***Warning – if you’re reading this and not expecting spoiler alerts, you’re an idiot. There will obviously be a lot of spoilers.***
What makes a hero?
It’s a question we rarely have to think about in Hollywood movies, where we’re typically spoon-fed protagonists and antagonists. But what if we’re wrong?
Thanos was presented to us over a long build up as the penultimate supervillain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first three phases. But what ultimately made him so villainous?
Sure, he had a few enemies across the universe. Anyone pursuing power on the level he does would. His daughters hate him, but every dad goes through that phase, especially one raising foster children. He proves he loves one daughter by successfully sacrificing her for the soul stone (something Hawkeye really struggled with when his turn came). He gives the other a second chance, despite knowing for a fact she’ll betray him in the future.
Maybe there’s more to the story we haven’t been shown, but from what we’ve seen so far, Thanos is the hero of heroes in the MCU. Here’s why.
What Makes a True Hero?
Real-life heroes are a lot harder to find, but they’re certainly out there. Of course, as the Dark Knight reminds us, the lines between heroes and villains get blurred the longer you live.
We do have some generally agreed-upon qualities we look for in heroes. The BBC explored the concept of heroism. It lists these qualities as risk-taking, resisting the bystander effect (i.e. willingness to act when the time comes), and the empathy balance. This last quality basically means someone’s ability to put their life on the line for the greater good.
But certainly Thanos would be disqualified for his goal of exterminating all life in existence (eventually determining it must all be destroyed and rebuilt), right?
Of course, if we did that, we’d also have to disqualify every real life hero we hold dear.
The site Ranker goes a step further, letting people list and vote on rankings for a listicle of “greatest heroes of mankind.” These great heroes of human history include Nikola Jurisic, Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, William Wallace, Charles Martel, Alfred the Great, Augustus, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Hannibal as the top 10.
Each of these men (and woman) was ultimately a military leader. That’s why they’re regarded as heroes. In fact, while there are many prominent examples of non-violent heroes (Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., etc.), the vast majority of “heroes” over our existence gained that recognition by directing the slaughter of large numbers of people.
Thanos certainly sounds like a hero so far, so let’s compare him to the rest of the so-called heroes to see how his motivations and actions stack up.
A Real American Hero
The Avengers were already on shaky ground with humanity before Thanos came along. The Wachovia Accords had them divided, and their civil war caused a lot of casualties. Nobody was really coming into Endgame with clean hands.
The motivations of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are basically divided into four different categories:
Glory – Iron Man, Spider-Man
Tony Stark and Peter Parker are the two heroes who, above all else, want the glory of heroism. They want to be heroes, and they want people to see them as such. Thanos isn’t seeking glory – even in the MCU, he seeks death after the snap.
Duty – Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers, Black Widow and S.H.I.E.L.D., War Machine, Hulk, Black Panther and the Wakandans, Captain America, Falcon, and Winter Soldier
The vast majority of the MCU heroes are acting out of a sense of duty. They’re working for (or ruling) the government. Like Thanos, the preservation (even by means of supremacy) of their race is their primary objective.
Revenge – Hawkeye, Thor and Loki, Ant-Man and Wasp, Star Lord and the Guardians, Nebula
Even before meeting Thanos, a sizable portion of the heroes were motivated by revenge. Someone or something was taken from them, and this loss drove their actions, just like Thanos, although he may or may not be responsible for the losses.
WTF? The Defenders, Captain Marvel, Vision, Scarlet Witch
Another tier of heroes just didn’t bother to show up. If they did, it was to half-ass it. Captain Marvel just belittles everyone to remind them humans aren’t the only ones suffering. Vision has the mind stone and Wanda is a walking reality stone, even if the MCU used the wrong stone for her origin. They did nothing with these powers – how did Doctor Strange master the time stone better than a living A.I. could figure out his?
Meanwhile, Thanos is actually driven by something different – he actually understands that many do and will always view him as a villain. But he also understands his calling and duty. He isn’t happy about what he must do, but Thanos is willing to sacrifice everything – his life, his family’s, and the entire world’s – to ensure it’s done.
