How to Top Thanos Vol. 2 – Onslaught

The first eleven years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe held twenty-two films all leading up the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s battle with Thanos and his Black Order, as the fate of creation hung in the balance.  It was a story built with patience and care and the conclusion in Avengers: Endgame, while not without faults, was brilliantly crafted.  But the MCU didn’t end there.  No, Phase Four is rolling and one of many questions to consider is…which villain comes next?  Who can possibly follow Thanos??  My guess?  Onslaught.  BOOM.

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As a kid, this guy freaked me out way more than Thanos ever did. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Well, technically Onslaught is my second guess, as the title of this post implies.  My first guess was Annihilus – the Living Death that walks!  (I feel like you need an “!” after a name like Annihilus – the Living Death that Walks!)  I still think Annihilus is a logical choice but I think Onslaught would be as formidable and provide a far better story.  I think he’d be more interesting than Annihilus and I think he’d be more interesting than Thanos was, too.

Created by writers Scott Lobdell and Mark Waid and artist Andy Kubert, Onslaught first appeared in a cameo in X-Man #15 in May of 1996.  His first full appearance would come a month later in X-Men #53.  This monster was the personified perversion of Professor Charles Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants by the anger in Magneto’s heart.  During the 1993 X-Men crossover event “Fatal Attractions,” in X-Men #25, Magneto used his powers to forcibly tear all of the adamantium off Wolverine’s skeleton and pull it out of his body through his pores.  This was Xavier’s breaking point and he – as the most powerful mutant telepath on the planet – used his abilities to wipe his one-time friend’s mind of everything.  It was a hard reboot, leaving Erik Magnus Lehnsherr – once the most feared mutant on the planet – an empty shell of a man with no memories of who he was or the life he lived.  However, what Xavier took from Magneto didn’t disappear.

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The moment Onslaught was conceived. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The hardness in Magneto, forged from watching his family die in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi war machine and fuelled growing up in a world which hated, judged, and persecuted the mutant race of which he was also a part, shaped his belief that humanity would never willingly live in peace with mutantkind.  They must be made to.  This frustration and rage burned through Magneto for much of his adult life and, when Xavier wiped his mind, it imprinted on to his own psyche.  There it grew – an amalgamation of near-limitless abilities of both Xavier and Lehnsherr as well as Lehnsherr’s drives – until it took on a life of its own as Onslaught.

So why is Onslaught a worthy follow-up to Thanos as the next “big bad” of the MCU?

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Onslaught’s appearance kept shifting as he continually changed throughout the story which would be a cool visual in the films. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

First off, practically speaking, he’s an X-Men villain.  Disney spent $71 billion to buy Fox[1] (everything except their train wreck of a “news” network).  A major motivation for that move was gaining the film rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men so they could join the MCU without crafting similar deals as those needed to keep Spidey swinging around with the Avengers.[2]  With that sort of investment, obviously the FF and the X-Men will be major players in the future of the MCU.

It’s easy to forget, as the popularity of the MCU has made the Avengers the center of everything, but when I was a kid reading comics in the ‘80s and ‘90s the Avengers were cool…but they were a B-level comic.  The heart of Marvel – the coolest, most popular, most important characters they had – were Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four.  Now, especially with some of our first generation of MCU heroes moving on after Avengers: Endgame, it makes sense the future of the MCU would be built around them.  And while Onslaught touched almost every corner of the Marvel Universe, the emotional core of the story rested primarily with the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  So Onslaught would make a logical fit for the presumed future shape of the MCU.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

More important, or at least more interesting than the practical side of it, as a character he has the power level to make him a credible threat for the entire MCU – Avengers, Guardians, X-Men, and Fantastic Four alike – while also bringing new dimensions to the narrative that Thanos couldn’t.  If the MCU is to not just continue but continue to be interesting then the story needs to evolve.  Too often films like these – in the fantasy/action genre – fall into the trap of presuming the next threat just has to be more powerful than the previous one.  But who really cares about just seeing increasingly bigger CGI monsters who bring nothing new to the story?

Onslaught is pure, living psionic energy.  (Is “psionic” a common word?  I’m not being sarcastic…sometimes I don’t know if certain words are regularly used outside of comics.  Anyway, if it isn’t, “psionic” refers broadly to psychic powers but in the Marvel Universe it more regularly denotes things like telepathy and telekinesis and all manner of mental abilities.)  The physical monster recognized as Onslaught is the shell in which the energy resides.  Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr are two of the most powerful mutants in the world.  While Onslaught has all of their powers, he doesn’t stop there.

The creature kidnaps Franklin Richards, the son of Sue Storm/the Invisible Woman and Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (who make up the Fantastic Four along with Johnny Storm/the Human Torch and Ben Grimm/the Thing).  Franklin is a five-year-old boy whose own mutant powers make him one of the most powerful telepaths in the world who also has the ability to warp, bend, and change reality at will.

