Avengers: Endgame — Thanos is not a run-of-the-mill villain; he is humane and yet evil in his own limited way
The Russo brothers gave a solid story arc to Thanos, so much so that while we hate him for what he is, we also, at least in some way, also care about him.
(Editor’s note: Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame, here is PART FIVE of a five-part series that attempts to understand the relationship between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the state of the world today. This series will seek to engage with the MCU critically, and argue how their films have real world anxieties built within it. Read PART ONE, PART TWO, PART THREE and PART FOUR)
Avengers: Infinity War released in April last year following weeks of frenzied anticipation.
By this time, Marvel’s marketing machine had easily morphed it into one of the biggest popular film events in recent memory. It proceeded to decimate the competition and dominate the box office, gradually becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time. Most interestingly, the legions of fans and general film-goers who sleep-walked out of the theatre, having sat through a two and a half hour long CGI-fuelled action extravaganza featuring an ensemble MCU cast, had one character on their minds, the finger-snapping intergalactic alpha extraordinaire, Thanos.
The combined might and popularity of Iron Man and his allies seemed pale in comparison to the power this daunting, brooding figure exerted on the collective imagination of the audience. What set him apart from your regular super-villain who’s out to destroy all that we hold dear was not just the ecological philosophy that appeared to underlie his plans, but that the Russo Brothers managed to create a supervillain who was complete.
Thanos is not your run-of-the-mill villain, uni-dimensional in scope. Within MCU, he is also humane. The filmmakers gave a solid story arc to Thanos, so much so that while we hate him for what he is, we also, at least in some way, also care about him.
Describing Thanos as ‘humane’, doesn’t mean that he is not evil. He is. But the idea of evil that we know of, at least as it is represented in superhero movies, is that a villain is all evil, and nothing else. There is no other side to him. But Thanos, as a character, is possessed by an idea. He has witnessed the destruction wrought by the menace of over-population first-hand. There are only so many natural resources to go around, something us earthlings are well aware of. Rising population results in a lack of resources, leading to conflicts and pillage for access to them. The higher the population, the more the wars, bloodshed and destruction of nature.
Thanos wants to put an end to this. He believes that his power and his unique capacity to take initiative — his unmatched will — makes him the right person for this most unenviable of tasks. Throughout the film, he searches for the Infinity Stones, which bestow their possessor with near unlimited power. His plan is simple. Acquire the Infinity Stones and annihilate half the population of the universe. The film ends with him snapping his Infinity-Stone-bedecked fingers to put his plan to action. We witness some of our favourite Avengers falling victim to Thanos’ plan, having failed to stop him from acquiring the stones. It is a shocking moment, which also sets us up for the next chapter in the MCU, where the remaining heroes shall seek to stop Thanos, in the teasingly titled Avengers: Endgame, slated to release tomorrow.
Thanos as a Complicated Figure
All Thanos had to do to save the universe was snap his fingers, and 50 percent of life ceased to exist.
Yes, the choice is random, and unlike other evil men in history – like Hitler, for example – his choice is not dictated by either ethnicity or race. Yet, one cannot but help notice that this choice is also, in a way, anti-climactic. One is left befuddled by Thanos’ lack of ingenuity in coming up with a more constructive plan to save the universe.
The writers have made Thanos’ seemingly noble and earnest intentions amply clear. However, in Infinity War, they’ve presented a film about a set of superheroes out to stop a powerful villain from carrying out an evil plan. This, despite the now familiar good-versus-evil scenario that sustains comic book movie franchises, complicates the state of affairs. Avengers good; Thanos evil. Right. But Thanos wants to save the universe and provide at least one half of us the opportunity to live more peaceful, fulfilling lives. Millions will die, but the survivors and their children will inherit a better, more equitable universe. In sum, Thanos’ solution to the violence and decimation he sees all around him is a singular bout of all encompassing destruction to end all destruction.
Nothing can distract us from the fatalism of his idea, not even if one considers it in the vein of light entertainment. Fittingly, the filmmakers spend considerable time on showing Thanos deliberating and brooding upon his plan’s implications. But a powerful, self-reflective man who holds the destiny of the universe quite literally in his hands fails to look beyond the most simplistic solution.
Look, he’s the big, bad guy — the filmmakers appear to be insinuating — and like all big, bad authoritarian guys drunk on power and deluded by the perceived purity of the ideals underlying their megalomaniacal plans, he fails to take into account the glaring irony of his final solution. They then proceed to let him go ahead with his plans with an even more simplistic snapping of his fingers.
Thanos is a villain. He will destroy dutifully. He will appear to vanquish all. He will seem unconquerable. And so he does at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. But perhaps the Endgame awaits him, as it usually does with the most possessed and powerful of people driven by a sense of destiny that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. The most sobering lesson one draws from Thanos’ representation in Infinity War is the tiring familiarity and regularity with which tyrants come and go, hopelessly putting the cart before the horse, convinced that their simplistic solution will fulfill the utopian dreams of the citizens of the universe.
Is Thanos evil?
And that brings us to the question, we tried to tease in the beginning of this piece. Is Thanos evil? Within his own moral compass, he is not.
He sees himself as a saviour of the universe. And in a very twisted way, he indeed is. But the very lack of rational engagement with the problem of population and scarce resources, and by assuming that decimation is the only key, MCU presents him to us as rather stupid. In many ways, it only reinforces the idea that evil deeds in the world are not done by men who look like monsters, but men who are thoughtless.
Thanos can be called evil not because his intentions were evil. They were not. He is evil because he just refuses to engage with the idea about what consequences his action – of snapping his finger and wiping out half the population – would actually have, especially for those who have been left behind.
As the timer for the release of Endgame runs out, we know the movie would be about these consequences, the emotional and psychological toll the decimation has wrought on the survivors. Avengers: Endgame could be a powerful testament to understand how evil works, and how it is necessary to think through our actions.
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