There’s a point in Endgame where he becomes aware that he succeeds in the future. In that moment, he’s able to pivot his entire plan to make it work right. There’s nothing the heroes can do to stop him from accomplishing his goal, so let’s explore a little more about what that goal actually was.
The Heroic Journey of Thanos
Thanos is following what he describes as his destiny, something every motivational speaker teaches us to do in our own lives. Because we step in halfway through, we don’t realize chronologically that we’re actually watching Thanos walk the Hero’s Journey.
If you’re unfamiliar, this journey is a 12 step program that’s a little different than the one post-snap Thor needs. The steps are laid out across three acts, and they go as follows
1. Ordinary World – This is Thanos’s time on Titan, which he reveals to us in Infinity War. It’s the safe place the journey starts from.
2. Call to Adventure – Titan’s population is threatened, and Thanos steps up to try and save it.
3. Refusal of the Call – For one reason or another, Thanos is unable to save his civilization. His entire race is wiped out except for him. He failed.
4. Meeting the Mentor – In the comics, the female personification of Death herself inspires Thanos to make up for his misgivings on a universal scale.
5. Crossing the Threshold – Ever since The Avengers in 2012, we’ve been watching the aftermath of Thanos crossing the threshold to begin his quest for Infinity Stones.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies – The first test we see Thanos face is Loki’s failure at invading New York. From there, the challenges only increase, as the amount of heroes throughout the universe (and especially on Earth) knowingly defending Infinity Stones from him continues to grow exponentially.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave – As the war heats up, Thanos inevitably returns to his home planet of Titan. It may be in ruins, but it’s the place he feels most comfortable.
8. Ordeal – Iron Man, Spider-Man, Star Lord, and Dr. Strange launch a sneak attack on the man in his own home while he grieves his daughter Gamora’s death. It’s some 9/11 shit, and it almost works. Thankfully anger and vengeance gets the best of his assailants, and Thanos is able to overcome.
9. Reward – By the end of Infinity War, Thanos is victorious, and he succeeds in doing exactly what he said he would. He unites all of the Infinity Stones into his Infinity Gauntlet and snaps his fingers to save half of all life in the world.
10. The Road Back – After the snap, Thanos is kind of misplaced. He understands that he both won and lost. He now has no purpose except to become a guardian of the stones himself while retiring on a farm to attempt enjoying the new world.
11. Resurrection – Thanos is once again attacked in his own home and beheaded by a vengeful Thor. With the loss of its greatest hero, the world will surely fall into complete darkness, except…
12. Return With the Elixer – The Avengers cheat the system and use time travel to pull back time and make an earlier version of Thanos the “changed man.” This sticks Thanos in a time loop he recognizes where he will continuously cycle through the last half of the heroic journey with no resolution…
…except one. There’s one reality both Thanos and Dr. Strange know in which he gets defeated, so Thanos has to make the ultimate sacrifice. He kicks it up a notch and threatens to take out all life in existence.
The Art of Infinity War
In the end, Thanos is simultaneously right and wrong. It is inevitable he exists, and it’s inevitable he undertake and complete his quest for the Infinity Stones. He says it himself, and everyone agrees. That’s why the word Infinity keeps coming up as a theme in his story.
But in stopping him, the Avengers may have created even worse problems and paradoxes this human propaganda film glosses over. They break some very foundational time travel rules in their all-out war to stop Thanos. Most important of which is not to interfere with anything, much less your past self…
And while we’re on the subject of men and their daughters, can we all agree that Captain America needs a #MeToo moment?
We call Thanos a monster for his altruistic motivations, but when his mission is over, he does what we all want to do. He retires on a farm alone. Meanwhile, Captain America goes back in time to complete a mission. He then goes AWOL for a lifetime to have sex with a woman so he can bang his own grand niece. Yeah we only saw a kiss on screen, but let’s not argue semantics here – the man knowingly did this. Bickering details is like arguing justifiable rape for abortions.
It’s the most confusing case of on-screen incest I think seen since Tom Arnold in The Stoopids.
Although Cap seems to know exactly what he did, which is why he’s happy to resign from his post, showing much more grace than some of his predecessors like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Donald Trump, who held onto their positions for dear life.
