The Role of Thanos in Avengers: Endgame

A unique catharsis overcame many audiences experiencing Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios’ epic conclusion to the first decade-long cycle of their incumbent cinematic universe, partly for the fact a significant piece of popular culture had provided that rarity in entertainment circles–an ending (of sorts)–but in equal terms that our collection of superheroes had defeated one of cinema’s most powerful and effective super villains in a long time: Thanos, the ‘Mad Titan’.

The year between the end of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame felt longer than a mere 365 day spin of the calendar. Thanos unleashed existential destruction upon the universe to which we had committed ten years of viewership, or at the very least destroyed half of it. The cliffhanger directors Joe & Anthony Russo foisted on audiences at the end of Infinity War could well stand as a generation-defining jaw dropper, far outweighing the ongoing saga of The Lord of the Rings or the sight of Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix Reloaded, franchises and sagas that built their trilogies on keeping audiences hooked in a method traditionally employed by long-running television series.

Few audience members who study narrative truly believed that Thanos wiping out half of the universe with the all-powerful Infinity Gauntlet would stick, given Infinity War saw the ‘death’ of major characters such as Spider-Man or Black Panther who are all the subject of ongoing mini-franchises within the broader span of the ‘MCU’. Ultimately, it didn’t matter whether these characters would return, but rather Thanos had been established to the degree he was even capable of wreaking devastation upon the universe hitherto unrivalled in terms of scale. The Borg may have wanted to assimilate humanity or Darth Vader may have happily wiped out planets with the Death Star, but Thanos with a literal click of his fingers changed the universe, and forever altered the Marvel Cinematic Universe even after his actions were undone and he was destroyed.

Thanos brings down a moon of Titan on the Avengers in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

This makes Thanos a unique antagonist. Aware that likely his actions would not stick, you felt the weight of what he achieved at the end of Infinity War, no thanks to the Russo’s concluding the picture on a deliberately downbeat note for Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and those who did survive the ‘Snap’ (or ‘Blip’, as Spider-Man: Far From Home later enshrined it as in canonical terms). Downbeat for all except Thanos himself, who retired to the Edenic planet known as ‘The Garden’ and began to live, as we saw in Endgame, a deliberately quiet and agrarian existence having successfully “perfectly balanced” the universe, as he describes in Infinity War. Thanos ends that first picture having, ostensibly, ‘won’, and this too marks him out as an unusual villain. Even Vader hasn’t quite overcome the Alliance by the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

There is almost no way back from Thanos’ victory.

A Righteous Villain

The difference with Thanos is that he does not fit within the prototypical villainous archetype. He is the hero of his own story as opposed to a galactic Grim Reaper. Thanos is a cosmic Bane, circa The Dark Knight Rises, a psychological adversary with physical prowess, who believes completely in the purity of his quest to provide the universe with balance. His goal is to rest “and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe. The hardest choices require the strongest will”.

Thanos has an unshakeable belief in his own righteousness across Infinity War, based on his previous experiences of ecological and societal self-destruction on his home world of Titan. This is a man who witnessed his society decay as an over-populated mass struggled to equally balance resources and it shattered his logical, rational, empathetic mindset. Living beings became numbers to him, computations, all part of a natural equation to transform the universe into a system where spoils are shared between trillions of life forms.

His obsession with balance is another aspect whereby he parallels Darth Vader from the Star Wars saga. There is a strong argument that Thanos represents a similar kind of damaged antagonism for the millennial generation as Vader did for both the ‘Baby Boomers’ and Generation X, between whom he cross pollinated through the original and prequel trilogy that spanned almost a thirty year period. Vader’s initial identity, fallen Jedi Anakin Skywalker, was a Luciferian mythological proxy; born as a Christ, he falls as Satan, unable to fulfil a prophecy that he would bring “balance” to the Force, Star Wars‘ allegorical ‘chi’, thereby eliminating the duality of light and dark in the universe. Anakin became Vader and lost control of said balance.

