(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: the big bad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe kinda’ sucks.)
“I am inevitable,” intones the fearsome alien Thanos at a few different junctures in Avengers: Endgame. He states this both as a taunt to the Avengers, who are trying to stop him from destroying humanity either in half or whole. But Thanos also states it as a fact that the heroes can’t possibly always save everyone. The inevitability of Thanos, or of a large-scale villain who wants to destroy everything we hold dear, is arguably counterintuitive to his presence. Thanos is indeed inevitable, but within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s not a remotely exciting villain.
Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame follow.
An Implacable Yet Boring Baddie
Before I lose you entirely, I’ll happily clear up a couple things: while I am not a Marvel superfan (I haven’t read the many decades of comics leading up to the MCU), I’ve seen every Marvel movie and enjoyed many of them. Few of the films in the MCU are outright bad (though I’m looking at you, The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk), and a handful of them are truly delightful, funny, and thrilling. Avengers: Endgame, for me, isn’t quite that good, though it’s a) better than Infinity War and b) the second-best overall Avengers movie, including the 2016 Captain America: Civil War, in which the Avengers all appear even without their name in the title.
One of the reasons why Endgame doesn’t rise to the level of great for me is as simple, and as destructive, as why the Avengers are licking their wounds at its start: Thanos. The promise, or threat, of Thanos has been part of the MCU as far back as the original Avengers film back in 2012, when the post-credits scene revealed that he was the orchestrator of Loki’s humanity-subjugation scheme that went awry. The inevitability of Thanos began at that moment — it was not a question of if he would get his hands on all the Infinity Stones, just a matter of when. And over nearly six years, the bread crumbs continued, from brief cameos in films like Guardians of the Galaxy to more post-credits appearances. Thanos was coming. He was, as he says, inevitable.
And in Infinity War, he fully arrived, going as far as killing Loki in the opening scene. (Let’s not get into the fact that the opening scene of Infinity War all but gleefully undoes the emotional catharsis and climax of Thor: Ragnarok. But it does.) On the face of it, Thanos is just about the most terrifying villain of all. He’s implacable, he’s too big for any one hero to take on, and he refuses to listen to reason. There’s literally no stopping Thanos in Infinity War, as he acquires the six Infinity Stones, places them in the shiny gold Infinity Gauntlet, and snaps his fingers, wiping out half of humanity, just as he said he would. There’s no doubt: Thanos is a bad dude. He’s a genocidal monster! He’s tough! He’s fearsome! He’s…boring! Kind of a snooze!
A Villain in Search of a Personality
It’s not a requirement that each villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe be as charming as they are evil. Certainly, the franchise’s first Big Bad, Thor’s adopted brother Loki, managed to be both, in no small part because Tom Hiddleston brought a rakish, mischievous charisma to the role. (Of course, Loki is the god of mischief, so he better come off that way.) But just last year, the excellent Black Panther featured a villain as complex as anything the series has come up with, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. As portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger is murderous, but he’s also given weight and dimension not afforded to most of the baddies in the series. He’s not dour, in spite of being angry, and he’s not humorless, in spite of wanting to enact great pain upon millions of innocent people.
Thanos, on the other hand, is exceptionally dour and humorless. By design, he’s in a lot less of Endgame than Infinity War, a film that essentially makes the villain the protagonist. (Is it a coincidence that Infinity War is, at least to this writer, a lot less enjoyable than Endgame? Nope!) But Thanos, as written and conceived, never remotely feels like a character with as much depth or personality as is required to work. He’s terrifying, yes, but he’s also a very bland bad guy who leads a crew of similarly bland bad guys to destroy the Avengers in the entirety of Infinity War and the climax of Endgame.
