Thanos (Marvel Cinematic Universe)
|Marvel Cinematic Universe character|
|First appearance||The Avengers (2012)|
by Jim Starlin
Thanos is a fictional character portrayed primarily by Josh Brolin via motion capture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) media franchise, based on the Marvel Comics supervillain of the same name. Thanos is depicted as an alien warlord from the doomed planet Titan with a Malthusian mindset and galactic-spanning genocidal agenda. His primary goal is to obtain the six Infinity Stones, cosmic gems with the power to stabilize the universe's overpopulation and prevent what he views as its inevitable demise. With the help of his adopted children and after a significant conflict against various entities including the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and their allies, Thanos is successful in assembling the Stones and utilizes them within his Infinity Gauntlet to erase half of all life. He destroys the Stones to prevent his mission from being undone before he is ambushed by the Avengers and killed by Thor. When the Avengers utilize time travel to obtain the Stones from the past and successfully restore trillions of lives, an alternate version of Thanos from the past manages to enter their timeline with his army and attempts to obtain the Stones, intending to use them to erase all life and create a new universe to his liking. He and his forces are erased from existence by Tony Stark.
Thanos is a central figure in the "Infinity Saga", appearing in five films, most notably in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). Several versions of Thanos from within the MCU multiverse also appear, notably in Endgame and the animated series What If...? (2021), with Brolin reprising the role.
The character has been well-received by critics and fans, and Thanos is often credited as one of the MCU's best villains, one of the best film villains of the 2010s and 21st century, and one of the greatest of all time. In October 2021, the Ranker online community, after 1.2 million votes, selected Thanos as the fourth greatest film villain of all time, behind only Darth Vader, Joker, and Hannibal Lecter respectively.
Creation and development
Jim Starlin conceived Thanos during a college psychology course. Thanos was first introduced as a villain in a 1973 edition of The Invincible Iron Man. Starlin originally designed the character as skinny and lanky, but editor Roy Thomas suggested he "beef him up." Thanos is a mutant member of the race of superhumans known as the Titanian Eternals. The character possesses abilities common to the Eternals, and is able to demonstrate enormous superhuman strength, speed, stamina, and invulnerability among other qualities.
The MCU began building towards Thanos in the first Avengers film, in which Damion Poitier portrayed the character in an uncredited cameo appearance. In May 2014, Josh Brolin signed a multi-film contract to portray the antagonist, debuting in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Thanos was originally going to have a larger role in Guardians, but Joss Whedon felt that the character needed to be threaded more gently. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely noted that Thanos' lingering presence in the franchise helped legitimize him as a threat prior to Infinity War. Despite this, little screen time had been devoted to Thanos' history and motivations. Markus stated, "We don't get an element of surprise [with his introduction in Infinity War]... You can count on a lot of scenes where we illuminate a lot about him very early," with McFeely adding, "It is incumbent upon us to give him a real story, real stakes, real personality, and a real point of view."
Avengers: Infinity War (2018) went through numerous story iterations, and over the course of development Thanos' presence in the film grew. VFX Supervisor Dan Deleeuw noted "Thanos went from supporting villain to one of the main characters driving the plot." In one draft, the film was told directly from Thanos' perspective with him serving as narrator. Despite leading the cast in screen time in Infinity War and being considered the main character of the film by many, Thanos had a secondary role in Avengers: Endgame (2019). McFeely explained "we had to give ourselves permission to backseat the villain [...] You're rolling around in the loss and the time heist, and you think it's sort of Avengers against nature." Joe Russo stated that after Thanos was successful in Avengers: Infinity War, he is now "done. He did it. He's retired." Markus and McFeely had difficulty in factoring the older, post-Infinity War, Thanos into the film due to the character already possessing the Infinity Stones, until executive producer Trinh Tran suggested that they kill Thanos in the film's first act. Markus explained that the character's early death "reinforced Thanos' agenda. He was done . . . it was like, 'If I've got to die, I can die now.'"
A major aspect of Thanos' comic book storyline is his attempts to woo the female manifestation of Death. This plot was omitted from the films, as the filmmakers instead chose to pair the character with Gamora and focus on their father-daughter relationship. McFeely explained this choice by noting "[Thanos and Gamora] had a lot of history we wanted to explore" that would add layers to Thanos and would avoid him becoming "the big mustache-twisting bad guy who wants ultimate power just to take over the world and sit on a throne." Avoiding the Death storyline moved away from the tease Whedon used in The Avengers with the character, where Thanos felt that by challenging the Avengers, he was courting death. Though the tease was purposely ambiguous, Whedon felt when he featured Thanos, he did not know what to do with him and "kind of hung [Thanos] out to dry." Whedon added that "I love Thanos. I love his apocalyptic vision, his love affair with death. I love his power. But, I don't really understand it." Whedon enjoyed the approach the writers and Russos took in Infinity War, giving Thanos "an actual perspective and [making] him feel righteous to himself," since the Death storyline was "not a concept that will necessarily translate."
