Stones cold killer
Empire’s Chris Hewitt on how Thanos went from being a figure of fun to Marvel’s greatest villain
A MAN — WELL, a being — steps onto a porch, sits down in a chair, and watches the sun rise with a contented smile. It’s been a long, hard day, during which he’s been forced through the emotional and physical mill, defeated all the accursed enemies who opposed him, ticked every box on the mental to-do list he made when he woke up that morning, and he’s earned himself a chance to reflect on his achievements. A moment’s grace.
It’s a fitting end for a hero’s journey. Just one problem. This isn’t the hero.
It’s the villain.
Going into Avengers: Infinity War, directors Joe and Anthony Russo knew they had a monumental task on their hands. Not only did they have to somehow fit all 289 major characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one narrative, and make it work, but they had to do the seemingly impossible: take Thanos, the Big Bad of the MCU, and make him worthy of that title. They were aware of all the jokes, many of them coined by Empire, about how Josh Brolin’s purple, Infinity Stones-craving space lunatic had done bugger all since his introduction at the end of The Avengers and had spent the last few years glued to his floating throne-cum-portapotty when he should have been striking fear into the hearts of the audience.
Pre-release, the Russos were in a bullish mood, confident that not only
had they done that, but they’d done so in surprising ways. “He’s almost the lead character of the movie,” Joe Russo told us on set. Turns out he wasn’t joking. Turns out they were right to be bullish.
Alan Partridge has a bit of advice for anyone doing an after-dinner speech. Start off with a gag about seeing a piece of graffiti that says, “I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure.” “Straight away,” advises Alan, “you’ve got them by the jaffas.”
Thanos doesn’t start Infinity War with a gag about graffiti, but he does heed Alan’s wisdom. Within the first five minutes of Avengers: Infinity War, he’s got us by the jaffas after beating the shit out of Thor and the Hulk, bumping off Idris Elba’s Heimdall, then brutally killing Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in front of his half-brother, Thor. As statements of intent go, it’s up there with blowing up Alderaan.
And that last one is crucial. There has long been a perception that Marvel has a villain problem, with their bad guys either being weak facsimiles of the hero (hello, Iron Man’s’ Ironmonger), or boring, two-dimensional goons (hey there, Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Ronan The Accuser, who doesn’t even do any accusing). And while they’ve made great strides recently with the likes of Captain America: Civil War’s layered Baron Zemo, Thor:
Ragnarok’s deliciously evil Hela, and Black Panther’s tortured, righteous Killmonger, that perception also has it that the Marvel villain to beat is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
So, by having Thanos snap Loki’s neck like a twig, the Russos immediately set out their stall. This Thanos isn’t going to be sitting around (he even has a line later about how he always hated his chair; unusually meta for a Marvel movie). He’s going to be so evil that the previous MVP (most villainous player) is to him but an insignificant speck. From there, though, something interesting happens. As in, Thanos becomes interesting. Aware that they need to back up his bulk, the Russos cement his character. They’re aided and abetted wonderfully by Josh Brolin’s textured performance, and the sensational work of the effects companies entrusted with making Thanos as photo-real as a giant purple man with bollocks for a chin can be.
When Thanos is not on camera, characters are almost always talking about him, often in terrified, hushed tones, enhancing our understanding of his quest to unite all six Infinity Stones and bring balance to the universe by wiping out half of all living things with a single click of his fingers. This, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense (he’d have to do it every 30 years or so to deal with population spikes, for one thing). But Thanos is as Thanos does, and it’s important to note that, though he seems reasonable and logical, he’s mad as a box of Muspelheimian fire dragons.
That madness isn’t always evident. Thanos is far removed from the cackling, monologuing megalomaniac we’re used to seeing in movies like this. In fact, he has a calculating side that constantly sees him force people, from Thor to Peter Quill, to make horrible choices. But the movie strives to reveal a softer side. Long before he sits on that porch enjoying the sunrise, he stops for a second in the middle of a battle with Doctor Strange to admire a cloud of butterflies.
Nowhere is this vulnerability more obvious than in his relationship with his adopted daughter, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. They spend much of the movie together and, while it’s clear she loathes this abusive dad, she is his world. And so, when fate forces him to make his own terrible choice, between her or acquiring the Soul Stone, he does so with a heavy heart, tossing her to her death through tear-sodden eyes. “What did it cost?” asks his vision of a young Gamora, after he’s completed his task. “Everything,” he replies. And he sounds like he means it.
That ending, which caught many who didn’t know of the existence of Avengers 4 by surprise, is one of the boldest endings in blockbuster history. Yet it makes perfect sense for the Russos. They don’t end Infinity War on shots of the defeated Avengers, or on the fluttering dust particles that were the disappeared, but on the film’s antagonist, allowing himself a moment’s peace. Because he’s not the antagonist, after all. This is his story, his quest, his movie. Thanos, the protagonist.
In a tradition borrowed from the Bond films, each MCU film ends with a line, after the credits, stating that that film’s hero, or heroes, will return. In Infinity War, that’s flipped on its head. “Thanos,” we are told, “will return.” And we can’t wait.
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Thanos (Josh Brolin) with his fist of fury.