How do you portray a villain like Thanos?
When your heroes have faced and defeated the god of mischief, the dark elves, a heartless celestial, an other-dimensional dark lord, and the goddess of death, how do you present your ultimate villain as a threat and not as a standard-model Big Bad Guy of the Week?
I wasn’t sure if Avengers: Infinity War could pull it off, but it did. Before we discuss why, though, you should know that there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.
Seriously, do not continue reading if you haven’t seen the movie.
Almost from the beginning, superhero movies fell into a predictable pattern: a hero acquires powers. A villain becomes a threat. The third act is a big battle in which the hero almost loses, but ultimately wins. We grew desensitized to the pattern long ago, and although the powerful villain is still a mainstay of the superhero movie, that’s not why we keep coming back. We come back for the heroes.
So how do you portray a villain as powerful as Thanos? How do you deliver on the ten-year build-up of the Infinity Stones? How do you raise the stakes yet again without falling into cliche or hyperbole?
Well, defeating the Hulk at the start of the film helps. Ending the film without a victory does too. But Infinity War does something even more radical—something that turned the entire film upside down.
This is not an Avengers film. This is a Thanos film.
This is the hero's journey subverted; this is a villain's journey, which I didn't even know was a thing. Jonny Jimison
Infinity War doesn’t waste time with origin stories, side quests or extraneous story arcs. From the first moment of the film to the last, every scene is about Thanos’ goal: either Thanos acting on it or the Avengers responding to it.
Thanos acquires powers. The Avengers become a threat. The third act is a big battle where the villain almost loses, but ultimately wins. This is the hero’s journey subverted; this is a villain’s journey, which I didn’t even know was a thing.
We don’t root for Thanos, but he is truly the protagonist of the film. The Avengers are the antagonists, the obstacles in his way. By developing him as a central character and not simply a challenge for the heroes to overcome, Infinity War turns Thanos into the most imposing, compelling, downright horrifying villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But that’s just the external conflict. What about the internal struggle of the characters? What themes does the story explore? What questions do the characters face? This is where Infinity War’s hyper-focus on Thanos’ mission really shines.
Thanos has a clear goal: bring balance to the galaxy. He believes he can achieve this through destruction of half the population, so he has no problem sacrificing innocent lives—he even kills the one person that he cares for, trading her life for the sake of his mission.
Contrast that with his opposition. Their goal is even more desperate: stop Thanos from committing genocide on an unfathomable scale. But unlike Thanos, they let things get in the way of their objective. Gamora begs Star-Lord to kill her so that she can’t assist Thanos’ mission, but Star-Lord hesitates. Vision insists that Wanda kill him to keep the stone out of Thanos’ fist, but she refuses.
As with Hamlet's brooding meditation on mortality or Macbeth's inexorable path of obsession, Infinity War takes a deep dive into a single, troubling aspect of the human condition. The dilemma of the film is summed up by Steve Rogers' insistence that 'We don't trade lives.' Jonny Jimison
Gamora weakens when she sees her sister being tortured. Doctor Strange bargains for Tony Stark’s life. Over and over, our heroes are faced with the cost of human lives, and unlike their enemy, they balk. Because Thanos’ mission is the heart of the film, Infinity War becomes a study of his objective: murder for the greater good.
Why compare this film to Shakespearean tragedy? As with Hamlet’s brooding meditation on mortality or Macbeth’s inexorable path of obsession, Infinity War takes a deep dive into a single, troubling aspect of the human condition. The dilemma of the film is summed up by Steve Rogers’ insistence that “We don’t trade lives.”
Infinity War is many things. It’s certainly not the most accessible Marvel film, relying on familiarity of the past films and ending on an uncertain cliffhanger. Its brutal ending has the potential to alienate the audience or invite despair. But what I found is a film that challenged my thinking in the best way, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
I feel certain that there is astounding redemption yet to take place in my life—redemption that I (and the mad titans that ravage me) cannot see in my darkest moments, but that has already been written in the wider scope of eternity. Jonny Jimison
If Thanos exemplifies the hero’s journey that I so admire, do I need to examine my heroes more closely? Do I need to examine my own missions and motives? Or do I need to re-evaluate the journey itself?
Do I have the commitment to pay any cost for my goals, like Thanos? Or, like Steve Rogers, do I possess the tenacity to commit myself to moral principles even when circumstances call for drastic measures?
Standing outside the film, in the real world, I know that several of our dead heroes have sequels in production, so I know that somehow those characters will return. But inside the story, the surviving Avengers don’t know that, and neither does Thanos. I feel certain that there is astounding redemption yet to take place in my life—redemption that I (and the mad titans that ravage me) cannot see in my darkest moments, but that has already been written in the wider scope of eternity.
If you mourn for fallen Avengers, mourn away. I mourn with you. Fictional or not, when someone I care about is lost, grieving is the right reaction. Fictional or not, when I witness an act of evil, horror is the right reaction. But grieving doesn’t mean losing hope. There is still redemption to be had in this broken multiverse.
If there is a way to undo the damage Thanos has done, you had better believe that Steve Rogers and his team of Avengers will find it. Meanwhile, there has never been a better time for Wakanda to step out of its isolation and share its wealth and technology to aid a devastated planet.
And don’t forget, we know something that Thanos doesn’t —
Help is on the way.