Design and special effects
Digital Domain worked on creating Thanos for Infinity War and Endgame, producing over 400 visual effects shots. The company created a new facial capture application called Masquerade, based on the concept of machine learning through computer algorithms, specifically for the film, beginning work on the system 3–4 months before filming began to develop and test it. They presented their results to Brolin, the Russos, and executives from Marvel ahead of filming to demonstrate the subtleties Brolin would be able to bring to the character, which helped inform Brolin how to portray the character. Before the start of filming, Brolin's facial expressions were captured with ILM's Medusa system, which along with his motion capture data from set, were fed to Masquerade to "create a higher-resolution version of what Brolin did on set" so animators could apply that to the CGI character. Kelly Port, Digital Domain's VFX Supervisor, noted the design of Thanos took into account the versions that appeared in previous films but were adjusted more towards Brolin's features, which also helped with matching his performance to the digital character.
Brolin stated that he based his portrayal of Thanos by taking inspiration from Marlon Brando's performance as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), saying in an interview in October 2020; "I mentioned Brando in Apocalypse Now. This guy [Kurtz] who is very elusive and insane but what he is saying makes sense and is poetical". He also added; "I started seeing the parallel which I liked for me. I loved being able to resort to a film like Apocalypse Now when I was doing something like Avengers."
Fictional character biography
Thanos was born approximately 1,000 years ago on the planet Titan to A'Lars, along with his brother Eros. At some point, Thanos came to realize that the growth of Titan's population would inevitably result in its downfall due to lack of resources, and so he proposed to kill half of the planet's population at random. However, his people rejected his solution as pure madness and cast him out. Over time, Thanos witnessed the death of his people until he was the only surviving member of the Titan race.
Balancing the universe
After witnessing Titan's fate, Thanos concluded that other planets would eventually suffer the same fate, and believed that it was his destiny to eliminate half of the universe's population so that the survivors may thrive. He takes command of a warship, the Sanctuary II, and embarked on a campaign of conquest. Thanos took control of various alien armies, including the Chitauri, the Sakaaran, and the Outriders. He also forged alliances with the Other and Ronan the Accuser. Thanos would also occasionally take in orphan children from planets he invaded, including Ebony Maw, Corvus Glaive, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, Gamora and Nebula. Thanos gave special attention to Gamora, whom he considered his favorite. Eventually, Thanos learned about the six Infinity Stones and the powers they could grant him. Prior to 2012, he found the Mind Stone and placed it within a scepter.
In 2012, Thanos directs the Other to meet Loki, providing him with the Mind Stone scepter and sends him to Earth to retrieve the Space Stone kept within the Tesseract in exchange for a Chitauri army to subjugate the planet. Following Loki's defeat by the Avengers and the loss of the Mind Stone, the Other reports about the failed attack on Earth to Thanos.
In 2014, Thanos locates the Power Stone and sends Ronan, Gamora, and Nebula to retrieve it. However, all three eventually turn on him: Gamora joins the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan decides to keep the Power Stone for himself and renounces his alliance with Thanos, and Nebula sides with Ronan when he vows to kill Thanos after destroying Xander. The Guardians of the Galaxy defeat Ronan and leave the Power Stone with the Nova Corps. Thanos, angered at his recruits' failures, decides to search for the stones himself.
In 2018, Thanos, accompanied by his children, decimate Xandar and retrieve the Power Stone. Shortly after, they intercept the Statesman, carrying Asgardian refugees following their world's destruction, and kills half of them, while also incapacitating Thor. Thanos attempts to barter the Tesseract from Loki in exchange for Thor's life, but he unleashes the Hulk, whom Thanos defeats. After Heimdall saves the Hulk, Thanos kills him. He then smashes the Tesseract, obtaining the Space Stone, and orders his children to retrieve the Time and Mind Stones on Earth. After killing Loki, Thanos destroys the Statesman, leaving an injured Thor to float in space, and teleports himself and his children away.