Thanos similarly is a powerful alien figure in command of vast interstellar resources who fails, ultimately, to create a similar equilibrium. Unlike Vader, who thanks to George Lucas’ obsession with the Monomythical path laid down by Joseph Campbell’s seminal writing serves as a Judeo-Christian re-telling, Thanos operates as more of a hyper-social environmental revolutionary. Whereas Vader rose to power inside a controlled fascist system as the right-hand of a Fuhrer, Thanos blazed a trail as a fanatical zealot, gathering cult followers and armies as part of his destined quest to unite the Infinity Stones and tear the entire universe down in order to rebuild it in, to his mind, a fairer image.

“What I think is interesting is he’s sort of a cult figure, Thanos. He’s a world-conqueror like Genghis Khan. He’s been moving throughout the universe conquering worlds. He destroys half of a planet because that’s his goal – to bring balance to the universe by destroying half of all life. He then collects orphans from each race that he’s conquered. These are called the Children of Thanos. Some of them, like Gamora and Nebula, have broken free from the Cult of Thanos. His cult of personality. Others, like Ebony Maw, celebrate and are the greatest acolytes of Thanos”

Joe Russo talking to Fandom, April 18, 2018

It would have been far less interesting had he failed at the end of Infinity War, had we not seen the fractured Avengers and their assorted allies lose against Thanos’ swift, almighty power and driven fanaticism. Infinity War works hard to make Thanos, in another creative move separating him from traditional villainy, into the film’s protagonist, placing him on a twisted inversion of the Campbellian ‘heroes journey’. Thanos must travel back to the ruined Titan as part of his quest to gain the treasure and boons (the stones) he needs to fulfil his destiny, facing personal odds in the process – typified by his sacrifice of daughter Gamora, not to mention torture of her sister Nebula, to achieve his goals. Thanos then returns to where he, presumably, began by the conclusion of Infinity War, to ‘rest’. His journey, essentially, is concluded. Were he the hero of a traditional story, we would be encouraged to root for him, bask in his success.

By the end of Infinity War, however, Thanos is unreservedly one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, having successfully executed a genocide beyond imagination.

Thanos sends his legions into battle at the climax of Avengers: Endgame (2019)

A Post-Death Antagonist

The year that followed Infinity War saw fans rife with speculation and theory about how Thanos could be defeated, what he wrought undone. It was never truly in doubt that Endgame would deliver on this. It was less a question of *if* the status quo would be restored but *how*.

Time-travel was mooted early on and, realistically, was the only logical (within this science-fiction paradigm) mechanism to resolve the problem Infinity War posed – the ultimate corner that writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely had written the MCU into. Where Endgame surprised audiences was in how it gave us two different versions of Thanos, both in different places to the character whose journey we had tracked across Infinity War; the man he was *after* using the Gauntlet, a philosophically certain but physically weak shadow of the Mad Titan living in peaceful exile, and the all-powerful galactic terrorist in the years *before* uniting the Infinity Stones, a man still putting together the pieces of the journey we would see him undertake. It is telling that post-Infinity War Thanos sees him an easy foe to physically destroy, while pre-Infinity War is the Titan at his most bullish and threatening.

Endgame might be considered as robbing audiences of the Thanos we saw develop across Infinity War, but this is not strictly true. The writers do cheat from a narrative perspective in bringing past-Thanos through into a future in which the Blip has already occurred, into a timeline beyond his own death technically, and establishing him again as a threat prepared to wipe out the remaining half of the universe with the newly recovered Infinity Stones from the past. Yet we could have instead simply replayed the events of Infinity War with a different outcome and prevented the Blip in the first place, thereby overwriting Thanos’ initial journey. Endgame avoids that. It allows that arc for Thanos to still have existed, rather simply playing with temporal mechanics to bring a proto-version of him through to serve as the necessary antagonist in restoring those taken by the Blip. It is the same character, simply in different states. What Endgame does, by necessity, is somewhat reduce Thanos’ villainy in how it escalates the threat by the climactic battle – surely the most eye-popping confluence of comic-book imagination wrought large on a cinema screen we are likely to see, certainly for a long time to come.

When Thanos comes to learn of what will happen to him within what was now an alternate future, he becomes increasingly obsessed with his manifest destiny.

“I will shred this universe down to its last atom and then, with the stones you’ve collected for me, create a new one teeming with life that knows not what it has lost but only what it has been given. A grateful universe.”

