Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Keith Friedlander, who I first met at ICAF 2017 and whose paper on Young Avengers helped to inspire my own post on the series here on The Middle Spaces. This post is great food for thought as we count down the final days to the release of the greatly anticipated conclusion to MCU’s Avengers franchise, Avengers: End Game.
For Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the penultimate chapter in the current phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the filmmakers faced a structural challenge: how to make a coherent movie that draws together a cast of over twenty superheroes. Their novel solution was to make the film’s central villain, Thanos the Mad Titan (Josh Brolin), the central focus of the movie. As film critic Bob Chipman observes, Infinity Wars “makes Thanos the protagonist (which is not the same as the hero, the good guy, or worthy of your empathy), complete with backstory, character arc, goals, obstacles.” His quest to gather the six Infinity Stones serves as the driving force behind the plot, as he faces challenge after challenge, overcoming each one through a combination of strength, cunning, determination, and personal sacrifice. In centering the story on Thanos’s exploits, the filmmakers manage to construct a cohesive narrative and compelling character study, as well as a pointed critique of toxic masculinity. While this essay will examine this critique, I am primarily interested in its impact (or lack thereof) on the fans.
Despite his many heroic strengths, Thanos’s role as the villain is unmistakably signaled by his ludicrous motive: gathering the Infinity Stones so that he can save the universe from the perils of limited resources by killing exactly half of all living beings. In the wake of Infinity War’s theatrical release, there was no shortage of articles and think pieces reacting to the villain’s popularity. These articles range from rather thoughtful economic assessments regarding the limits of Malthusian theory to quirky critiques pointing out the obvious flaw in his plan. One thing these examples all have in common though is a focus on the question, “Was Thanos right?” On its face, it is a preposterous question. Considering the fact that his ultimate plan is to commit cosmic genocide, the obvious answer would be that Thanos is unmistakably wrong. Indeed, one might be excused for believing that any attempt to rationalize his motives would be a nonstarter. Yet, the very fact that so much digital ink was spilled seriously examining this question implies that the answer is not so cut-and-dried for MCU fans.
This is largely due to the filmmakers’ success in turning one of Marvel’s most two-dimensional bad guys into a complex, seemingly sympathetic villain. As some of the more gushing character profiles demonstrate, many viewers identify with the villain regardless of his motives. In one such article, a fan notes that Thanos is a compelling villain because he is a tragic, isolated figure who raises legitimate concerns about the dangers of overpopulation. As Thanos reveals to Doctor Strange in Infinity War, his home planet of Titan was destroyed because its increasing population exhausted its dwindling resources. Another article proclaims him to be the greatest villain of the MCU, citing his empathy as a father figure who genuinely loves his adopted daughter (whom he kills, more on that later) and his sheer power in battling the entire cast of Marvel heroes. In describing his willingness to sacrifice everything for his goal, the author earnestly claims, “We can’t help but feel for him, despite his horrifically evil plan of galaxy-wide genocide.” For these viewers, Thanos’s appeal as a figure of masculine strength overshadows his role as a tyrant.
This appeal is central to Infinity War’s deconstruction of tropes often associated with heroic masculinity. Thanos embodies and exaggerates many of the same characteristics that make the Avengers compelling action heroes. Most obviously, Thanos demonstrates superhuman strength and combat abilities. In the film’s opening scene, Thanos defeats the Hulk in one-on-one combat, matching his opponent’s physical strength and overcoming him with superior finesse. However, the Marvel superheroes often depend on more than brute strength. In order to overcome seemingly impossible odds, heroes must rely upon creative thinking and strategic brilliance, such as when Captain America escapes from the Triskelion in Winter Soldier (2014) or when Doctor Strange uses the Time Stone to outwit Dormammu in Doctor Strange (2016). Thanos demonstrates a similar potential for improvisational tactics, wielding the Infinity Stones to myriad effects as he battles the combined efforts of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps the most ennobling quality of the Marvel superhero is a willingness to make personal sacrifices in order to save the day. In Ant-Man (2015), Scott Lang risks disappearing forever into the quantum realm in order to defeat Yellowjacket; at the conclusion of Thor (2011), the hero shatters the Rainbow Bridge, indefinitely separating himself from Jane Foster in order to save the Earth. In the MCU, the hero always risks or surrenders personal happiness in order to uphold their duty to the public good. Following this logic, Thanos dedicates his entire existence to saving the galaxy from itself and, in the heroic tradition, goes so far as to sacrifice his only emotional attachment, his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), in order to achieve his goal.