Thanos then travels to Knowhere and obtains the Reality Stone from the Collector. Peter Quill, Drax the Destroyer, Mantis, and Gamora arrive to try and stop him, but Thanos captures Gamora and teleports away with her. Knowing she had learned the location of the Soul Stone, he coerces into revealing it to him in exchange for sparing Nebula, who he captured and has been torturing. Thanos and Gamora travel to Vormir, where the Red Skull informs them that the Soul Stone requires the sacrifice of a loved one, causing Thanos to tearfully throw Gamora off a cliff to her death.
Thanos arrives on Titan expecting to meet Maw and is ambushed by Stephen Strange, Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Quill, Drax, and Mantis. Thanos battles them all and Nebula also arrives to fight him. Thanos is briefly incapacitated but before Stark and Parker can remove the Infinity Gauntlet, Nebula realizes that he murdered Gamora, leading Quill to attack him in a fit of rage. Thanos breaks free of their hold and overpowers them. After mortally stabbing Stark, he prepares to finish him off, but is stopped by Strange, who barters the Time Stone in exchange for sparing Stark's life.
Teleporting to Wakanda to retrieve the Mind Stone, Thanos encounters resistance from Banner, Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, James Rhodes, T'Challa, Natasha Romanoff, Groot, and Steve Rogers, but overpowers them. Wanda Maximoff is able to hold him off for a few moments as she kills Vision in order to destroy the Mind Stone. However, Thanos uses the Time Stone to bring Vision back, only to tear out the Mind Stone from his head, killing him a second time. Thanos knocks Maximoff out and places the final Stone in his Gauntlet. However, he is pierced in the chest by Thor's axe, Stormbreaker. Badly wounded, Thanos is taunted by a vengeful Thor but manages to snap his fingers, successfully decimating half of all life in the universe and teleports away to the Garden, where he rests.
Death and legacy
Twenty-three days after the Blip, Thanos, now living on the Garden, is ambushed by Rogers, Romanoff, Thor, Rhodes, Banner, Carol Danvers, Rocket, and Nebula who seek to obtain the Stones to reverse his actions. They manage to subdue him and Thor cuts off his left arm, only to find the Gauntlet empty. Thanos reveals that he destroyed the Stones to avoid temptation and to make sure that his work would never be undone, prompting Thor to decapitate him. Thanos' actions have a universal impact, and the surviving Avengers work to quell the chaos he caused on the Earth and other planets until finally undoing his actions in 2023. The sudden return of the population has a drastic impact as well, such as on Earth, where its governments attempt to reintegrate the Blipped population, causing socioeconomic conflicts. One year after the Blip, the phrase "Thanos was right" is seen on a coffee mug, and in graffiti in New York City.
Approximately five years after Thanos is killed, Ajak, leader of the Eternals, informs Ikaris that when Thanos erased half of all life in the universe, he inadvertently delayed the Emergence, saving the Earth and many other planets from complete destruction. She further explains that when the Avengers restored the population, it created the necessary conditions for the Emergence, but also convinced her that the Earth deserved saving. After the Eternals stop the Emergence and some of them prepare to locate others of their kind spread across the universe, their ship is boarded by Eros, an Eternal and brother of Thanos.
Destruction of Earth
In an alternate 2018, after learning of Thanos' assault on Earth and assuming he will be the cause of its prophesied destruction in his timeline, a gravitonium-infused Glenn Talbot, having become increasingly narcissistic and unhinged under the corrupting influence of the gravitonium and believing he can save the world from Thanos himself, attempts to draw more gravitonium from the core of the Earth to increase his power, inadvertently destroying the Earth and everyone on it, including a newly-arrived Thanos, and fulfilling the prophecy he intended to avert.
Battle of Earth
In an alternate 2014, Thanos, after conquering a planet, dispatches Gamora and Nebula to Ronan's ship to retrieve the Power Stone. However, he becomes aware of the Avengers using time travel when Nebula alerts him to the arrival of her future self. Thanos extracts the memories of 2023-Nebula via 2014-Nebula's consciousness. He learns that his future self succeeded and that the Avengers killed him and are attempting to undo his work. He then has the 2014-Nebula impersonate her future self and travel to 2023 so that she can use the Quantum Realm to bring Thanos and his army there.
The Avengers successfully obtain the Stones and revive Thanos' victims in 2023. Immediately afterwards, Thanos' ship Sanctuary II exits the Quantum Realm and opens fire on the Avengers Compound, destroying it. While his army searches for the Stones, Thanos engages in an intense fight with Stark, Rogers, and Thor, during which he declares that the Avengers' mission to undo his deceased future self's work has hardened his resolve, and that for the universe to be truly balanced, all of existence must be destroyed, rebuilt anew, and repopulated with life that only knows gratitude.