Thanos moves from being a zealot seeking balance to a maniacal totalitarian God-figure who believes he, and he alone, understands what is best for the universe. This is a marked shift and it removes some aspect of sympathy from the character. Before, while someone willing to sacrifice his children and kill trillions as part of his belief system, he nonetheless had intentions he saw as logical and rational for the benefit of an equal amount of trillions. In Endgame, he is prepared to embrace an ultimate, unavoidable genocide in order to create life in his ‘image’. Thanos’ second death feels less earned than his first, less complicated, less philosophically complicated. He becomes, across Endgame, merely an obstacle to facilitate the Christ-like sacrifice of Tony Stark – even if his death, wiped out by the same Gauntlet his earlier (or later) incarnation used, is the ultimate dramatic irony.

None of this robs Thanos of his power as an antagonist throughout his appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This incarnation shed much of the detail of his origin from the comic-books, specifically how his own actions destroyed Titan and his people. Thanos’ obsession with death and a nihilistic viewpoint of life in the universe was retained but he was less an incarnation of Death itself as someone who refused to believe in the importance of individual life as part of the common good.

Thanos served as an appropriate enemy for our times, someone far less easy to pigeonhole as a pure personification of evil, and will likely take longer to fade from memory than the manner in which he blows away in the wind of the universe.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Pop-culture writer/geek @cultural_convo. Author - Myth-Building in Modern Media: The Role of the Mytharc in Imagined Worlds - coming late 2019. Podcast: @wemadethispod

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  1. Kingsley

    It took me a while to realise it, but the Marvel movies are basically this generation’s Star Wars and from what I’ve seen, they’re done a lot better than the ever expanding Star Wars universe is/was.

    • Lizette

      Uh, no, not really. I saw the very first and original Star Wars when it was released in the theater all those years ago, and there was NOTHING like it then. How many of these Marvel movies have been made now? And the only thing these movies have are better special effects. Infinity War was not great at all. I actually liked Ant Man and Wasp, because it was a very well made film. I have been disappointed w/ the quality of some Marvel flicks, especially Fantastic Four which I loved as a kid, and the movies were not that great. Iron Man was much better. Thor was one of my favorites also as a boy and the movies were disappointing I thought.

    • hideout

      You’re right – the Star Wars phenomenon starting in the 70’s is a very close analog of the Marvel Universe now, except the MU movies are superior in every way. Star Wars was a dumb story. The alien bar scene was definitely cool, but the writing was straight outta Buck Rogers, except it made the Kessel run in 40 parsecs with some smoke left over.

      I suspect that a larger percentage of world population has seen the MU movies too. Not only is the quality of the storytelling superior, but it’s had a greater influence on global culture.

      • No way! I’m not going to argue over which is the better film – thats an entirely subjective, personal view. A pointless debate. Although I must say, claiming that Star Wars was a dumb story, but the avengers isn’t……. Well, that’s very odd! However, to claim the Marvel movies are more influential is nonsense. Star Wars laid the ground for the likes of Marvel. Star Wars pioneered the special effects that Marvel relies on. Marvel has influenced very little – Justice League?? Silly claim.

    • I never thought of it that way. It sounds reasonable.

  2. cruiaze

    A sign of a good movie is one which sticks with you a while after you leave the cinema.

  3. Gricelda

    Thanos was stronger in endgame because he knew who he knew his enemies and their weaknesses. He studied every second of nebulas memories and found out why he almost lost the first battle, which was because he had to divide and conquer rather than using his superior manpower to his advantage. All the stones were in one place for him and nothing anyone used against him could surprise him, because he’d seen it all before. That’s why Scarlet witch had initially succeeded when she showed up, because he couldn’t find out about her based on nebulas memories.

    • Mancini

      And that’s why he said that he don’t know who she was, but honestly she could have tore him apart in a second.

    • in infinity war he was in grief for gamora . And he was without an armor and not ready . That is why tony took the fight to him to use the element of surprise. After that when he reached to wakanda he already has five stones and he was only focusing on getting the sixth stone to execute his plan . He didn’t feel the need to fight in wakanda . in endgame after thanos took a look at the future from nebulas memory he realized that the avengers and earth people is a big threat to his plan . And has the will and determination to undo everything he has done plus killing him . So it became personal .

  4. Cherryl

    I feel like hulk was REALLY dumbed down in the last two avenger movies.

