to exist, then so would Death. So Death tasked Thanos with fixing the cosmic imbalance by wiping out half of all life in the universe. Thanos happily agreed, ultimately settling on his plan to assemble the Infinity Stones and ascend to godhood.
The classic take on Thanos is thus someone who certainly revels in death, but is also a man who is trying to fulfill a specific task given him by the woman he loves and of whom he is trying to be worthy. He is a villain, but also a chivalrous knight on a quest for a token for his lady love, which makes him all the more dangerous and unstoppable.
The MCU Thanos, on the other hand, drops entirely the Mad Titan’s love of death, either as an entity or a concept. Instead, he is refigured as a man who watched his home planet burn after he warned its leaders about an impending catastrophe, only for them to ignore him. Not wanting the same thing to repeat on other planets, Thanos becomes a sort of Space Utilitarian, and takes it upon himself to wipe out half of all life on each planet he encounters to ensure that those who remain can live lives of bounty, rather than squalor. Genocide in the name of avoiding the Malthusian trap, if you will.
This isn’t a bad change, per se, though it does fundamentally shift who the character is. Thanos’s end goals are more understandable and human—he wants to avoid anyone ever having to go through the specific trauma he went through before—but his methods are, if anything, even more insane. Wiping out half of all life in the universe might solve a specific problem, but at immense cost in trauma and destabilization for those left behind. Imagine how difficult it would be for any government, business, or family to function with half of its members immediately snuffed out of existence, but then multiply that by a universal scale.
Making Thanos a Space Utilitarian also denies him his one non-self-centered emotional connection. Thanos’s love of Death humanized him, while also distancing him in some ways from the decision to wipe out half the universe in the Infinity Gauntlet comic series. It made the plot Death’s and not his, even if he was the one who ultimately snapped his fingers.
Without Death there pushing for, well, death, one wonders why Thanos can’t think of a better, a more utilitarian, use for the Infinity Stones. Instead of clenching his fists and creating a universe of plenty—essentially recreating the industrial revolution that helped humanity escape Thomas Malthus’s doomsday predictions—he goes through with his initial plan. It’s a spectacular lack of vision by Thanos.
It’s also oddly reminiscent of another work by Thanos’s creator, comics legend Jim Starlin. Starlin filtered his disillusionment with the pointlessness of the Vietnam War into his Metamorphosis Odyssey, in which the last member of a dying race decides the only way to stop an evil alien empire from conquering the Milky Way Galaxy is to destroy the galaxy entirely. The story was inspired in part by the remark made by an unnamed US officer about the destruction of the village of Bến Tre during the height of the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
In Thanos’s mind, it became necessary to destroy the universe in order to save it. Or, at least half of it.
Do you think the MCU Thanos was true to comics origins? Let us know in the comments!
Images: Marvel Comics, Marvel Studios