In this regard, Thanos disrupts the traditional logic of the superhero adventure: no matter how strong, inventive, and dedicated the heroes may be, the villain proves himself to be more so. Thanos’s ability to outperform the Marvel heroes at their own game establishes him as a model of hegemonic masculinity. Richard Howson characterizes hegemonic masculinity as an idealized notion of masculinity that figures itself as a primary model upon which all other gendered identities are derivatives. As the standard of gender identity against which deviance is defined, “hegemonic masculinity provides its own form of justice, which is delivered through the adherence, or at least, the desire to adhere, to certain privileged principles that set the benchmark” (4). That is to say, it is a critical concept that foregrounds the interrelation between masculine gender norms and the historical perpetuation of patriarchal control. For viewers that aspire to model the empowered masculinity of the Marvel superheroes, Thanos represents a troubling apotheosis. In the world of superhero fantasies, with its focus on competing power levels, Thanos stands at the top of the cosmic hierarchy: stronger than the Hulk, smarter than Iron Man, more determined than Captain America. If the homogenous model presented by the superhero defines one’s perception of masculinity, then Thanos sets the ultimate benchmark.
It is not surprising then that so many viewers find themselves identifying with the villain. In terms of both narrative structure and character traits, he is positioned as the star of Infinity War. However, by transposing these characteristics on to the villain, the filmmakers also prompt us to reflect upon our investment in such tropes. The same qualities that make Thanos a classic action hero also feed into his tyrannical megalomania. Viewing himself as the hero of his own narrative, he pursues his goals with a self-righteous fervor. When Gamora rebukes him for destroying her home and killing her mother, he tiredly replies that he brought prosperity to her planet by bringing its population into balance with its resources. Provoked by his sanctimonious cruelty, she screams that he does not know what needs to be balanced, to which he responds, “I’m the only one who knows that. At least, I’m the only one with the will to act on it.” The single-minded determination that drives him to victory feeds into a dangerous messiah complex, convinced that he is uniquely capable of saving the universe from itself.
Moreover, his suffering legitimizes his self-perception as a martyr. In the film’s climax, when he finally realizes his goal and commands the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, the camera fades to a fiery dreamscape where he is confronted by a vision of a now-deceased Gamora. In the vision, she is once again a young child, the age she was when he took her from her mother. When she asks him what it cost to obtain his goal, he answers with a doleful expression, “Everything.” Just as Steve Rogers crashes the Red Skull’s war machine into the Arctic at the end of Captain America: First Avenger (2011), Thanos gives up everything he holds dear in order to save the world. This is the masculine power fantasy frequently perpetuated by the superhero genre: the exceptional individual will sacrifice emotional bonds and personal happiness in order to realize their potential as a paragon of strength.
The slippery slope separating villain from hero is most evident in the connections drawn between Thanos and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). When they confront one another in Infinity War, Thanos expresses a sense of kinship with Stark, telling him, “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.” Both Stark and Thanos are men of vision with the will to take drastic actions. From developing his first suit of armor while held captive in a cave in Iron Man (2008) to flying a nuclear missile through a portal to outer space in The Avengers (2012), Stark demonstrates the same qualities of cunning, determination, and self-sacrifice that render Thanos triumphant. At the same time, his stubborn, uncompromising nature has also led to disasters, such as when he developed the homicidal Ultron in a bid to protect the Earth from invasion in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Derek McGrath describes how Stark’s “hyper-masculine propensities” are broken down in The Avengers (2012):
[H]e prefers isolation, using minimal assistance. Yet Stark resists emotional closeness or dependence… It is through his engagement with the Avengers… that Stark experiences the loss of an ally, practices more collaborative teamwork with other superheroes to avenge that death, and ultimately discovers a deeper purpose to his role as a hero.
Following the Avengers’ schism in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Stark finds himself isolated from the teammates who taught him humility. As a result of this isolation he returns to his headstrong ways in Infinity War, pushing to confront Thanos directly and refusing assistance whenever it is offered. As Stark falls back into the solipsistic hubris that he had begun to grow beyond as an Avenger, he confronts and ultimately suffers defeat at the hands of a villain who represents the logical end of his emotional isolation and male pride.
By drawing this parallel between villain and hero, Infinity War also manages to sneak in some broader social commentary. Just as Tony Stark has served as an analogue for the military-industrial complex, Thanos’ self-righteous rationalizations identify him as a pastiche of political attitudes that undergird American hegemony. Noah Berlatsky insightfully describes Thanos as a particularly unrealistic trope: the impassive genocidal ideologue. His master plan of leveling out the galactic population is “a simple arithmetic,” as he explains it. He kills indiscriminately, randomly, without malice. For Berlatsky, this trait actually renders his character irrelevant, as it masks the emotions and biases that historically motivate violence: “You can’t learn anything about the dynamics of prejudice from Thanos, because he has no prejudice. You can’t really learn about evil, or opposing evil, either, because Thanos has nothing to do with how political evil functions on Earth.” While his supposed objectivity does render him an unrealistic representation of a violent despot, Thanos does, however, demonstrate a very relevant imperialistic mindset perpetuated by hegemonic masculinity. He is the superior force that descends upon independent worlds to correct their perceived failings through haphazard violence. When Gamora insists that she was happy on her home planet before he came, he responds with supreme condescension: “Going to bed hungry? Scrounging for scraps? Your planet was on the brink of collapse and I’m the one who stopped it. Do you know what happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies and it’s a paradise.” The infantilizing language with which he describes his victims reflects the polemics used to justify Western interventionism in the Global South. And when confronted with the human cost of his actions, he cites his superior capacity as the mediator of universal justice, afforded by his de facto superiority.