    In age of ultron, when fighting veronica, he was a damn near unstoppable monster. And this could just be me but he looked way more buff in age of ultron. Even in the first avengers he was slamming into buildings throwing shit everywhere. Then suddenly out of the blue he goes up against thanos and it looked like he didn’t even try to win.

  5. The best thing out endgame: Peter finally enabled instant kill.

  6. Endgame Thanos is bloodlusted and wants to destroy the whole universe, and is giving his all, while in Infinity War he was holding back and had only 1 goal, and only fought if it was absolutely nessecary.

    • Endgame Thanos was back when Thanos was extremely violent and balanced populations by killing everyone brutally. Infinity war Thanos was older and wiser and didn’t see the need to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary. You can see this by the fact that when he had all 5/6 infinity stones, he simply immobilised everyone to get to the mind stone instead of just crushing them instantly.

  7. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A goof essay and I even enjoyed watching the character of Thanos in several movies. A perceptive essay adds to the enjoyment of watching the movies.

  8. I heard a theory that in infinity war thanos just wanted to use the stones and the avengers just slowed him down. Whereas in endgame he actually wanted to destroy earth down to the single atom. He wanted to kill them and so tried harder.


    I think the will to fight has much more to say. In infinity war we are introduced to Thanos after he has already gained one of the stones. He is nearing the end of his mission, and is thus taking a much more zen approach to the situation as well as being much more contemplative. In Endgame, he sees that his original plan is doomed to result in resistance even after he thought victory was achieved. He is essentially much more motivated to fight and does so much more viciously.

  10. I feel in infinity he played more of a prophet and wanted the stones to decide the fate of the universe and as well as only erase half. He didn’t want to kill anyone himself. In endgame he saw that killing half of life didn’t work because the other half just lived in misery, so he even basically said alright since that plan didn’t work, I’m killing everyone now and starting a new universe. Now he did not care who died because he wanted EVERYONE dead. In other words, intentions determine fights

  11. Joaquina

    Going by the comics, Thanos doesn’t just wipe people out even when he can. He likes to toy with them slowly. In Endgame, he didn’t have the stones, ergo wasn’t “invincible”, so he was using his own fighting skills, which makes him damn strong. In Infinity War, he had the stones, so he was basically messing around.

    • In the comics, his base power (without infinity gauntlet) is far more powerful than most of the Avengers. Realistically, the only ones who could even hold him off for awhile are Hulk and Thor, and he’s beaten both of them alone.

  12. Hands down. Thanos is the strongest & badest villian I ever saw. He would have killed all the avengers if iron man did not snap his finger.

  13. Mrs. Bond

    Thank you for writing this. It gave me a new perspective and made me appreciate the movies more.

  14. Gardiner

    As a comic book film Endgame has everything you could have hoped for and more.

  15. Of all the Marvel series, the Avengers has been the most consistently entertaining, though the first Iron Man, Thor and Dr Strange movies were by far the best of the bunch – if those weren’t great movies nothing else would have worked.

    What sits uneasily with me is how far removed from the challenges, tragedies, and evil of real life these movies are. Only the first Iron Man came close. Bashing CGI aliens is just so safe and boring.

  16. I always thought that killing Gamora made him more compassionate in Infinity War. He had no qualms killing (or trying to) kill Thor, Loki, Heimdall and the rest of the Asgard survivors, and even incapacitate the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet after he kills Gamora, the first thing he does when seeing Doctor Strange isn’t to attack him and get the Time Stone but to talk to him, maybe convince Stephen to hand over the stone willingly, and only got into attack mode when Tony attacked first. Even in his fight in Wakanda, he never attacks the Avengers, he only defended against in-coming attacks. Fast forward to Endgame, because it’s Thanos who hasn’t killed Gamora yet, he hasn’t lost his edge and is far more stronger because of it.

  17. Where was vision in endgame…

  18. Infinity war Thanos is acting out a philosophically legitimate quest, which requires him to obey chivalry and a warriors respect, he believes in his destiny and purpose and believes that if he follows the rules of fairness the universe will assist him, he’s is basically playing Skyrim in his head. Seeing himself Killed and the universe not thanking him for his great work shatters his self made delusion that he is doing the right thing so like an angry little kid not getting his way he throws a massive tantrum. (also this thanos hasn’t done it himself nor has he devastated himself throwing Gamora off a cliff. I think thats why Infinity war is so good, we are made to watch from Thanos’ perspective alot and forced to think through his motives.