Thanos defeats Stark and Thor, leaving only Rogers left standing. He calls forth his entire army but the restored Avengers, Guardians, Wakandan and Asgardian armies, the Masters of the Mystic Arts, and the Ravagers arrive and engage Thanos' and his army in a final battle. After an intense struggle, Thanos obtains the Stark Nano Gauntlet, but before he can snap his fingers, Stark manages to steal the Stones from him. Thanos watches in horror as Stark snaps his fingers, and Thanos, along with his army, is erased from existence.
Several alternate versions of Thanos appear in the animated series What If...?, with Brolin reprising his role.
Joining the Ravagers
In an alternate reality, Star-Lord T'Challa convinces Thanos to change his ways and join the Ravagers by claiming that there are other ways to preserve the universe's known resources. Thanos participates in their mission against the Collector in 2008 where he fights Cull Obsidian.
In an alternate 2018, Thanos arrives on Earth in Wakanda with a nearly complete Infinity Gauntlet, but is infected by a quantum virus and transformed into a zombie.
Killed by Ultron
In an alternate reality, Thanos arrives on Earth to retrieve the Mind Stone after collecting the other Infinity Stones, but is swiftly killed by Ultron who used a laser attack to slice him in half. Ultron then proceeds to take the Stones for himself and sets about to kill all life in the Multiverse.
Killed by Gamora
In an alternate reality, Thanos is killed by Gamora, who claims his warlord position, armor, and sword.
- Thanos (played by Damion Poitier and credited as "Man #1") first appears in a post-credits scene of The Avengers, where he is revealed as the Other's master and Loki's benefactor, who sent the latter to Earth to obtain the Tesseract.
- He next appears in Guardians of the Galaxy, now played by Josh Brolin (who was uncredited for his role). The film introduces Thanos as "The Mad Titan", the adoptive father of Gamora and Nebula, and the benefactor of Ronan the Accuser, whom he sends to retrieve the Power Stone in exchange for an army large enough to decimate Xandar. After obtaining the stone, however, Ronan becomes corrupted by its power, and betrays Thanos to keep it for himself, threatening to kill him after he destroys Xandar. Gamora also betrays Thanos and joins the Guardians of the Galaxy, who ultimately defeat Ronan.
- Thanos appears in a post-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, donning the Infinity Gauntlet and saying "Fine, I'll do it myself."
- In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos embarks on his quest to obtain the six Infinity Stones, clashing with the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wakanda. He is ultimately successful, despite the deaths of most of his soldiers and being forced to sacrifice Gamora for the Soul Stone, and utilizes the completed Infinity Gauntlet to simultaneously vaporize half of the universe's population, believing that doing so will stabilize its overpopulation and allow the survivors to thrive. Although he is injured by Thor, Thanos survives his wound and retreats to a remote planet.
- In Avengers: Endgame, after retiring to a solitary farmer life, Thanos destroys the Stones to ensure his victory is not undone. Shortly after, he is tracked down by the surviving Avengers and decapitated by Thor. An alternate 2014 version of Thanos later learns about the Avengers' plan to use quantum time travel and past versions of the Stones, and travels to the main timeline with his army to obtain their Gauntlet to repeat his future self's mission, only to go beyond his original goal and instead erase the universe in full, before allowing creation to begin anew. During the battle with the Avengers and their restored allies, Thanos gets a hold of the Gauntlet, but Tony Stark takes the Stones and uses them to wipe out Thanos and his army.
- Archival footage of Thanos killing Loki is shown in a scene of the first episode of the Disney+ TV series Loki.
- Alternate timeline versions of Thanos appear in the Disney+ animated series What If...?, with Josh Brolin vocally reprising his role.
- The first version appears in the second episode, and is shown to have reformed from his genocidal ways, although he is still called the Mad Titan, and still believes that his plan to kill half of life in the universe had "merits". This version of Thanos is a member of the Star-Lord T'Challa's crew of Ravagers, and has a healthier relationship with his adopted daughter Nebula. In the episode, Thanos joins T'Challa's plot to steal life-giving particles from the vault of Tivan, the Collector, in Knowhere, and in the process fights Cull Obsidian and Proxima Midnight.
- Another version of Thanos makes a non-speaking appearance at the end of the fifth episode, where he is infected by the Quantum Virus and becomes a zombie. He is shown nearby Wakanda wielding a nearly-completed Infinity Gauntlet, missing only the Mind Stone.
- A third version of Thanos makes a brief non-speaking appearance in the eighth episode, where he is killed by Ultron upon arriving on Earth to collect the Mind Stone.
