Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War
With Thanos Marvel has created a complex and compelling villain worthy of his enormous role in the latest Avengers film. This is no small feat considering the MCU has long struggled to accomplish that with their bad guys in much more intimate films. So what made the Mad Titan such an interesting and nuanced character that has resonated so strongly with audiences? Thanos has something in common with the MCU’s other best baddies: he’s so close to being a hero.
Search Google for “what makes a great villain” and you’ll find thousands of essays and videos saying the key is making sure they have the proper motivation. Sure, give your evil person a real reason for what they are doing, preferably with some backstory so we know why they feel this way, and you’ll have a compelling antagonist and a better story. But that advice applies for any important character, good or evil. It’s like saying the key to a great house is a strong foundation. Yeah, you definitely, absolutely need that, but it doesn’t guarantee your home will be the best on the block. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith from Thor: The Dark World is the worst bad guy in the entire MCU, and his motivation was clear: return the universe to the darkness his people once ruled. That doesn’t save Malekith from being totally lame.
Just because a villain has backstory or motivation doesn’t automatically constitute a substantive character. There’s no grand plan for building a great villain, no template or checklist to use as a guide. They all work for their own reasons–consider Heath Ledger’s Joker and that all we know about his “why” is that he wants to watch the world burn. So what is it specifically about Thanos that makes him connect with audiences on a deeper level? It’s the same thing he has in common with the MCU’s other best bad guys.
Thanos cares about something bigger than himself. He doesn’t want power for power’s sake, or to achieve something that will lead to him being honored and revered; he wants to fix a real and horrible problem in the universe. Thanos saw firsthand on his own planet what happens when civilization recklessly exceeds its own limits. He saw it coming and was powerless to stop it, which is why he’s convinced he must help stop it from happening again. That should be the backstory of a hero, the kind who bravely stands against the evil forces who would rather let people die than do the right thing. His motivations are clear, understandable, and theoretically noble. Most beings would rule the galaxy if they got all six Infinity Stones, but Thanos wants to use them to fix its woes, even in his own horribly misguided way. And as we saw when he sacrificed Gamora, he does feel pain, but he will shoulder the personal cost of doing the right thing because he’s not as important as everyone else.
All of that makes him empathetic, which is why we connect with him. We see his point of view and understand that something must be done.
But Thanos is certainly not a good guy, he’s a villain. Not because of the “why” but because of the “what.” His noble cause leads him to monstrous, indefensible acts. He invades planets who haven’t asked for help and murders its people, insisting he knows better than they do. He tears families and communities apart, leaving the “survivors” behind to live in a world of pain and loss. The cost of his noble plans doesn’t matter, only the results. Machiavelli would be proud–that is if he survived the snap of Thanos’ finger.
We’re so close to rooting for Thanos, if he could just see the error of his ways. “Snap your fingers and create more food! Make more planets! Make people less selfish! Do anything else!” But his ego and his personal experiences blind him.
Bu it’s the knowledge he’s not really all that different from the people we root for that makes us more emotionally invested in his story, even while we root against him. This is the same thing he has in common with the two great MCU villains before him, Loki and Killmonger. If only Loki used his brain and ambition for good, he would have been a great man his whole life. And Killmonger’s righteous desire to free his oppressed people made it so we’re still not sure if him or T’Challa were correct, that is until he elected to wage war across the planet which would have led to even more death and suffering.
If it were easy to create a great villain every MCU movie would have one. If it were as simple as casting great actors money would always be the answer. If there were some grand formula, every film would follow it. But there’s not one. The answer to why Thanos–and every other memorable villain–is unique to him. And with the Mad Titan it comes down to the fact we can see he’s so close to being a great hero. And we hate him for not realizing that.
What do you think? Why is Thanos a great villain? Tell us why in the comments below.