Marvel’s powerhouse comic book villain, Thanos, made his big screen debut in the Avengers post-credits sequence back in 2011. Since then, all we’ve seen the so-called “Mad Titan” do is …nothing. He sits on a throne and he talks, his plans thwarted time and time again by heroes and petty villains who are supposedly his inferior. He’s lost three infinity stones now. And the only thing we’ve seen him do about it is finally, begrudgingly pick up the Gauntlet and decide to do it himself. That was two years and four films ago. Thanos, as he exists in the MCU, is the king of sitting around and not getting a damn thing done.
I understand the logic. You know someone is the king because it’s everybody else around them that’s doing all the work. But it doesn’t play for this long, especially when we’ve never been given a demonstration of his power, his madness, or his evil. We’ve been told. Oh, we’ve been told. Exposition reigns in the realm of The Mad Titan. “Thanos is the most powerful being in the universe,” Korath tells us. Oh, yeah? In what way, exactly? Prove it. People bow and cower, his daughters despise him, and he floats along on his mighty throne, ever smirking, but we haven’t been given a single good reason to believe it. It’s all tell, no show. Until James Gunn‘s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which finally gives Thanos some teeth as a villain, and does it all without ever having the big purple guy on screen.
If you’re not familiar, Thanos’ comic book counterpart is a supervillain of the highest order, who has rampaged his way around the universe for the last forty years. The character first appeared in Iron Man #55 in 1973, and as you might expect from any character that’s been thriving in the Marvel comics universe for that long, Thanos has a convoluted backstory. But here’s the gist. Thanos is a superhuman Eternal from the Saturn moon TItan, who was born with the Deviant gene, which made him even more powerful than your average Eternal, but also physically deformed, with purple skin and squat features. As such, Thanos grew up the angsty sort, brooding and melancholy, and fell in with the wrong crowd. You know, like the embodiment of Death itself, with whom Thanos becomes infatuated, committing one egregious crime after the next to woo her affections. He destroys his home planet, murdering his own mother in the process. He tries to extinguish the stars. He kills his share of beloved heroes, and during the Infinity War arc, he destroys half of all life in the universe. So yeah, he’s a bonafide badass who’s commanded all the Infinity Gems more than once, and his biggest weakness is usually his own lack of self-worth or his desperation for Death’s affection.
With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn finally gives us a taste of that power and depraved insanity, instead of just telling us to be afraid of it. It’s funny that that moment should come in this film, which opts to tell something of a chamber story in the arc of the Guardians rather than actively furthering the larger MCU narrative, and in which Thanos never actually appears. But his presence, and most importantly, the devastating aftermath of his evil, looms large over the film in the form of Gamora and Nebula’s dysfunctional relationship.
Gunn pulled a clever sleight of hand with Thanos’ adoptive assassin daughters, convincing us in Guardians of the Galaxy that Gamora was a decent person trapped under the thumb of her evil father, while introducing Nebula as an outright villain corrupted by her father’s influence. With Vol. 2, Gunn inverts the dynamic, offering us a much more intimate and morally ambiguous portrait of Nebula and Gamora’s upbringing, and the deranged way that Thanos wielded his power over them.
Mid-way through the film, Nebula reveals why she’s so keen to hunt down her sister and the Guardians of the Galaxy — she wants to turn them in for the fortune that would allow her to rise up against Thanos and put an end to the man who has tormented her her whole life. When they were children, Thanos would engage Nebula and Gamora in trial-by-combat. Gamora always won, and every time she did, Thanos took a little piece of Nebula, replacing it with the mechanical upgrade that might make her an equal warrior to her sister. But it was never enough. Gamora would always win, and Nebula would be subject to a new cybernetic implant, another piece of her hacked away.
It’s the first time we’ve been given an example of why people are so afraid of Thanos, and it’s a chilling, horrifying revelation. Not just the act itself and the perverse logic behind it, but also the way his toxic cruelty spills out and poisons the rest of Nebula and Gamora’s lives. Gunn not only gives us a specific example of Thanos’ villainy, he offers an insight into the way the villain’s mind works and the lasting damage of his depraved ways.
Marvel has notoriously struggled with their villains from the start of their cinematic universe. There have been a few hits, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki rising as the undisputed cream of the crop, but by and large, the villains of the MCU have been boilerplate space-fillers, each as replaceable as the last. If Thanos is to be the ultimate threat to our heroes, he has to be better than that. Infinity War simply won’t work if they don’t lay the groundwork that gives the audience a reason to fear him. Though it may be a small step, Gunn’s personification of The Mad Titan gives us the first taste of Thanos’ monstrous capacity, and finally makes him a villain worth getting excited about.