Sometimes an unpopular opinion deserves an explanation. Especially when it pertains to perhaps the largest, most celebrated media event in the history of genre film. One that is almost universally adored. Well, here it goes: Thanos isn’t the MCU’s best villain. In fact, he’s its most problematic.
Avengers: Infinity War is a daunting cinematic achievement for many reasons. It gathered characters from across the Marvel universe and found a way to fit them together that enhanced the scope of the film. It made all of the MCU films that came before it feel more meaningful. It’s an achievement in production foresight and patience, and it was rewarded with over $2 billion in box office returns.
But Infinity War’s celebrated villain stands out as it’s largest misstep. This isn’t because of Josh Brolin’s performance, which was exquisite. It isn’t because of the effects work that brought the character to life. The problem with Thanos is that so many fans view his motivations as somewhat justifiable even when defining them as evil. He is seen as conflicted in the path he must take, sacrificing loved ones to fulfill his ultimate goal of saving the universe. But his goals and actions deserve neither defense nor justification.
Let’s look at Thanos’ stated goal of saving the universe first. Who doesn’t want to save a universe peril, right? That is a perfectly fine desire to have, but his totalitarian approach speaks to its laziness. Removing half of the universe’s population alone won’t produce the desired result. Using Earth as an example, killing off half of human life would set us back to the population totals from 1970. The world wouldn’t be saved from resource scarcity. It would only have its timer reset, ready to sound off again in another 100 years. That doesn’t sound like a worthy trade for the seismic amount of lives ended at Thanos’ hand.
But the immense flaws in Thanos’ plan doesn’t fully flesh out why he isn’t worth defense at his core. After all, we’ve all made mathematical errors or thought too big for our own good. Where those miscalculations turn sadistic is when a believed purpose allows him to justify abuse as a means to an end.
Nowhere is this more pressing than in Thanos’ relationship to his adopted daughter Gamora. Committing mass genocide is abhorrent on its own, but using such an act as the genesis for a loving paternal relationship is equally shuddering. This act is much more realistic in practice when compared to our world. Parents, guardians and other trusted adults use similar tactics to explain away abusive actions toward their children. They equate abuse with love and victims continue forward through life with this messed up outlook on both.
This all comes to a head in Infinity War’s most divisive scene: the death of Gamora. Thanos’ isn’t pushing aside his love for his daughter in exchange for the Soul Stone. Gamora is simply a means to an end for him and his crocodile tears. She is nothing more than a tool for advancement born out of trauma that he induced. Gamora might have genuine feelings for her adopted father, like most victims of abuse and trauma. But Thanos doesn’t truly share that same connection with her. He might believe that he loves her. However, that love only manifests when needed to further inform his murderous roadmap. There is no defense for crafting a character that reinforces real life emotional torture that so many people struggle to overcome. I have also personally struggled to overcome that.
The extinction of Titan is terrible, but that doesn’t mean Thanos should weaponize against others. Thanos is a bad guy who is meant to do bad guy things. But he’s no more nuanced than a abusive parent who cites their child as the reason they gave them a black eye. There’s nothing worthy of praise in that.
Now, I’m writing this before I enter the theater to take in Avengers: Endgame. Maybe that film will reveal some new growth or realization in the man behind “The Snap.” Perhaps he’ll find some way to find a modicum of redemption similar to his comic book counterpart. I won’t know until those three hours and one minute are up. What I do know is that the character has an uphill battle to negate what he embodied in Infinity War. Breaking the feedback loop of “abuse equals love” is no easy task. But at least Thanos has another chance to do so before his story comes to an end, even if he doesn’t deserve one. Here’s hoping he doesn’t waste it.