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.
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.
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.
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