WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
If the wild west of the internet has any rules that we adhere to, then there is probably one about the inevitability of weird crushes. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any fandom in possession of good fortune must be in want of a weird monster from pop culture they secretly want to bang (that’s exactly how Jane Austen intended that quote to be used). We live in a post “I want to f-ck Pennywise” age. Hell, Guillermo del Toro made wanting to sleep with the sexy fish monster an Oscar-winning endeavour, so I’m not sure how anyone is that shocked that, in the aftermath of Avengers: Infinity War, there are people who think Thanos is hot.
And… I mean… we kind of get it?
Thanos, as played by Josh Brolin, is not the easiest man to fancy in the universe of Marvel. For one thing, he’s a giant purple genocidal douchebag with terrible taste in jewelry and a chin you could crack open a beer with. In terms of adaptation, he looks pretty darn close to his appearance in the classic comic book runs, so kudos to the hard-working special effects team for pulling that off. The franchise has struggled to make Thanos look truly threatening over its 18-movie slate, but in Infinity War, he feels like a genuine presence. There’s real weight to his lofty form, unlike earlier movies, where he seemed like a giant marshmallow man.
Infinity War also saw Thanos take great strides forward as both a tangible character in the franchise and a legitimate threat. We knew that the movies were all building up to this climactic moment, and it would only work if we took Thanos seriously as the ultimate villain in a saga chock full of them. Fortunately, Marvel brought out the big guns (or gauntlet) this time. Thanos causes true damage to the entire universe, and the closing note of the film is his satisfaction after committing mass genocide. The good guys don’t save the day. For this moment, at least, the villain is victorious.
His triumph is also preceded by his most agonizing failure, as his conquest for power demanded that he sacrificed the thing he loved most, which meant flinging his favorite adopted daughter, Gamora, off a cliff. While Gamora herself doubted the authenticity of his emotions in that moment, it was hard to deny that the tears he shed were real. Even the monster has a heart. The Marvel franchise has always struggled to create villains that walk that fine line between being truly threatening but still fleshed-out people with understandable motivations, but not so dangerous that they destroy the universe before all those sequels can be made. For every Loki or Killmonger, there’s a Ronan the Accuser or Dark Elf Malekith. Even Thanos risked falling into this trap in his earlier appearances, as the MCU kept its cards close to hand. Now, he made sense, and we saw the promised payoff. He’s nowhere near the franchise’s best of most sympathetic villain — Loki and Killmonger won’t stand for that — but now he feels like someone worth caring about. Where your loyalties lie is another issue altogether.
So, combine that angsty moment of vulnerability with overwhelming power, the “bad boy” factor, and the internet’s willingness to make anyone and anything hot, and is anyone truly shocked that Thanos has the goods?
Women like monsters. Or, at the very least, we like the particular fantasies we can craft that involve beastly archetypes. Tropes like the Beauty and the Beast dynamic or the stupid sexy villains are a way for fans to explore various notions of gender, sexuality and power. Having a crush on a monstrous villain is seldom as simple as thinking they’re hot (although that obviously plays a big part in it). There’s something about the relinquishing of power to an almighty force that has immense appeal to people, but especially women. Say what you want about Thanos, but the dude is clearly packing muscles and knows how to use them.
Of course, fancying villains has its bad sides. That whole penchant for casual murder isn’t something you’d want to see on a Tinder profile. They’re villains for a reason. They hurt, exploit, cheat, lie, kill, and much more. They’re not above bigoted behavior, they’d sell you out as soon as they saw you, and they probably don’t look too kindly upon puppies either. Regardless of their motivations or tragic back story or how oddly reasonable their justifications can be, they’re still bad. To quote Brooklyn 99, “Cool motive, still murder.”
The cool thing about fantasies is that you can conveniently omit stuff like that from the equation, or you can soften it into something more palatable. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and we’ve all done it on some level — ask me about my crush on Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter or Javier Bardem’s character in Skyfall sometime. With Thanos, his actions are so obviously over-the-top in a way that can only be recreated in a superhero story involving magical stones and a teenage arachnid hybrid hanging out with a space wizard. You can draw real-life parallels, as you can with most things in the franchise (see: everything related to HYDRA), but they’re rooted enough in the fantastical that you can dismiss them if need be. Nobody’s going to judge you for your fanfic choices, I promise.
Crucially, for Thanos fanciers, the character isn’t entirely irredeemable. If he was, he wouldn’t have given a second thought to sacrificing Gamora (or he may not have been able to kill her at all because that would mean he truly didn’t love anyone besides himself). It’s not much of a redemption arc, but if you want to compose a bad boy crush who can on some level still be saved, it’s enough. Sure, the imposing physical form is appealing in a highly stylized way — logistically, we know there’s a lot more thought that needs to go into those fantasies — but it means nothing without a solid emotional core. For the first time in this ambitious franchise that’s captured the hearts of so many, Thanos has something that makes him human.
Giant purple alien dudes with a lust for power and a giant gold bedazzled glove may not be to everyone’s tastes, but when it comes to fantasies of physicality, power and the fragile hope of change, we totally get that.