As the gathered heroes lament in The Uncanny X-Men #336, “The merging of Xavier’s unchecked psionic abilities…Magneto’s fury and rage and control over the electro-magnetic spectrum which cloaks the Earth…and the untainted and untamed power of Franklin Richards which is to reshape reality with something less than a thought…are all combined into a single unspeakable act.”  Onslaught seeks to crush all Homo sapiens (humankind) into the dirt to allow Homo superior (mutantkind) to reign supreme.  However, he soon becomes disenfranchised with mutants as well and decides it’s better to wipe out all life on Earth.  Only Onslaught will remain.

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Look at the size of him, too!  Thanos, eat your heart out. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

When I was a kid, I read lots of comic book crossovers.  But there were only two that really left an imprint on me and only two I still regularly think of now as an adult.  The first was “Age of Apocalypse,” the first dystopian story I ever read (and a story for another post).  The second was “Onslaught.”  Going into the crossover it was very clear that the Marvel Universe would never be the same after Onslaught and that this beast would take the lives of many of Earth’s mightiest heroes.  The weight of that was not lost on me who, as a fourteen-year-old, had seen the Marvel heroes triumph over three Infinity-themed battles with Thanos, the Horsemen of Apocalypse, alien invasions, time travel, viruses, and just about anything else you can imagine while always coming through largely unscathed.

Now I know Onslaught was a very Earth-based threat.  He took control of New York City with plans to conquer the entire world.  And Kevin Feige has been open about the future of the MCU being increasingly cosmic.[3]  But Onslaught still fits!  In Cable #35, Cable takes Apocalypse into the Astral Plane to try and free Franklin from Onslaught’s control and bring the monster down in the process.  While there, Apocalypse observes, “Glorious, is it not?  I wonder if Onslaught himself knows of the untold wreckage he brings upon the universe?  How his very existence acts as a syphon, funneling down the collective psionic energy of all living creatures…for his own personal usage.”  This shows, while the battle is localized on Earth, Onslaught is affecting the entire universe.  With only a few clever tweaks in the script, the conflict can easily be more cosmic in scope.

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Onslaught effortlessly pulls Cable and Apocalypse from the Astral Plane as they try to rescue Franklin Richards, trapped within the monster. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

It takes very little work to expand Onslaught’s desire to bring all life on Earth under his heel and/or destroy it to a cosmic scale.  They can do so much – both visually and in the emotional context of the narrative – with Onslaught affecting the fabric of the universe as he pulls more and more psionic energy into his being, growing more powerful and more destructive the whole time.  The final battle with this creature could be on Earth, yet with cosmos-wide consequences, as in Avengers: Endgame.  Or they could set the final battle on some other planet.  Maybe Onslaught begins on Earth, leaves it devastated, and moves on before the MCU heroes come together to stop him.

Most interesting though is the emotional weight Onslaught would carry as a villain.  Think back again on the ten years that led up to Avengers: Infinity War.  All the characters we met, all the relationships that formed, all the adventures we saw them take together – part of what makes the MCU so successful and so engaging is their patience in telling an interconnected story.  They understand you can’t rush the payoff.

Now imagine we are all sitting in the theatre watching Avengers: Infinity War and we realize Thanos isn’t a being in and of himself.  Rather, Thanos is a manifestation of Steve Rogers.  That’s right, Captain America himself is the monster who will cut the Avengers apart and wipe out half of all life in creation with a snap of his fingers.  Can you imagine the emotional gut punch that would bring?  Can you imagine the discomfort and the horror?  That’s what Onslaught is.

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Xavier/Onslaught rips the mystical gem that’s the source of Juggernaught’s power from his chest before summoning the X-Men.  The betrayal begins. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Professor Charles Xavier is the man who formed the X-Men, who brought together a group of young mutants in a school to teach them how to control their abilities.  More than that, he was the one who taught them – and sought to teach the world – to believe the dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants was possible.  When Xavier becomes Onslaught, when Xavier betrays the dream, when Xavier turns on his students and his colleagues…it was a blow unlike anything that had preceded it in the Marvel Universe.

I grant the X-Men aren’t part of the MCU now.  But Kevin Feige and all those brilliant writers who guide and shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe are patient.  They know how to build a long, layered story.  If this next generation plays out over another ten or twelve years, they can certainly build the right emotional power necessary for a betrayal/reveal like Onslaught to work.  Also, while I know James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender aren’t currently thinking of reprising their roles as Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr in the MCU[4]…after seeing what McAvoy did in the X-Men films and in Split I can’t stop imagining how brilliant an Xavier/Onslaught he could create.

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James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier. / Photo Credit – X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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James McAvoy as the Beast. / Photo Credit – Glass

But it’s more than just a friend, mentor, and ally becoming corrupted that makes Onslaught such an interesting option for the next big bad in the MCU.  Onslaught can hit the heroes on a personal level Thanos could never have dreamed of.  As Cable reflects as he battles an Onslaught-controlled Hulk, “Never before have the X-Men or I faced a foe so calculating – who knows our strengths and weaknesses so intimatelyBishop has always spoken of a traitor from within.  It what I suspect is true – if that traitor is who I think it is – then we’re all in a world of trouble!”

