From Jack Kirby To AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: An In-Depth Look At Thanos

Avengers: Infinity War was not a good movie. An aggressively over-hyped, mediocre film, representing the worst aspects of “Phase 3” MCU films, bland, overstuffed with subplots, and pandering to a mass audience without saying much of anything. In fact, it’s debacle requires two articles to explain it all. Yet, this doesn’t mean there were bright spots.

One of the (few) saving graces of Avengers: Infinity War was their portrayal of Thanos (played by Josh Brolin). The screenwriters got him right for the most part, where many other writers have failed, with the exception of one (maybe two or three). Yet still missed the mark regarding the characters motivation, which we’ll get to but we need to explain Thanos as a character and his history in and out of comics.  Fittingly it begins with the King, Jack Kirby.

I’ll talk about the New Gods, at some point, but not today.

In 1971, Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC, and launched the “Fourth World”, a collection of four series (three completely new series, and one which he took over because no else wanted to), which merged together created a tapestry involving actual gods in space, called The New Gods. The crux of the “Fourth World” Series was this: There were two different worlds fighting each other, New Genesis and Apokolips, (aka Heaven and Hell). Darkseid, (based loosely off then President Nixon) was the ruler of Apokolips and created a militaristic society. The four series meshed a unique mix of mythology, cosmology, and pop culture into a blend, many writers still have problems writing for. Two of those series lasted a year, and the other new series (Mister Miracle) ran until 1974.

Fast-forward to 1973, Jim Starlin, an up and coming artist at Marvel, created a character based off his study of Psychology (he had taken Psych classes in college) and inspired by his appreciation of the New Gods, named Thanos, who first appeared in Iron-Man #55, (The issue also featured the first appearance of Drax the Destroyer, as well). In his first appearance, he was noticeably thinner, and was according to Starlin, more inspired by Metron (also of the New Gods), until then Editor-In-Chief Roy Thomas told him to make him look more like Darkseid.

Thanos gaining the Cosmic Cube. Be Worried.

Alas the Iron Man assignment was a fill-in, so he was moved to revive a moribund series named Captain Marvel (not the one you’re thinking of.) Here he began building on the seeds of Iron Man #55 and expanded it (alongside fellow Marvel Cosmic pioneers: Steve Englehart and the late Steve Gerber) to create what would be dubbed “The First Thanos War.” During his run on Captain Marvel, Starlin wrote and drew a book which felt different from most of the work produced by Marvel. While some of the writing remained clunky (it was still in the era of the Marvel Method, and before the likes of Alan Moore), Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel featured unique art, bizarre panel layouts, and was laid out in a way which just felt different than the staid quality of comic books, it was certainly unique for 70s era Marvel. The First Thanos War arc also introduced part of Thanos backstory, namely his family, and his birthplace, the Saturnian moon: Titan (An actual moon, mind you). The First Thanos War ended with Thanos becoming one with the universe (in the most literal sense), with the Cosmic Cube, until Captain Marvel (Rick Jones) and Drax destroyed the Cosmic Cube, thus trapping him with Death. End of story? Nope.

After the Captain Marvel assignment ended, he was given another book, featuring another character Marvel had zero clue what to do with: Adam Warlock. In Starlin’s (This time given writing duties) hands, he turned out a book, which despite the nature of the dialogue (it was the 70s, after all), is intrinsically redeeming due to Starlin’s unique art, intriguing plot elements, and resonating themes. When Starlin took over Warlock with issue 9, he turned Warlock from an android, into Space Jesus, and if it sounds crazy, just wait. The villain of the book is at first Magus, a dark reflection of Warlock, and is a future version of himself, where he went mad and formed a religion, which made the Inquisition seem like a picnic. So, we have a time loop situation, where to prevent the dark future, he must kill Magus, and thus end his own life. It was a unique plot element, which allowed Starlin to comment as much as he could on religion, the nature of free-will and destiny, and high-brow philosophical concepts, which shouldn’t belong in a comic, yet fit perfectly within the bizarre world of Warlock. Even more surprising, was Thanos reappearing to help Warlock in his quest to defeat Magus. Alas, it doesn’t last, because Thanos turns heel again, however Warlock succeeds in killing Magus, preventing the bad future from happening. Loop closed, story over, right? No, not even close. In issue 15, the series reintroduced readers to what would later be called “The Infinity Gems”, but here called the “Soul Gems”.