I suspect that it is obvious to many viewers that Thanos represents toxic masculinity. Clearly, the same qualities that make Thanos an unstoppable crusader also make him an abusive father and mass murderer. The filmmakers plainly indicate that Thanos is the dark reflection of what Tony Stark could become if he never formed emotional attachments and just remained isolated in his workshop, designing solutions to problems only he perceives. The problem is that in order to appreciate this critique of masculinity, the audience must reject Thanos based on the moral imperative raised by his unconscionable motives: genocide is wrong. And yet, so much of the online response has been to either weigh his actions, to pose “Was Thanos right?” as if it were some kind of interesting thought experiment, or to rhapsodize about the tragedy of his character arc. This is the central problem with media that deconstructs popular tropes through exaggeration: their impact depends upon the thoughtfulness of the fans.
Alan Moore once lamented the influence of Watchmen on the superhero genre, describing the rash of dark, violent comics of the early 90s as the “deformed bastard grandchildren” of his work. Whereas Moore sought to deconstruct the ideological basis of the superhero genre by exposing its roots in male power fantasies, young artists took inspiration from the series’ gritty violence and dysfunctional heroes. Moore and co-creator Dave Gibbons did such a good job coloring their story in the trappings of the genre, readers missed the critique lying just beneath the surface. Jeffrey A. Brown observes a similar phenomenon in his discussion of superhero film parodies: any explicit critique of the genre tends to be lost in the filmmaker’s commitment to style and conventions. Focusing on the ultra-violence of movies such as Kick Ass (2010) and Super (2010), Brown explains that “given the degree of familiarity that audiences need to have to understand the jokes, and the parodists’ need to stick to plot conventions in telling the story, the parodies often simply reproduce the dominant message in an exaggerated form with some momentary ridicule along the way” (139).
This dynamic of aesthetic trumping explicit commentary explains viewers’ willingness to empathize and identify with Thanos. In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes, Thanos and Gamora travel to the planet Vormir in order to retrieve the Soul Stone. When they are informed that one can only obtain the stone by sacrificing the soul of a loved one, Gamora laughs at her father, claiming that he has failed in his quest because he loves no one. When an openly weeping Thanos turns to cast his daughter into the waiting chasm, she protests, “This is not love!” It is a complex scene. In effect, the filmmakers’ decision to kill Gamora, an already underdeveloped female character in a largely male franchise, in order to make the villainous patriarch more interesting is playing into a crass, misogynistic trope. At the same time, the self-aware, critical layer of the film’s subtext confirms Gamora’s position: kidnapping a child, murdering her mother, forcibly training her to be an assassin, putting her through psychic and physical torture, only to murder her to further your own goals, is not love. The audience knows that Thanos is an abusive father who, despite any genuine affection, treats his daughter as a pawn. And yet, the filmic elements of the scene insist that Thanos’s love for her is real: the dramatic swelling of the music, the Red Skull’s validation that his tears are real, and the fact that the sacrifice is accepted and he earns the Soul Stone. The scene creates a dissonance between narrative and aesthetic, challenging the viewer to reconcile the conflicting messages.
While some critics have called out the problematic aspects of this scene and the troubling ways Gamora is treated as a passive plot device, the fan articles discussed at the beginning of this essay indicate that many viewers find the scene to be genuinely affecting. This scene serves as a litmus test for the villain’s appeal to different audiences. For viewers repulsed by Thanos as a problematic model of toxic masculinity, the very notion that we should feel sympathy for him as he murders his daughter is absurd, and the drama of this scene falls flat. But for those who already feel admiration and empathy for Thanos, it is the emotional high point of the film. Perhaps this is evidence of the latter group’s susceptibility to the filmic rhetoric of superhero movies. Or perhaps it is evidence of their devotion to a model of masculinity that always triumphs, regardless of the cost.
Of course, it may be too early to accurately assess Thanos’s portrayal until after Avengers: End Game hits theatres on April 26. Early trailers depict Tony Stark, completely isolated and adrift in space, recording a dying testimony for his distant love, Pepper Potts. This certainly suggests further commentary on the isolating results of male hubris. No doubt the villain will receive his comeuppance, at which point we will see how the denouement rounds out the first film’s deconstruction of Thanos. Regardless, I suspect the Mad Titan’s appeal to MCU fans will remain strong.
Keith Friedlander is an academic and communications instructor. He lives in Calgary, Alberta and teaches at Olds College. His research interests include comic book production cultures, gender politics in superhero comics, authorship theory, British Romanticism, and publics and counterpublics. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. He is currently the Secretary/Treasurer for the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics.