Favorite Fictional Characters, #369: Thanos
Updated: Feb 20, 2022
For several years, the sole argument of any merit leveled by DC partisans against the juggernaut artistic and financial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the relative paucity of compelling screen villains other than Loki. Personally I thought Ultron was fine, and Jeff Bridges' Iron Monger was bombastic fun, but I see the point. Part of the problem was that the best Marvel super-baddies were being ruined by other studies (see Magneto, Doom, Dark Phoenix, Galactus, the Spider-Man brotherhood of the miserable), part was the focus on heroes with internal narrative arcs not drawn solely in contrast to a central antagonist. (Aside: the best on-screen portrayal of a Marvel villain is almost inarguably Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin in the Daredevil Netflix series. I will not debate this.)
The arrival of Thanos rendered the whole discussion moot. This was the nasty customer you'd been waiting for, the purple Titan who chewed up the stage and fellow performers in a bravura performance by Josh Brolin, kinetic and mesmerizing despite the heavy dose of CGI. (See, Apocalypse? It can be done.) This Thanos had clear motivations, if twisted, and the sheer power to tackle Earth's mightiest heroes. Heck, he beat them. Only a random rat in a self-storage unit and a one-in-14 million longshot snatched the victory away from him.
This was the rare example of a cinematic character succeeding wildly despite marked departures from the original comic version. Usually, fidelity to the core identity of the character is the recipe for greatness. This Thanos differs from his pulp progenitor in ways small and large. For one, MCU Thanos is calm, collected, calculating, confident. Inevitable. His madness is that of the sociopath. The comic Thanos is far more passionate, more explosive, more dynamic. His madness is megalomanical rather than Manichean. Screen Thanos seeks to bring balance to the universe through semi-genocide, driven by a skewed sense of administrative justice. Book Thanos - and here is the real difference - snaps his fingers not to achieve some strategic outcome, but to impress a reluctant lover. The Thanos of the comics has a godhood complex, but more importantly an insatiable lust for the personification of Death. She spurns him even as he collects the Infinity Stones to accumulate sufficient power to be her equal (because bling), and so he decides to wipe out half of all life in the universe not as some unwanted benefactor, but as a box of chocolates.
I kind of like MCU Thanos better. He's the Mike Pence Thanos, while the book version is Donald Trump Thanos. Book Thanos is driven by id and lust and narcissism, while screen Thanos seeks to visit his self-righteous Randian interpretation of the universe onto the rest of us. One is theatrically horrifying, the other more sinister and more terrifying because it wears the cloak of reason.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire decade-plus of the MCU comes at the tail end of Endgame, when Iron Man has snapped things back and Thanos knows he's been beat. Rather than rave or rant or monologue, he sits down and waits for the final curtain. When destiny meets desperation, sometimes desperation wins. There was a quiet dignity to Thanos in that moment, a would-be god taken down by the mere mortals that should have been worshiping instead of opposing him. Part of the journey, it seems, is the end.