Stones cold killer

Em­pire’s Chris He­witt on how Thanos went from be­ing a fig­ure of fun to Mar­vel’s great­est vil­lain

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW -

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 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 sign­ing Alis­son Becker.

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.


Thanos (Josh Brolin) with his fist of fury.

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