This is completely different from Thanos!  This is an enemy from within their ranks, someone who knows their “strengths and weaknesses so intimately” and that creates a whole new type of conflict.  Not only are they fighting a friend but with his psionic powers, Onslaught can turn them against each other.  The threat is on par with Thanos but the emotional stakes are so much higher.  And I think that’s important.  We’ve all seen the Avengers and the Guardians battle Thanos once.  We don’t need to see a recycled version of that conflict with a different villain in Thanos’ place.  Onslaught would make the conflict more personal and more painful.

Also, Onslaught is the perfect big bad to put opposite Captain Marvel.  Any credible threat to the MCU can only come with a villain who’s a credible threat to Carol Danvers.  With Onslaught, we have a character she can trade Earth-shaking punches with all day.  But we also have a character who can get in her head, one who can manipulate her insecurities and weaknesses.  In the comics, on many occasions the heroes believed they were battling Onslaught only to realize he was in their head twisting their perceptions.  They weren’t even around the monster.

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There is so much room for compelling stories here! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As a villain, Onslaught gives Captain Marvel a foe she can cut loose on but also a foe who can essentially take her powers out of the equation by making her “see” a battle in her own mind that she isn’t really engaging in.  Or, to really amp up the emotional toll, can you imagine if Onslaught took control of Captain Marvel?  Carol Danvers is one of the strongest heroes in the Marvel Universe – not just with her powers but with her personality.  So I doubt Onslaught could hold her mind for long.  But can you imagine the psychological blow of Carol taking back control of her mind only to realize she’d hurt or even killed some of her friends?

In the comics, Carol Danvers’ biggest weakness is her own sense of responsibility.  She is the strongest one there is but she is still haunted by all those she couldn’t save, all that she couldn’t stop.  A monster who can get inside her head, exploit those anxieties and guilt, and even mess with her perceptions to cause her to harm those she loves would be a threat unlike any she’d yet faced and one that would leave lasting scars.  This makes for interesting storytelling.  Also, in the comic crossover, Carol Danvers didn’t fight Onslaught.  Black Panther played a minimal role, as did Doctor Strange.  And the Guardians of the Galaxy weren’t even a thing.  So the MCU writers would have so much room to take what was in the comics and forge something distinctly their own.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Lastly, and most superficially (yet it’s still important), Onslaught hijacks of an army of Sentinels to secure his stronghold in Central Park.  The Sentinels are giant robots built for the express purpose of “protecting” humanity from mutants.  But Onslaught uses these machines as his personal army, guarding the city of New York and hunting and killing any being with superpowers who approaches.  So you know what this means don’t you?  They are the PERFECT fodder for a big, third act CGI fight sequence.  When we’re thinking of Marvel movies if we don’t have an idea that lends itself to a big CGI fight scene (causing property damage no city could ever actually recover from in real life) then it’s not going to fly.  The army is massive.  Onslaught has two robots posted on each block throughout NYC.  That’s a lot of fighting and a lot of explosions.

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Spider-Man battles a Sentinel during Onslaught’s invasion of New York.  Now imagine a movie with these allllllllllll over the city…or the WORLD…or THE UNIVERSE.  There would just be sooooo many CGI behemoths to crush. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

So there you have it folks.  Onslaught is my (second) official guess as to the next mega, overarching big bad to threaten the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And if I’m right (and I SO hope I’m right – this would be awesome!), I can come back to this post and be all, “Um, yeah, guess who called it??  Allow me to pretentiously answer my own question – it was me” forever and ever, to anyone who will listen, happily ever after for me!

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Onslaught threatens Nate Grey, the X-Man, a refugee from the dystopian Age of Apocalypse. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But this wasn’t my only idea!  If you’d like to see more ways to top Thanos, here they are:

How to Top Thanos Vol. 1 – Annihilus

 

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[1] Mae Anderson, “Here’s what Disney is – and isn’t – getting for it’s $71 billion buy of Fox,” Chicago Tribune, Published March 20, 2019.  Accessed May 31, 2020.  https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-disney-fox-deal-details-20190320-story.html

[2] Aaron Couch and Borys Kit, “‘Spider-Man’ Shocker: Disney, Sony Striking a Deal for One More Movie,” The Hollywood Reporter, Published September 27, 2019.  Accessed May 31, 2020.  https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/spider-man-shocker-disney-sony-striking-deal-new-movie-1243777

[3] Dani Di Placido, “The Cosmic Future of the Marvel Looks Set To Eclipse ‘Star Wars’,” Forbes, Published May 9, 2019.  Accessed May 31, 2020.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2019/05/09/the-cosmic-future-of-marvel-looks-set-to-eclipse-star-wars/#7183ec9a5330

[4] Tom Nicholson, “Michael Fassbender And James McAvoy Aren’t Even Thinking About Joining The Rest Of The MCU,” Esquire, Published June 6, 2019.  Accessed May 31, 2020.  https://www.esquire.com/uk/latest-news/a27783992/michael-fassbender-and-james-mcavoy-arent-even-thinking-about-joining-the-rest-of-the-mcu/

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