Gamora and Nebula have a lot to say about their father, but they never once accuse him of molesting them or being in any way sexually inappropriate.
In fact, Thanos is the only foster dad in this lineup and one of few actual parents. We see glimpses of biological children from the other true heroes who don’t have sex with them. Clint is training his daughter for war, just like Thanos. Tony is doing the same.
The rest aren’t parents, so they just don’t understand the motivations of Thanos. They’ve never had to actually care about anyone else and are mostly just pairing off to have super casual sex. This obviously excludes Wanda, who stays at home with her vibrator. She’s not happy when Thanos pulls the battery out.
The Tragedy of Thanos
Not only is Thanos the hero of Infinity War, but his story is the most tragic. Many critics argue his motivation changes too much from the comics, but I’d argue those critics didn’t understand what they were watching.
MCU Thanos was courting death the entire time – it just wasn’t personified as a lady. And he didn’t owe anyone that explanation, but you can see it in his actions.
Thanos (and Dr. Strange, and the Ancient One, even Vision) understands the infinity loop they’re all stuck in. It’s the same one Strange dealt with in his battle against Dormammu in the Dark Dimension. Thanos will always succeed in assembling the gauntlet, and the Avengers will always find a way to stop him, creating a back-and-forth for eternity, save for the one-in-a-million shot.
Thanos always knew what that ending was, even before Strange did. That’s why he told Stark he recognized his name, because he’s cursed with knowledge. It makes you wonder how many times he actually held individual or combinations of Infinity Stones.
He had possession of the Mind Stone before The Avengers, because he gave it to Loki to create chaos. That stone alone could have been powerful, but he knew the chain reaction he needed to cause.
He had to make Stark strong enough to kill him. He had to create Captains America and Marvel to take him out. Someone like Ronan wouldn’t do. Thanos was easily able to give up any of his stones at any moment, but Ronan couldn’t. The Power Stone corrupted him, Star Lord, and anyone else who came in contact with it, except Thanos, who was on the heroic journey.
What’s ultimately so great about his journey is that in order to succeed, Thanos had to fail. And in order to fail, he had to succeed. It’s a paradox solved only by his death, something nobody on his entire planet was able to cause.
So Thanos pursued death across the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, making him the deepest, richest, and most heroic character in the series and, perhaps, movie history. Tony’s marketing team is better, and he’s human, so we view him as the hero who made the ultimate sacrifice.
But the Infinity Stones deemed Tony unworthy. They punished him for ending our hero’s titular journey.
In the end, Thanos became a living God, and as soon as he did, the heroes became villains for attacking him. No matter how evil he may have been prior to possessing the stones, Thanos reaches a level of enlightenment any reader of Marvel comics is familiar with.
Dr. Doom, for example, succeeds in consuming enough power to become God in the comics. When he does, he immediately softens, just like Thanos. The theme occurs quite a bit throughout these superhero storylines, and the same basic thematic answers come up.
But in closing, I have to circle back one last time to the MCU’s strongest character, Captain Marvel.
Eye of the Tiger
The reason we see Thanos as a villain is because we’re humans, and humans are the Americans of the planetary races. Danvers basically blows everyone off until the end by reminding us that we’re not alone and other people need help.
It seems cold, but it’s true. We’re selfish and needy. There are other planets, races, forms of life, societies, etc. out there. That’s something that’s likely true in real life too. Who are we to question their plans for us?
And while it seems like Thanos actually lost, it’s because we’re only watching that one-in-a-million perspective. If you believe in multiple dimensions, every other reality that Dr. Strange sees exists in which Thanos conquers the world and destroys half of all existence. So really the heroes we’re watching are only saving half the population in one of these infinite realities.
This means the amount of people alive today is (Infinity/2)+(Current population). It’s not exactly a landslide victory, but winning is winning whether by an inch or a mile.
So you may be on #TeamCap, #TeamStark, or be lamenting the loss of Black Widow. But I see the true hero of the MCU and am firmly on #TeamThanos.
Like Rocky Balboa before him, his actions in the face of certain defeat are what ultimately make him a hero.