This post contains spoilers for Infinity War, like, right after this sentence.
The greatest trick that Thanos ever pulled was to nearly convince you he had a point. And that really is saying something, considering that the supervillain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spent the past six years threatening us with snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War and magicked away half the sentient population of the universe. Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, called this “mercy.” Which tracks if you also subscribe to the notion that life is an inconvenient mess forced onto people, or if you’ve ever rooted for the asteroid, so to speak. The thing is, when people make grim pronouncements like that, they’re usually joking a little. I looked around the theater after the lights came up and saw children with their hands on their heads and tears in their eyes. With so much emotional fallout, does Thanos actually have a leg to stand on?
Let’s go back to the beginning of time, to the first Avengers movie. The Big Bad was Loki, riding into midtown Manhattan on a flying chariot, backed by a massive alien invasion force pouring out of a gaping hellmouth to another dimension suspended in the sky. The goal? Raze the world and preside over the ashes. The freshly assembled Avengers beat the incursion back and Loki into submission just barely, and with an amount of trauma the MCU didn’t really acknowledge for another two movies or so. Fast-forward to the opening exchanges of Infinity War and Thanos, the existential threat long promised, has already beaten Thor to within an inch of his life. He piledrives the Hulk so hard that the once overly combative rage monster wants no smoke for the rest of the movie, and then throttles Loki, laying his blue, lifeless body at Thor’s helpless feet. The first Avengers movie turned on every crank in the space of 10 minutes.
This is a good villain, and I’m not trying to tell you he’s not. Large? Check. Cruel? Check. Apparently unstoppable? Check. But the seams start to show in his backstory. In the comics, Thanos was responsible for the destruction of his homeworld, Titan; but in Infinity War, he made an honest attempt at saving Titan many years before. With the population ballooning and natural resources dwindling, Thanos made a logical but no less heinous suggestion: kill half the population at random so the rest can live. He was rightly laughed off the planet, but then again the planet did eventually die. This becomes the bad thing in his past that he vows never to let happen again, animating his quest to acquire all six Infinity Stones for want of killing half of everything so that no one will have to go to sleep on an empty stomach. This is a choice only he has the will to take responsibility for, as he tells his adopted daughter Gamora before forcing her to lead him to the Soul Stone.
About that: If you can already bend space and time and go literally anywhere in an instant, why, then, would you choose to teleport to the base of a mountain and climb up? Further, why, if you had the power to bend all reality to your whim, would you sacrifice half of the universe instead of just ... you know, providing for it? It’s like the cookie-jar adage—Thanos, with his massive, dumb, purple hand caught in a bind, chose to smash the jar instead of letting go of the cookie.
It’s not a plot hole that existed in the comics, in which Thanos was proudly unredeemable. See, he had a weird thing for Mistress Death, who is the concept of death, personified as a desirable woman. And Mistress Death had done some accounting and noticed that there were more people alive at the time than had ever died. And if Thanos truly loved Death, she reasoned, he would balance the scales for her. So he gathered the Infinity Stones, and that’s where Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet—the series on which the movie is loosely based—begins. (You’ll notice that, in his first mid-credits scene after Avengers, he smiles when his adviser tells him that to invade Earth is to “court death.” Get it? “Court Death.”)
Thanos’s genocidal mission makes more sense when he’s the leader of a death-worshiping cult. One of his many perverse attempts to win Death’s affections includes keeping Nebula in limbo between life and death. In the MCU, that meant replacing her flesh with robot parts, as she tearfully explained in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In Infinity Gauntlet, that meant something much more grotesque and literal.
Ten years of world-building were riding on Infinity War, the end meant to justify the means. That said, there was a need to present the Biggest Big Bad in the most flattering light possible. In making a “Thanos Movie,” as codirector Joe Russo called it in an interview in early April, especially one that’s nearly three hours long, there was always a chance Thanos could be perceived as, well, correct. The unsettling thing is that people seem to think there’s a chance he really could be. “You want to write him off as insane,” Brolin said of his role in March. “And yet what he’s doing makes sense, if you break it down.”
Hmmm. No. No, it doesn’t. Let’s start here: Thanos says that there was a caste system on Titan, and that resources weren’t limited so much as disproportionately distributed. And to ruin everyone’s fun by applying serious, real-world politics to a movie featuring a talking raccoon for a second: Environmental concerns about overpopulation are at best dramatized and at most other times discriminatory. Population control as a solution is often coercive and antihumanist.
Once you start to seriously consider expedience at such a dire cost, you’re too far gone. You don’t even need me to help orient your thinking on what are acceptable losses and what are not. Captain America does it for you. About an hour after it all hits the fan, Vision suggests the gang destroys the Mind Stone, which would mean destroying Vision along with it, because one (super)life shouldn’t stand between victory and failure. “But it should,” Captain America says, now bearded and spicier, but just as idealistic. It’s cheesy, and Pollyannaish, but he’s right. Thanos, it must be said, was not.