After years of struggling to match Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Marvel seem to have finally got their act together when it comes to inventing memorable baddies.
**WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: ENDGAME**
First Michael Keaton’s Vulture chilled a generation of fans with one quiet chat in his car. Then Cate Blanchett brought style as Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela. Then we had Michael B Jordan’s tour-de-force as Killmonger – the Magneto to Black Panther’s Professor X.
And then there’s Thanos, the obscure Marvel comic-book villain who became a pop culture icon after finally taking a main role in Avengers: Infinity War. While Thanos and his plan to collect the galaxy’s hottest accessories for his nice glove had been hinted at in Marvel movies for nearly a decade, Infinity War was the first time we got to spend real time with him – and what a time it was.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have been open about the fact that Infinity War is structured to have Thanos as its main protagonist (he certainly has more screen time than any other character), and this unusual approach definitely achieves something special.
While I wouldn’t go as far as the one or two people who described Thanos as “Shakespearean”, there was certainly a lot of nuance to him compared to your average comic-book baddie – whether that’s through his emotional sacrifice of Gamora, oddly tender treatment of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or just the nature of his grand plan for the universe.
Unlike other villains, Thanos doesn’t want to destroy/rule the world/galaxy: he just wants to balance it, wipe out exactly 50 per cent to reduce the strain on resources (in a contrast to the comics, where he snaps his fingers and wipes out half of all life to impress a girl, more or less). While obviously abhorrent and misguided, Thanos’ single-minded devotion to his cause made him understandable, almost noble, and added real heft to his clashes with the Avengers.
Which is what makes Thanos’ treatment in Avengers: Endgame all the more frustrating. While the Mad Titan’s presence in the film starts out strong – having fulfilled his purpose he’s now basically started a farm, in an idea lifted directly from the source comics – it goes downhill after the character’s shock death at the hands of Thor.
In itself Thanos’ early death isn’t a bad move (it’s a fun, impactful moment when it happens), but it necessitates the film finding another antagonist to stand in the way of the Avengers collecting Infinity stones throughout time (otherwise, their Time Heist would have worked with relatively little incident).
And of course, to find a really satisfying counterpoint to Infinity War’s brutal ending, that villain has to be Thanos as well – which is why Endgame just brings in a younger model, specifically the Thanos that existed during the period of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy (the first time Josh Brolin took on the role).
While this is a clever way of bringing some emotional catharsis to the Avengers’ battle that ties into the time travel plot, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated by the epic final clash.
For one thing, this Thanos seemed more openly villainous than the version we grew to know over the course of Infinity War, swapping his unusual plan of balancing the population with a less evocative idea of destroying then reforming the galaxy, and crowing about how he’d enjoy destroying the Avengers’ “annoying” planet – a far cry from the quieter, more understandable Thanos we’d spent so much time with in Infinity War.
Well, as quiet and understandable as anyone who would throw a moon during a hissy fit can be.
And when they did beat him back, the Avengers’ victory over Thanos didn’t feel as satisfying as it should have been, because this wasn’t the Thanos they’d previously battled against, lost against, raged against.
“You took everything from me,” Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch growls when she faces off with the man who murdered her lover.
“I don’t even know who you are,” answers Thanos, reasonably.
Without the shared history that the older Thanos had with our heroes, the meaning of his defeat rings a little false. Sure, he caught a rerun on Nebula’s servers, but that doesn’t mean he lived through the experience like they (and the audience) did. Without that build-up, the emotional beats of that last battle don’t feel as earned.
Look, perhaps this was inevitable: it’s not like both films could be about Thanos (this one spends a lot more time with the six original Avengers). Arguably it’s the success of the first film in humanising the villain that makes him feel a little thinner here.
But I wish that one of the best things about Infinity War could have been carried over to its sequel. More than anything, Avengers: Endgame is about continuity and long-running storytelling, with every single one of the 21 Marvel movies that preceded it paying off in one grand tale.
It’s a shame that ethos couldn’t extend just a little farther to the film’s villain – even if this wasn’t the most ignoble end he could have faced.
Avengers: Endgame is in UK cinemas now