Thanos offers a great blueprint for future Marvel villains
WARNING: Spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War ahead
In the case of many of its best villains (Killmonger and Vulture among them), Marvel uses the phrase “villains are the heroes of their own story” to its advantage. So, it comes as little surprise in Avengers: Infinity War, the studio leans on the same method hardest in a film that could have just as easily been called Thanos: A Marvel Story.
Much has been made about the need to empathize with a villain to find success; to see things from their perspective, or to take their side in key moments. I think it’s a bit more subtle than that. That's good, because it’s impossible to fully empathize with anyone who wants to wipe out 50 percent of life in the universe. You’ll never agree with Thanos, but you might believe him. That might be scarier.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo set up this type of villain back in Captain America: Civil War when the titular hero met Spider-Man. Cap asks the web-slinger what Tony Stark told him about the geriatric, to which the teenager replies, “that you’re wrong, you think you’re right, and that makes you dangerous.” Isn’t that Thanos all over? He’s not in it for him, or for his family — he’s doing this because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.
Despite Infinity War’s lengthy runtime, I could have watched more of the subplot delving into Gamora and Thanos’ relationship. Family is an important part of the MCU and it hits hardest for its biggest villain. Despite all the pain Thanos caused his favorite daughter, she feels something for him. He certainly feels a lot of something for her.
When the Mad Titan breaks down before casting Gamora to her death, the Russos anticipate the audience being so thrown off by it they add in not only her confusion but Red Skull’s explanation as well. Thanos created Tonya Harding and, predictably, doesn’t understand why the most talented fighter in the galaxy doesn’t love him back. It’s over the top, certainly, but it’s powerful, too.
That’s why the character works. He’s not what other villains and heroes make him to be. Thanos makes his own rules, his own moral code and decides what love is on his own terms. What matters for a villain, or any character, is definition. It helps tremendously that Thanos has skin in the game. He, like seemingly every member of the Avengers, has lost someone. That doesn’t mean anyone will side with him — this isn’t a Magneto or Killmonger situation. It also doesn’t have to be.
A great villain can be someone we all root against. Someone we all know is wrong, fear, but understand, too. That’s the mark of a great character. A bomb can be fascinating and terrible all the same.