If you’re reading this here on a comic book website, chances are you’ve seen one of the biggest comic movies of the century in Avengers: Infinity War. Having said that, on the off-chance you haven’t caught it yet this article with be FULL OF SPOILERS. You’ve been warned...
Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. Many astute viewers will have noticed this, but frankly we’re surprised at how little discussion on the topic we’ve seen online. That’s not to say we agree with his tactics and goals, but make no mistake this is his journey. Really, when you think about it, there wasn’t any better way for the Russos to tell this story. With 28 super heroes in this movie it desperately needed an anchor.
In typical brilliant Marvel fashion, we actually know quite a bit about Thanos before we see him in the opening scenes of Infinity War. Even if you aren’t a comic-reader, the MCU has built up Thanos through a number of post-credit scenes and dialogue from characters like Drax, Gamora, and Nebula. We know he orchestrated the Invasion of New York, has decimated countless planets, can be incredibly cruel, and is after the Infinite Stones for some nefarious purpose. That’s a lot of backstory that the movie can thankfully skip over, since it is already packed to the brim with everything going on.
When we first meet Thanos in Infinity War he’s already started his “hero’s journey”. Of course, he’s not a hero but he sees himself as one and so to him this quest is his righteous journey to fix the universe. He already has the power stone, which he recovered by destroying Xandar and the Nova Corps. We’re really hoping a future Nova movie explores this at some point, but no word yet so fingers crossed. In this first scene we immediately get both the ruthlessness and the moral code of Thanos. We find out he kills half of the Asgardians without remorse, but spares the other half. Say what you want about Thanos, he has his own twisted version of a moral compass.
The rest of the movie plays out a lot like a video game. Thanos and his Black Order seek out the Infinity Stones one by one. He kills Loki and takes the space stone, wipes out Knowhere to get the reality stone and rips the mind stone out from Visions forehead. To really see why Thanos is the best MCU villain, though, we need to look at three moments: Acquiring the soul stone, the final battle with the Avengers and the very end of the movie.
Movie villains are usually extremely selfish. They’ll do whatever it takes to get what’s best for them. Thanos’ sacrifice to get the soul stone proves he cares about other things more than himself. As a quick recap, Thanos is told by Red Skull (what a reveal!) that he must sacrifice something he loves to get the soul stone. Gamora thinks this is a cruel joke played by the universe but the next few moments prove that Thanos really did love Gamora as he throws her over the edge of the cliff and gets the soul stone for his sacrifice. Not only did Thanos truly love someone other than himself, he sacrificed them to, in his mind at least, save the universe. It wasn’t for himself, it was a truly altruistic act even if it was a misguided one.
The final battle is another interesting example of good story-telling. Imagine you are watching a movie called Thanos: Balance The Universe. Thanos has gone through so much to try and preserve the balance of the universe and comes fresh off of the death of the only person he loves to confront a group of the most powerful beings in the universe. He succeeds in a massive battle and at the very last second gets victory snatched away from him when Scarlet Witch destroys the mind stone. If we considered Thanos the hero as he does, that would have been a devastating moment. It’s the moment in every superhero movie when it looks like all is lost and the bad guys have won. But then, Thanos pulls victory out of the jaws of defeat by reversing time and completing the gauntlet. Thor comes out of nowhere and buries Stormbreaker in his chest, but Thanos uses the last of his strength to snap his fingers. This whole section of the movie is written almost so we can see Thanos the way he does.
The thing that solidifies Thanos as the best Marvel villain, though, is at the end of the movie. Having completed his goal, Thanos doesn’t go mad with power. He doesn’t try to rule the universe with an iron fist, he doesn’t declare himself Supreme Ruler of Everything, he doesn’t even go back and kill off the heroes who opposed him. After all, he could have easily ensured that all the ones who had the power to fight back were gone in “The Snap”. Instead, he just sits down and rests, satisfied that he completed his goal and saved the universes from consuming himself.
In a lot of ways Thanos is someone we can admire. He’s tenacious, determined, "selfless", and possesses incredible conviction. He’s someone we could root for if things had just turned out differently earlier in his life. He could have been a great hero, and that’s what makes him a great villain.