The MCU's rendition of Thanos has received critical acclaim, being regarded as the best MCU villain to date, as well as one of the greatest film villains of all time. Owen Gleiberman of Variety called Brolin's performance "supremely effective" and said, "Brolin infuses Thanos with his slit-eyed manipulative glower, so that the evil in this movie never feels less than personal". Todd McCarthy echoed this sentiment, saying "Brolin's calm, considered reading of the character bestows this conquering beast with an unexpectedly resonant emotional dimension, making him much more than a thick stick figure of a supervillain" Writing for IGN, Scott Collua pointed out that audiences "understand his perspective and believe his pain", making the antagonist surprisingly sympathetic. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised both the character and Brolin: "[Thanos is] thunderously voiced by a dynamite Josh Brolin in a motion-capture performance that radiates ferocity and unexpected feeling." The Atlantic called Thanos an "unexpectedly resonant monster, filled with sadness and even a perverse sense of honor."
Critics noted that Thanos was a significant improvement over previous antagonists in the franchise. According to Screen Rant, the MCU struggled to create captivating antagonists throughout its first two phases. However, this changed in phase three with well-received villains such as Killmonger and Vulture, culminating in Thanos, whose "repudiation of the MCU's narrative worship of its heroes creates a deep uncertainty in our expectation that follows through each encounter toward the inevitable, horrifying conclusion." George Marston attributed Thanos' success to "the weight behind his character. Like the best villains in media, Thanos sees himself as a hero. It's the power of Brolin's performance that begins to draw viewers into that maniacal goal over and over, almost making Thanos seem likable or perhaps even reasonable, before the utter horror of him actually accomplishing his goal kicks in." Similarly, The Washington Post declared Thanos Marvel's most compelling villain due to his "deep, reflective intelligence" as well as his "profound adherence to his belief system".
Thanos and his "snap" spawned much audience enthusiasm. The website, DidThanosKill.Me was created for fans to see if they would have been spared by Thanos or not. The ending also spawned the creation of the Reddit subreddit, /r/thanosdidnothingwrong. A user within the subreddit suggested that half of the approximately 20,000 subscribers at the time be banned from the subreddit, in order to mimic the events of the film. After the community agreed to the measure, the moderators approached Reddit's administrators to see if the mass ban would be possible. Once the administrators agreed to the random ban of half the subscribers, it was set to occur on July 9, 2018. Notice of the impending ban made the subreddit's subscribers increase to over 700,000, including both of the Russos who subscribed. Ahead of the ban, Brolin posted a video saying "Here we go, Reddit users," and ending it with a snap. Over 60,000 people watched a live Twitch stream of the ban occurring, which lasted several hours. The ban of over 300,000 accounts, which included Anthony Russo, was the largest in Reddit's history. Those banned then gathered in the new subreddit, /r/inthesoulstone. One Reddit user who participated described the ban as embodying "the spirit of the Internet" with people "banding together, en masse, around something relatively meaningless but somehow decidedly awesome and hilarious". Andrew Tigani of Screen Rant said this showed "how impactful the film has already become to pop culture. It is also a testament to how valuable fan interaction can be via social media".
A popular tongue-in-cheek fan theory regarding Thanos' defeat in Avengers: Endgame before the film's release, jokingly referred to by the portmanteau "Thanus", claimed that Thanos would be killed by Ant-Man entering his anus and then expanding himself, blowing off Thanos' body. After the film was released and proved the theory wrong, Christopher Markus revealed that due to the strong nature of the Titans, Ant-Man would have been unable to expand himself and would simply be crushed against the walls of Thanos' rectum.
Following the premiere of Avengers: Endgame, Google included a clickable icon of the Infinity Gauntlet in Google Search results for "Thanos" or "Infinity Gauntlet" as a digital Easter egg. The icon, when clicked, made a finger-snapping motion before half of the search results disappeared, akin to the disappearance of characters following the Blip.
During the 2020 United States presidential election campaign, a Twitter account affiliated with the 2020 Trump campaign posted an Internet meme of then-incumbent US President Donald Trump superimposed on a clip of Thanos declaring himself 'inevitable' in Avengers: Endgame, with the meme reposted by Trump's own Instagram account. Thanos creator Jim Starlin subsequently criticized Trump, saying he "actually enjoys comparing himself to a mass murderer".
In other media
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If you Google Thanos, or the Infinity Gauntlet, the search results shows a preview of the Wikipedia page on the Titan as always. But unlike other search results, a small graphic image of Infinity Gauntlet has been added next to Thanos and Infinity Gauntlet on the preview of Wikipedia page.
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