Starlin’s unique art and intriguing story structure more than made up for the occasionally clunky dialogue.

After Issue 15, there was going to be an issue 16, but after a mix up involving lost pages on a New York taxi, it was never published, and Warlock was cancelled. Still there’s a climax, which must happen, so Starlin had to finish this story up in an Avengers Annual and a Marvel Two-in-One Annual in 1977.

Why? Well, as I mentioned, Thanos turned heel, and took Gamora with him. Thus, starts the Second Thanos War, in which he collected Five of the Gems, and Warlock had a gem embedded in his head, and Thanos created a synthetic gem from the five he stole (plus elements from Warlock’s). This all occurred within pages of said Avengers Annual. Why? Well, it’s simple, to get Death to fall back in love with him after he was defeated in the First Thanos War.

The first time the Infinity Gems were seen together.

So, to summarize all this, The Avengers attack Thanos, and he gets turned to stone by Adam Warlock, sending him into a living purgatory, and Adam Warlock passes on. Story over, what do you think?

Fast forward another 13 years, to 1990. Starlin is writing for Silver Surfer, and he reintroduced Thanos, and brings us to the core question: Who is Thanos?

And now, a moment of Levity… (and in response to the question, not really no.)

To me, Thanos is the most dangerous type of villain, a relatable villain, yet someone you clearly don’t like, but wouldn’t mind rooting for him, if he’s written right. He possesses two of the most dangerous qualities, a villain can have: intelligence and strength. Combined with an attitude of a risk taker, who knows what he wants and how he’s going to get it, to chase his impossible dream. This is my definition of Thanos.

And as such, this definition can be found succinctly in one of the issues which built up to Infinity Gauntlet in 1991, the 1990 two-part mini-series, The Thanos Quest. In it, is the story of how Thanos achieved the Infinity Gems. In Thanos Quest, we see him outsmart people, wiser than him, because of a shrewd sense of playing to the celestial beings’ egos, to get what he wants. Which is smart storytelling, if nothing else. The story reiterated the core statements I explained in the previous paragraph.

He has become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. (To paraphrase J. Robert Oppenheimer)

This led to the Infinity Gauntlet, and other multiple mini series in works written by Starlin, and eventually, Thanos did woo Death. Which proves if you work hard enough, you’ll get what you desire.

So, this brings us to the core problem, of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, the problem of motivation. It has been shown through however many post-credits scenes, he’s been waiting, and having read a lot into this, (because the movie didn’t), was his view of population extinction to solve overpopulation, (which isn’t a wrong statement, character-wise and was supported by the comic). The core problem is the writers got the motivation half-right, while the population theory is correct (adaptation-wise), it doesn’t explain Mistress Death’s initiative to do so, and set the wheels in motion, (in the comic, so to speak.) This gutted his character of emotional resonance, we can all relate to being in love with someone, and doing things we normally wouldn’t do, to someone who doesn’t express the same feelings we do. His love of Death was his reason for getting up in the morning, proverbially speaking.

No snark required, this is just a cool image.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Isn’t this creating a mountain out of a molehill?” My response is this quote by the late 10-time NCAA Basketball Championship winning legend, John Wooden: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make the big things happen.” Couldn’t have said it better than he did.

Mind you, this could have been solved with the second big issue with the film, which I will talk about in the second part of this article (See what I did there?): “Shouldn’t you make the greatest superhero epic of all time?”

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Matthew Simon
If he isn't watching a forgotten library title, Matthew Simon is watching anime/films or attending anime conventions.

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