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Thanos is a Terrible Villain

Thanos in Invinity War


I was worried about Thanos before Infinity War came out, primarily because I thought his motivation as stated sounded stupid. I was right.

I don’t know what the reaction to the character set up for ten years to be Marvel’s biggest bad is like in your pockets of the Internet, but in mine, it’s been rage, disgust, and disappointment. The derisive sneers about “grape-flavored Joss Whedon”—in reference to Thanos’ CGI appearance—have only grown louder since the movie. I haven’t encountered Thanos fans or defenders, though I did see a guy in a Thanos t-shirt asleep on the train the night Infinity War came out, which was a nice visual metaphor for my feelings where Thanos are concerned.

There’s a couple of reasons for the Thanos backlash from my perspective. First of all, as I’d anticipated, his plan just flat-out does not make sense. It ignores the most basic concepts of economics and sustainability, and all we have to go on that a sudden drastic reduction in population eases the burden on resources and turns planets that lost half their people into “a paradise” is Thanos’ word on that. He is an unreliable narrator, to say the least.

Not once does Thanos attempt to address the causes behind resource deprivation, nor seem to consider what happens to a world traumatically denied so many people at random. Thanos thinks that he’s right and that’s all that matters to Thanos. I stand by my assertion that his desire in the comics to impress Lady Death by assembling the Gauntlet and killing so many for her sake is actually a far more compelling reason to do what he does: we understand romance as a motivator, even the courting of Death.

This may be a comic book movie, but I expect the villain to have a stronger reason for doing what they do than “I got made fun of when I said we should murder half my planet at random and now I’m gonna just go for it, everywhere.” Thanos is a giant walking purple ball of thwarted self-styled “genius” that lashes out in violence when he is not shown respect he’s sure he should be accorded.

But it’s even worse to try and pass Thanos off as some kind of brooding Malthusian philosopher who fancies himself a savior—this does the audience a disservice. He’s not sympathetic or “understandable” and we don’t find ourselves “empathizing” with him as the Russo brothers suggested. He’s a maniac with a God complex. It’s dangerous to suggest otherwise, but Infinity War sure tries.

Beyond the fallacies of his grand plan and motivation, much of the fan anger I’ve seen emerge about Thanos’ actions revolves around just who falls victim to them onscreen, and how. Women are the target of his most intimate forms of violence, and at the same time their suffering is meant to humanize him.

He murders his daughter Gamora after professing that he loves her, then spends the rest of the movie moping about it. Poor Thanos! So sad for him to have thrown his daughter off a cliff like that in his pursuit of destroying half the universe’s population. That always gets me down too.

Let’s do a brief thought exercise. Imagine that the scene between Thanos, Nebula, and Gamora took place in a non-superhero movie. A father straight-up tortures one of his daughters nearly to death in an attempt to extract information from his other daughter, who cares about her sister’s welfare. Unwilling to see her sister suffer, the daughter gives her father the information that he needs. Then he throws her off of a cliff. Can you imagine anyone responding to Thanos acting this way in, say, a spy movie, with “wow, what a smart and sympathetic villain”? No. What I’ve described is only fit for a horror film.

Characters of color (Sam Wilson, T’Challa, Nick Fury), as well as out-of-this-world characters played by actors of color (Mantis, Drax, Groot, Gamora) are overwhelmingly affected by the Gauntlet on-screen, or straight-up slaughtered (Heimdall, probably the Collector). A queer-coded character, Loki, who is canonically LGBTQIA and gender fluid in the comics, is subject to a gruesome strangulation at Thanos’ hands.

By the end of Infinity War, the core white Avengers—Steve, Thor, Natasha, Bruce, and Tony—are the only major players left behind to save the world. Okoye and Rhodey are there as the well, which at current leaves exactly two living heroes of color in the MCU as we know it, and neither of them is a lead. Many fans emerged from the movie upset that this would be the setup moving forward into Avengers 4. And they’re angry to see so many of MCU’s diverse characters fall victim to one dude’s manpain that is not even grounded in a motivation that makes any kind of sense.

Thanos likely considers his many genocides to be unbiased because they happen at random: he’s not actively rounding up all of the members of one group and slaughtering them based on some characteristic. He’s an equal-opportunity butcher. But the fact remains that the people we most see removed from positions of heroism in Infinity War are people of color and women, and that’s a troubling element of a film that features so much diversity.

A truly great villain should be grounded in a backstory that elicits the audience’s sympathy and furthers our understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s why Erik Killmonger vaulted over so many Marvel movie villains that came before. You might not have agreed with the violent tactics he wanted to employ, but you knew precisely why he wanted to do so, and why he had come to believe as he did. Can you imagine people wearing “Thanos was right” t-shirts?

I’ve long loved villains, and I was willing to give Thanos the benefit of the doubt going into Infinity War, especially after how much his extensive screentime and supposed richness of character was played up. But I can find nothing to love about Thanos, and much that is unsettling to laud. If anything, he’s rendered even more monstrous by the attempt to make him sympathetic, as his personal pain is the result of his own horrifying actions. “I lost everything I claim to love because I killed it myself just to prove that I know I’m right about environmental sustainability” doesn’t quite fit on a t-shirt.

(image: Marvel Studios)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.