  19. Kpopman

    Infinity war: Thanos just wanted to collect the infinity stones, so he let avengers live.

    End game: Thanos wanted to destroy everything in the universe, so he let no one live.

  20. I think Thanos held back in Infinity War because he needed his power to snap. And didn’t wanted to waste all his power on fighting.

  21. Thanos in infinity war : on a spiritual journey
    Thanos in Endgame : on a mission

    • Infinity war thanos: feelings and emotional
      Endgame thanos: aggressive and god and beast mode

  22. I enjoyed watching the movie it was very entertaining.

  23. Infinity War and Endgame were too disjointed trying to cram so many characters across the franchise into one film.

  24. Thanos is what Darth Vader was to cinema villainy when Star Wars was in it’s first run. Sadly I feel that he is the peak for MCU villains.

  25. Thanos is really a powerful character in the whole universe.

  26. The movie focused too much on actors’ feelings, it’s my opinion, don’t drop me to the lions.

  27. I love this film and the end game is so amazing

  28. Finally found what I was looking for!

  29. Thanks and absolutely an imposing and sophisticated villain! You analysed him very well in the context of both movies and how he fit into the universe!

  30. I think the films we tend to enjoy the most are those in which the villain is somewhat relatable. Especially when they are as complex or challenge the main character(s) in a way that not only challenges them physically, but emotionally. Once you create a villain of that magnitude, then that movie will be stuck with audiences to discuss for years.

  31. Great analysis of a really compelling villain!

  32. I must admit, I enjoyed Infinity War a lot more than Endgame so this final movie fell a little flat for me.

  33. A truely underrated character!

  34. Watching Thanos manhandle the original three (Tony, Cap, and Thor) during Endgame’s climax without a single one of the Stones kept me on the edge of my seat in the theatre. His younger self may not have had the sympathetic factor that he did in Infinity War, but he certainly solidified why he remained a force to be reckoned with up until the very last second of the battle.

  35. What I want know is where in the hell did his army com from… the time machine was destroyed when the buildings collapsed?

    • What are you talking about? The whole army was inside the ship (the ship that went through the time travel portal before it was destroyed). He always traveled with his army.

  36. One cannot deny the powerhouse Marvel has become in the imagination of the current generation of kids and youngsters. This article perfectly summarizes why I loved Thanos’ representation in the Infinity War saga as opposed to the one we are shown in the graphic novel. While it is inspired, the characterization of Thanos on screen was taken to another level and really provided greater depth to a villain who essentially in my eyes served as the protagonist of the climax of the MCU.

  37. Amelia Arrows

    I have watched every single MCU film and so when I watched Endgame I really loved the fanservice at the end. However, Endgame in my opinion pales in comparison to Infinity War whereThanos stole the show. He was in a sense the “hero” of the story, yet we kept seeing the damage he caused through the Avenger’s eyes. Infinity war was really something. It shattered the MCu formula by giving us a villian that won. But instead of celebrating his victory, he ends sacrifcing the one thing he loved the most. It was his intresting way of thinking that made me really respect, and hate Thanos. Instead of just simple world domination, he wanted to save the universe, by killing half of it. So it was disapointing when that thanos was killed off at the start of Endgame. Instantly we lost what was so intresting about the film. Of course thanks to time travel, Thanos from the past comes in and he is half of what future thanos was. Durring the climax the Avengers fought him, and were saying things that should of been meaningful but it was a waste of words as Thanos did not understand. If they didn’t kill Thanos at the beginig, it would of been more powerful I would think.

  38. Beautiful essay.
    I think Thano’s self-deification reminds me of this passage from Nietzche
    “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us??”

  39. Avenger series is my fav. yes, but in the end, the game-based movies around the past. Thanos is cop huge monster but in the end game, it becomes an unwell monster

  40. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    Though I will get a lot of flak for saying this, I enjoyed the older solo superhero films of Marvel with occasional special appearances from others more than the Avengers films. The Avengers(2012) was the first and last fun Avengers film for me.

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