As we ferry ourselves home for the holidays, standing in neverending airport lines or sitting in standstill highway traffic, as we venture out into malls to knock shoulders and trade sneezes with other shoppers, as we see the endless, indistinguishable, soulless Instagram Christmas tree photos, and read the same smarmy tweets about seasonal awkwardness repeated ad nauseum, I believe there’s one thing we’ll all be thinking: Maybe Thanos had a point. There are too goddamn many people.
It’s a testament to Thanos that he’s more than a punch line. He’s giant and armorclad and purple and speaks in self-serious mantras that would sound silly coming out of any other set of CGI lips, and the majority of real human ones too. But every successful villain has to have a believable motivation, and so respect must be given to the Russo brothers, who directed Infinity War, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and obviously Josh Brolin, and Kevin Feige and the rest of Marvel Studios, and of course Jim Starlin, who created Thanos, and the rest of the comics writers like Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman and Donny Cates and Keith Giffen and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning who breathed dimension into him. Come to think of it, that’s a goddamn lot of people too. Thanos would probably have some thoughts about that.
But let’s back up. Before he was a major movie star, before he was a universe-trotting supervillain, Thanos was an angsty kid like you and me. In the comics, he had a bad relationship with his mom (she tried to kill him), and as a child he was a pacifist. But in his teenage years he became obsessed with death, or rather Death—Mistress Death—with whom Thanos fell in love. It was Death who took him sweetly by the hand and steered him into the life of genocide. Death begets love begets death—“perfectly balanced, as all things should be,” as the man said.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos is obsessed with a plan to eliminate half of the universe’s population in order to save it—his home planet Titan was destroyed, see, because of overpopulation and resource depletion. It’s a thankless job—“Fun isn’t something one considers when balancing the universe,” he says—but in his eyes a necessary one. (He accomplishes this by seeking out six “Infinity Stones,” and it’s hard to imagine any other actor, CGI or not, making MacGuffins so compelling.) Let’s be honest: It’s a bonkers plan, the kind of intellectual experiment most of us left behind in freshman philosophy. There’s some charm in the fact that for all of his grumbly majesty, Thanos is an emotionally stunted head case. And despite the obvious wrongness of his plan, Thanos exposes that in our current era of political division, any argument made in earnest can be seductive—as long as the tyrant in question is on your team.
In his New Yorker review of the film, Richard Brody groused that “Thanos wreaks havoc and leaves a trail of misery in his wake, and the most powerful impression left by the movie overall is its sense of bewilderment and betrayal, of mightily mournful and unreconciled desolation that feels, inescapably, like an allusively emotional transcription of the current American political landscape.”
And sure, there’s a little [insert world leader here] in his nihilistic strut. But there’s a post-truth argument in there too: “Reality is often disappointing. That is, it was. Now, reality can be whatever I want.”
The movies make room for philosophy—strained as it may be—where the early comics let the villainy do the talking. And there’s some merit to that—as my colleague Micah Peters put it back in May, “Thanos’s genocidal mission makes more sense when he’s the leader of a death-worshiping cult.” If his mission in Avengers: Infinity War isn’t quite so on the (purple) nose, Thanos was nonetheless inspirational: He has inspired a real-world cult of nihilistic online meme-makers, so ironically dedicated to his cause that they chose to self-purge half of their members at random to emulate their messiah.
All due respect to the Infinity Stones, it’s in the memes where true power lies. In the comics, Thanos has achieved immortality, and while that part is uncertain in the movies, out here on planet Earth he’s achieved the everlasting life of meminess. Power in the modern era is memory—memorableness—and every time Thanos got that Impact font laid over his face, his timelessness grew.
But importance in 2018 is more than just memes—it’s the ability to keep us waiting. Thanos did that too, postponing his inevitable comeuppance for the sake of drama (and box office bonanza). I know, I know—everything that Marvel does feels like an obvious win in hindsight, but let’s pause to admire the gall of this: building to a movie for a decade and then shoving the ending off for a year later. A year! “The hardest choices require the strongest wills” and all that. Folks have spent $17.5 billion at the box office to see these movies! The fact we didn’t have full-scale riots in the streets is amazing. And probably in no small part because keeping Thanos in our lives a little longer isn’t the worst thing in the galaxy. By the time Avengers: Endgame comes out, Thanos might be the most popular member of the MCU.
If the MCU has succeeded in large part due to self-awareness and self-deprecation, Thanos is its perfect foil: the space operatic straight man, Sartre green-screened into eternity. It’s Thanos’s earnestness that makes him such a poignant target for postmodern deconstruction, and what his Reddit acolytes have learned from Thanos is perhaps Big Purple’s most poignant lesson: commitment to the bit.
He’s not one-dimensional, though. He’s Thanos the supervillain, Thanos the eco-philosopher, Thanos the plot device, knocking off actors who have aged out of their roles, Thanos the avatar of highbrow film critics, purging the cinematic landscape of its overabundance of superheroes.
Is that last one overkill? Probably, but one imagines that Thanos would find common cause with their ilk. In the end, though, I think we’re all on the same side. Just as other heroes in the past are defined by their arch nemeses—the Joker, Magneto, Lex Luthor—Thanos is the only baddie who has successfully anchored a Marvel movie (all apologies to Mr. Hiddleston). Marvel movies are perfect escapism at a moment when we desperately need it, and Thanos is the opposing force we need to justify the entire experiment. Without him, we might be forced to pay attention to the real world.
“I can simply snap my fingers, they would all cease to exist,” he says. Yes, please, my giant, purple, thumb-faced overlord, just make them all be quiet for a while. “I call that mercy.” Amen.