I am a Marvel fanboy through and through—both in terms of comics and the cinematic universe. It’s something I’ll confess proudly. But even the most ardent fanboy (and fangirl) must be willing to entertain criticism of that which he or she loves. And when it comes to criticism of the MCU, the most vulnerable point of attack is that of underdeveloped villains. While Tom Hiddleston’s Loki presents a mild exception (maybe Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull as well), by and large the villains of the MCU just haven’t packed the same cinematic punch as their heroic counterparts. To be clear, this hasn’t been for lack of excellent casting. Rather, screen time and character development has simply weighed much more in favor of the good guys relative to the bad.
This criticism isn’t new though. Other authors have commented on this dilemma before (here and here for example). But on the brink of Phase III, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on whether this critique ought to be extended towards the ultimate overarching Big Bad of the MCU—Thanos the Mad Titan himself. It pains me to say it but I will say it nonetheless—I fear Thanos could be Marvel’s first major flop, and I’ll make my case for why.
Let’s begin by taking a step back in time to the earliest days of the MCU. Ever since the Infinity Gauntlet was teased as an Easter egg in Thor, individuals have been expecting (clamoring?) for Thanos to make an appearance against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Surely who else but Thanos could be the one to wield the six infinity gems, made famous by the legendary Infinity Gauntlet storyline from the 1990s? The post-credits sequence of The Avengers all but confirmed this, with Thanos himself showing up on the big screen. The bar was raised all the higher with the casting of Josh Brolin in Guardians of the Galaxy and the explicit sprinkling of infinity gems throughout the plots of Phase II’s Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
What’s my point with all this though, you might ask? It’s a simple one—Thanos is not your standard villain in the scheme of the MCU, and should not be conceived of as one. Due to the extraordinary level of hype that surrounds him, Thanos should deliver a correspondingly elevated performance. Put simply, a lot is riding on him in the scheme of the MCU. I would go so far as to argue that never in the history of cinema has a villain been so foreshadowed. The closest character I can think of would be the Emperor from the Star Wars universe, but even he was debuted just one movie after first being mentioned in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, Marvel Studios was monumental in developing the concept of a shared universe, and Thanos represents the first ever shared-hyper-villain of that universe—someone who has been present, if not a key-player, in multiple movies spanning numerous plotlines. His arrival must pack more than just an ordinary punch.
Yet despite this momentous build-up in the minds of the comic-book-movie-watching community, how much screen time has been devoted to the character thus far? I checked for purposes of this column, and can report that the answer is a measly two and a half minutes across all MCU movies—and all of that time is dialogue based. For a villain that is supposed to strike fear and hate into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere, we have yet to be given a vivid reason to emotionally respond to Thanos’s presence. Compare this to one of the most iconic and ominous villains of all time, Darth Vader, who formed the menacing focal point of arguably all three movies in the original Star Wars trilogy, and you can understand why the payoff for Thanos might not deliver on the multi-movie build-up. Not to mention that Thanos’s motivation also lacks clarity. Yes, he wants to “court Death” by attacking the Avengers, as any avid comic-book reader will know, but the average movie-goer will not be privy to the backstory of Thanos’s relationship with Death, nor has there ever been a solid explanation as to why Thanos wanted Loki to conquer Earth to begin with. In short, Thanos lacks development.
There are other reasons to be wary of Thanos’s adaptation on the big screen, not the least of which will be that, unlike most previous Marvel villains, Thanos will be more dependent upon CGI. When used effectively, CGI surely magnifies the entertainment value of an action movie, but (as anyone familiar with the Star Wars prequels knows) it can utterly ruin a film if overdone. And this also brings up the question as to how the Infinity Gauntlet will be adapted for big screen battle? The Avengers, as we’ve seen in their first two incarnations, primarily faced swarms of foot soldiers. The “Avengers versus Thanos” is an entirely different battle to script and choreograph than the “Avengers versus robot horde.” Last but not least, even if Kevin Feige and Company nail Thanos, what happens next? The entirety of the MCU has been geared towards Thanos’s showdown with the Avengers. Where do you go from there? How could Phase IV recalibrate? Hopefully Marvel hasn’t written itself into a hole.
Now let’s be clear—I’m not being fair to Marvel here. Kevin Feige and the Russo Brothers have given me no reason to doubt their ability to tackle Thanos, and to a large extent I’m putting the cart before the horse—engaging in pre-emptive criticism. There’s all of Phase III to roll out Thanos, to develop his character and motivations. As Heath Ledger’s Joker so clearly demonstrated, you don’t need more than one movie to do a villain right—and Thanos is likely getting at least two (Avengers: Infinity War – Parts I and II). To Marvel’s credit, they’ve taken this slow on purpose, making the wise decision not to rush out Thanos immediately as the villain in Avengers II. The MCU represents the pinnacle of prudent universe construction.
But at the end of the day, Thanos is no ordinary villain, either in the comics or in the build-up of the MCU. And it is not altogether clear that adapting him to the big screen will be without hurdles. It is altogether rational to make room for trepidation—I know I am. I have faith, certainly, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed nonetheless.