A Triumph of Casting
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has thrived over the last decade not because of its villains, many of whom are largely unremarkable. It’s thrived because of its heroes, specifically because of how those heroes have been cast. By now, can you imagine anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr. or Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth or Mark Ruffalo as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk? (Fair is fair, of course: the first iteration of the Hulk in the MCU was played by Edward Norton. Ruffalo was a very smart, if necessary, course correction.) In almost every case, the way that Marvel’s handpicked the actors to play its heroes in these films has been massively successful. And much of what works in these big team-up films is less about the world-ending stakes and more about the characters operating within those stakes.
The inevitability of Thanos is honestly something of a problem. In any comic-book adaptation, of course, there’s some level of inevitability. If there’s a hero, there’s always going to be a villain to stop and lives to save. And if there’s a villain, there’s always going to be some nefarious plot being hatched. But within that level of inevitability (or, frankly, predictability), you can have some amount of charm or personality.
What we learn about Thanos in Infinity War, such as why he might want to decimate the universe or whether we should find his aims understandable in the slightest, is wanting at best. He’s concerned about overpopulation, to the extent that only killing half of the universe will do. And Thanos is willing to do just about anything to get what he wants, even sacrificing Gamora, the adopted daughter he loves most. (The adopted daughter he only adopted after killing her actual family, let’s not forget.) The way Thanos is written makes the idea that he loves anyone or anything a genuine struggle – he seems to kill Gamora less because he sees it as a necessary sacrifice of a true love he has, and more because he really just wants that Soul Stone.
A Maddeningly Opaque Character
Endgame doesn’t give Thanos any more of a backstory — we first see him when the Avengers and Captain Marvel arrive at his calm little garden home, hoping to re-acquire the Infinity Stones. When they realize that the stones were “reduced to atoms” after he used the Stones, Thor cuts his head off. Now, considering that this ax swing comes roughly 30 minutes into a 3-hour film, it’s a bit of a surprise.
It’s also an exceptionally welcome surprise, because Thanos is in the middle of faux-profoundly talking about how he treated his other adopted daughter, Nebula. Thanos has a lot of moments like these in Endgame, where he pontificates (or, in the language of Pixar’s The Incredibles, he monologues) about his plans, or his goals. And each time this happens, I desperately wanted Thor’s ax to swing again. Or, at the very least, I felt like Philip Seymour Hoffman in that one moment in Punch-Drunk Love, repeatedly wanting to shout at Thanos to just shut up.
Being fair, it’s hard to blame Josh Brolin for this. While his take on the character isn’t perhaps as lively as one might hope, the script he’s given doesn’t allow for much in the way of improvising. The inevitability of Thanos exists from the macro to the micro; even in the early going of Infinity War, he can’t exactly have a sense of humor, because we’re meant to think that he has thought through the grave consequences of his actions. (We’re meant to think this without the script doing a good job of clarifying those consequences or Thanos’ opinion of them.) Part of the problem is all visual — the CGI used to bring Thanos to life makes the villain largely, literally colorless, much like his other alien minions. It lends him a slightly cartoonish air, but since Thanos has no sense of humor (and the film seems to also have no sense of humor about him), the effect almost borders on pretentious.
The last time Thanos bellows that he is inevitable in Endgame, it’s when he thinks he is once again snapping his fingers with the Infinity Gauntlet. This time, he’s planning to undo all of humanity, not just half. But to his surprise, he no longer has the Stones — it’s Tony Stark who has them and fiercely replies, “And I am Iron Man.” With a snap of his own, he makes Thanos’ minions and then Thanos himself vanish into dust.
The moment is satisfying enough because it means Thanos will stop talking. But it’s not viscerally thrilling, the way that it is when Captain America wields Thor’s hammer or the other heroes return from their own state of vanishment. Thanos just sits down, mimicking his own action at the end of Infinity War, except this time he’s frustrated and silent. It’s a weirdly apt send-off for a character whose presence hovered over the MCU like a black cloud, a band-aid the franchise needed to rip off. Now he’s gone, thank God, and with his absence, let’s never speak of Thanos again.
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