This was a guest piece I wrote back in August of 2018 for a site that no longer exists. I like it and was thinking about Thanos today (I know…dark, right?) so I figured I’d post it here with a few slight edits. Enjoy!
What’s the plural of Thanos? Would it be Thanos? Or Thanoses? Or Thani? I don’t know but I still kind of like the ring of this title anyway so I’m sticking with it. Once Avengers: Infinity War was finally upon us, one of its most discussed features was the character of Thanos. I’ve read many reviews and essays examining the film which make the point Avengers: Infinity War is more a film about Thanos than any of the superheroes, something directors Joe and Anthony Russo have said themselves. What struck me most about Thanos when I first saw Avengers: Infinity War (and has continued to warrant further reflection with each subsequent viewing) is how different his motivations are in the film from the comics.
In the film, we learn Thanos is trying to gather all the Infinity Stones so he can wipe out half of all life in creation. He sees the pain, struggle, and death that comes from too many beings clamoring for their share of all-too-finite resources and he wants to fix this. When his home planet of Titan fell into disarray after they wouldn’t accept his genocidal idea – to randomly and dispassionately kill half the population to save the other half – he took his crusade to the stars himself. With his chosen daughters Gamora and Nebula by his side and his infamous Black Order (Proxima Midnight, Ebony Maw, Corvus Glaive, and Cull Obsidian) helping to carry out his plans, he brought terror and death to the cosmos. They would land on a planet, kill half the population at random, and move on. But while his actions were monstrous his motivations (as he saw them) were noble and he sought the Stones to do this more efficiently and completely. After Thanos takes Gamora from Knowhere in Avengers: Infinity War the conversation he has with her about her home planet Zen-Whoberi is telling:
Gamora – “I was a child when you took me.”
Thanos – “I saved you.”
Gamora – “No…no. We were happy on my home planet.”
Thanos – “Going to bed hungry? Scrounging for scraps? Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that. Do you know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies – it’s a paradise.”
Gamora – “Because you murdered half the planet.”
Thanos – “A small price to pay for salvation.”
Gamora – “You’re insane.”
Thanos – “Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite. It’s resources finite. If life is left unchecked life will cease to exist. It needs correction.”
Gamora – “YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!”
Thanos – “I’m the only one who knows that. At least I’m the only one with the will to act on it.”
Leaving aside the obvious point raised by many fans (if Thanos has the transcendent power of God, which the Infinity Stones grant, he could just create more resources or make people consume less as opposed to killing everything), despite all his death-fuelled machinations, Thanos sees himself as a servant of life. The Russos have cast Josh Brolin’s Mad Titan in a similar vein as Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/the Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger from Black Panther. Thanos is a villain with motivations we can understand and perhaps even support…if his methods weren’t so monstrous. However, in making Thanos a servant of life – seeking to create balance and prosperous growth for all – they fundamentally altered perhaps the most basic principle of the Thanos we find in Marvel Comics. In the comics, Thanos doesn’t seek to serve life. Rather Thanos is a devout servant of death.
In issue #1 of Jim Starlin and George Pérez’s 1991 miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet, which inspired Avengers: Infinity War, it is Death itself that sees, “the fact that there are more people alive today than have ever died [as] a type of cosmic imbalance.” Death resurrects Thanos to correct this imbalance for her and he, in turn, uses the powers she has given him to assemble the Infinity Gems – something Death is not pleased with. Thanos does what he does in more than service to Death though. It’s done in love of Death. As Death turns her back on him for what he’s done he pleads with her, “Darling Mistress, your scorn wounds me deeply. It was never my intention to wrong you nor do I believe I have. True, I did use the powers you granted me to seek out the Infinity Gems to become the Supreme Being that now stands before you. But I only sought such glory in order to be worthy of your love. Your heart deserves better than the thrall I was.”
Thanos proclaims his love, his worship, of Death only to get her silence in return (oof…he got worse than Friend Zoned by Death :8). He builds her a palace – a monumental shrine – in the stars with two thrones, so they can rule the galaxy together forever. She turns away again. No matter what depth of depravity or power Thanos displays, Death won’t embrace him. So he gives her what she wishes and with the snap of his fingers half of all life in the cosmos is wiped out. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos kills half of all life so the other half may thrive. In the original Infinity Gauntlet miniseries, he does so to woo Death, to prove his love and devotion. This isn’t Tony creating Ultron instead of Hank Pym in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. This is a significant change in the character’s core motivation and identity.
It’s such an established part of who Thanos is, it serves as the meta-joke setup for Tim Seeley and Elmo Bondoc’s Deadpool vs. Thanos miniseries. While Thanos loves Death, it would seem Death loves Deadpool. Good ol’ Wade Wilson kinda digs her too. When she disappears and all life in the universe ceases to end, Death reaches out to Deadpool saying, “No, you will find me Wade Wilson. You will return the balance to the universe. I know this because even though you have surrounded yourself in darkness, you always find the light. I know this, my love…because you are my one true champion.” Death speaks to Deadpool and it’s weirdly heartbreaking when Thanos sees. He tells Wade, “My one true love, Death’s embodiment, has been kidnapped and imprisoned. I followed the black serpent I cast upon your heart into the realm of the dead. I hoped to see my love. To tell her I had eliminated the other suitor for her hand. But for reasons unbeknownst to me, she has chosen only to communicate with you: Wade Wilson of Canada, Earth.” Thanos offers to pay Deadpool to help him rescue Death and Deadpool, who loves Death in his own Deadpool-y way, says he’ll do it for free.
This relationship with Death is central to my personal all-time favorite Thanos storyline, too. As Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning were bringing their Guardians Of The Galaxy run to an end, Thanos is resurrected in issue #24 and the Guardians battle a mindless, berserker version of the Mad Titan in the series finale, issue #25. The first coherent thing the newly resurrected Thanos says is, “You…forced me…to live again…for that…e-everything…dies.” Thanos’s relationship with death and anger at being resurrected is developed in a fascinating way across The Thanos Imperative, the seven issue miniseries that served as the concluding arc for the Abnett and Lanning Guardians era.
In the first issue the newly conscious Thanos narrates, “For the entire span of my existence, I was in conflict with others. From my birth on Saturn’s moon of Titan, to my death. In the time between those events I possessed the Cosmic Cube and stood as a God. Many have opposed me: first and foremost the Kree champion Captain Mar-Vell, long dead against his will while I yet live against mine. There have always been those who would interfere with my goals. My choices. My dreams. Only one thing has ever remained true: my love and devotion to Milady Death. And that thing has now been taken from me. I had accomplished my goals! I was at rest in emptiness and something woke me! I was at peace, and something brought me back to pain!.…Again, insects, you ask what am I? What I am is angry. What I am is insane with rage. What I am is…THANOS!” I’ve never found Thanos to be more interesting of more terrifying than I do in this storyline.
The way he describes being in Death’s embrace – the longing and intimate joy of the nothingness – and the steps he will take to try and return to it grow more captivating with each page of this series. What is so important is we learn in these pages he literally loves Death. It is not the personification of Death (the woman, sometimes human, sometimes a skeleton, always cloaked) whom he loves. It is Death itself. He is so angered not by being removed from the arms of Lady Death but from being pulled out of the nothingness that is his experience of Death. He loves Death, not just its personification.
I don’t know if an authentic depiction of this Thanos from the comics would’ve translated on the big screen. I can imagine it not landing with the “straights” who’ve not grown up in the world of comics. Even as a lifelong comic book fan, the idea of Thanos’ romantic/erotic love of Death has always felt…a bit weird. I remember struggling to wrap my head around the idea as a kid and it’s not much easier now as an adult. However, I will say I find Thanos to be a far more interesting character in the comics than I did in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. A character in love with Death who seeks to please Death as the mystics across all religious traditions have sought to please the Beloved throughout time is endlessly intriguing. But, while I grant the Thanos of the comics is more interesting to me, I’m still not sure he would’ve worked for all the people around the globe who flocked to see Infinity War and Endgame. Some would’ve dug it, others would’ve been weirded out and confused.
Neither Thanos is “better.” As with all art, ultimately it’s subjective. Everyone will have their own preferences and only time will tell how each incarnation of Thanos holds up through the years. But, for me, I’ll always choose the Mad Titan who graces the comic page, the one who’s romantically in love with Death. I’ll pick him ten times out of ten. It’s not that I dislike the Thanos we see in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. But comparatively he feels more formulaic, the “complex” villain with honorable-yet-misguided intentions. We can sympathize with him even as we detest his methods. It can be interesting, yes, but it’s done so often. However the ontological and nihilistic discomfort I feel move within me as I consider the comic version of Thanos raises more questions and feelings than I can ever fully sort. I’ve been turning him over and over in my mind, trying to understand him, since I was nine-years-old and I still can’t truly get inside his thought process! The Thanos in the comics always calls me into contemplation even if I can never reach a consensus I’m completely happy with. For me, that is a mark of a truly engaging character.