Avengers: Infinity War has arrived as the much-anticipated, world-rattling climax of 10 years of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Which means its big bad Thanos was meant to be the biggest, baddest, best villain of them all. Eighteen movies have paved the wave for this moment. So once he stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight, how did this Infinity Stone-seeking titan stack up to the 25 foes faced before? Frankly, he's a lot of pomp, yet ultimately a letdown.
MAJOR spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War ahead.
When it comes to sheer power, Thanos has no competition. In the opening of Avengers: Infinity War, he's got the God of Thunder literally in the palm of his hand. He whips the Hulk around like a ragdoll. Then, as if to scoff at our petty human concept of evil, he kills Loki, choking out the villain who'd long been a fan-favorite of this star-power-packed franchise. It's a bold beginning that deftly establishes what a major threat Thanos is to the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. But to be the best MCU villain, you've got to be more than scary powerful. You've got to have a horrifying plan, some jaw-dropping spectacle, and be a character we can loathe and love all at once.
SERIOUSLY, MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS.
Thanos's plan is the most horrific MCU has ever seen. Sure, genocide is a popular goal for this tragedy-stuffed franchise's baddies, ranging from Alexander Pierce's plans to sic drones on threats to Hydra, to Ronan the Accusers' scheme to wipe out a whole planet, to Ultron's aim to kill off all of mankind. Still, Thanos went BIG before he went home to enjoy the sunrise. He wanted to eradicate half of the life forms in the entire universe. It was absolutely gut-wrenching to watch him do just that with the snap of his Gauntlet's fingers. More harrowing was the result that turned half of our beloved heroes to ashes as their friends looked on helpless. And I give sincere props for Thanos delivering the most disturbing and darkest finale of a Marvel movie yet. But the actual logic of his plan breaks down pretty quick and makes him infuriating on a whole other level.
Thanos says he seeks balance. He argues to his adopted daughter/prisoner of war Gamora that he is a visionary who sees that finite resources will mean the ruin of societies. He later shows Doctor Strange the before and after of his home planet to illustrate the point. Thanos would have you believe he's a man of hard logic. He argues with Gamora that he "saved" her home planet by slaughtering half the population. His proof is that 20 years later, not one child goes to bed hungry. But Thanos does not mention how else the planet has suffered in the loss of half of its population at random. He does not examine how having enough resources—be it land, food, or access to education and healthcare—is not the problem for many societies. Rather, it is how such resources are distributed. Inequality between classes is an issue that the blue-collar baddie Vulture confronted in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and that spurred Killmonger to a revolution in Black Panther. But Thanos acts like he's above class politics and petty concepts like morality, when in fact he's a self-righteous and shortsighted zealot.
Thanos does not have a long enough case study to determine if his extreme theory of population control makes sense. He shows his hand by revealing the destruction of Titan. As remote and emotionless as he is on the surface, Thanos' motivation is ultimately a twisted and immature sense of revenge. It's him shouting, "I toldja so" into the cosmos. His insistence that his actions are "dispassionate" as they will affect rich and poor alike is a lazy dodge that suggests you can't judge his morals on this matter because it's not like he's judging anyone. He's just making the tough calls, like universe's most brutal accountant, coming up with the most cutting budget of all time. But this isn't math, it's madness. Still, Thanos's self-proclaimed dispassion deadens emotional beats that should have meant more.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vols.1 & 2, we saw the emotional and psychological toll Thanos has taken on those close to him through the vicious rivalry of his "daughters," Gamora and Nebula. It seemed like Avengers: Infinity War would be the movie where they'd finally face off against him together. But instead, the film functioned as a family drama that treated a tortured Nebula as little more than an emotional trigger for her guilt-stricken sister. Then we're meant to feel for Thanos as he saves young Gamora from witnessing the genocide of her people. But that sequence and even her later murder at his hands are undercut by the decision to have this hulking genocidal egomaniac carry on with the steely composure of a military man.
Though Josh Brolin brings a lived-in weariness and sneering grit to the role, his approach is distinctly reserved, which feels out of place when you have a villain who has founded the Children of Thanos, a cult that celebrates genocide, yet has the playful pluck to turn blasters into bubbles, and his enemies into blocks of clay and a spiraled-out jack-in-the-box. It felt like the movie's need for theatricality was at war with Brolin's austere portrayal. To the credit of the VFX team, there's nothing uncanny valley about this blend of Brolin and CGI. And I don't think his facial expressions were lost under that comically large jaw, purple skin, and scars. But Thanos is so stoic through widespread slaughter, bloody battles, and soul-crushing fights with his strong-willed favorite child, that when he finally sheds a tear realizing the personal sacrifice he must make, it doesn't feel dramatic enough. Making it even harder to spare an ounce of empathy for his dilemma is that he's about to kill one of the franchise's most kickass heroines, and she doesn’t even realize it! How are we meant to feel for Thanos when these movies have been setting him up as a big vague, mass murdering monster? Slapping in some sappy father-daughter schtick felt like far too little too late.
As I considered what makes a great Marvel villain, I realized that each MCU screenwriter and director has a heady feat ahead of them. You want a foe that is thematically interesting, directly challenging the ideology of the hero they oppose. In this case, Thanos faces off against the Avengers' belief that life is so precious that it should be sacrificed only as a last resort. You need a character who can deliver a jaw-dropping spectacle, and boast breathtaking power. Thanos achieved both handily, but to make them one of the best baddies, you need to create a character whose so complex and compelling that we can't help but root for him, just a bit, even in spite of ourselves. And there is where Thanos falls woefully short. His ambition is atrocious, his plan preposterous. He may grab our favorites by the throat, but he never grabs us by the heart.