By Barry “IronicSnap” Neenan
Here is a very basic sociology fact: as education increases, birthrates decrease. The more educated Jane Doe is, the less kids she’ll probably have. As a result, many countries such as Italy and Japan are in fact below the necessary 2.4 children per parental couple required to maintain a population, meaning their populations are now falling, not rising.
Did you get all that? Did you understand this basic phenomenon I learned off for my first year exams? Congratulations. You are officially more intelligent than the antagonist of Marvel Studios’ record-shattering blockbuster, Infinity War.
Let’s back up a bit. Marvel’s biggest outing yet naturally has generated a lot of discussion. Since the film centres around the villain rather than any of the forty-odd heroes, much of that discussion has revolved around Thanos, “the Mad Titan”. In particular, there’s been a lot of debate over his motivations (shout-out to my main man Mark Laherty for foreshadowing this topic).
If you’re unfamiliar with the original comics, like some kind of reasonable and well-rounded person, Thanos literally wanted to ‘court Death’. That’s not a joke. In the Marvel universe, the grim reaper is a sexy lady smuggling some ridiculous curves under her unearthly black robes. When Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to wipe out half of all life, this is an attempt to impress his crush by giving her an obnoxiously large amount of the one thing he knows she likes. In an oddly realistic turn for a story about six magic space rocks, this fails. Death is unimpressed by Thanos’ dumb jock stunt, and eventually falls for Deadpool instead. That is also not a joke. Further proof, were it needed, that a good sense of humour beats a show of force any day.
For Infinity War, Marvel wanted a genuinely sympathetic antagonist, so this motivation – which is pretty out there, if we’re being honest – was scrapped. Instead, we got this overpopulation thing. Thanos is killing half the universe out of the honest belief it’s the only way to save the other half. This also has some precedence in the comics, not that it matters. The main point is that Thanos is shown acting out of what is, in his view, mercy.
Stupid, stupid mercy.
The thesis that overpopulation is the biggest threat to humanity’s resource management dates back to Thomas Malthus, and his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus’ prognosis was infamously grim, and his essay outlines that the rising birthrates he observed could not be sustained through agriculture. Land, after all, is finite. Unless the population was cut, it would die out entirely, and this is (allegedly) the exact fate that befell Thanos’ homeworld of Titan.
But Malthus’ work was poorly timed, published just prior to something you may have heard of called The Goddamn Industrial Revolution.
Malthus’ thesis is now disregarded in academia. We have ways to increase our output, but more importantly, population has been shown to be more complex than a simple curve upwards. Education, as I’ve already said, is a huge factor in limiting births. Thanos should be using the Infinity Gauntlet to give every woman in the universe an undergraduate degree.
Thanos never addresses the fact that cutting a population in half is at best a temporary measure – eventually, the population will return to its original, “dangerous” numbers. (Earth’s population has doubled since the 1970s, for instance – not a huge stretch of time on a cosmic scale.) Nor, as derisive memes have pointed out, does Thanos consider using the literal omnipotence granted to him to explore other solutions, such as simply creating more resources, or making it so living beings don’t need to eat as much, or controlling birthrates, or anything that isn’t an act of genocide so cartoonishly huge the human brain cannot actually envision it.
But that’s the thing. He doesn’t need to consider other options. Because he’s Mad.
There’s a distinct difference between a character who is mentally ill and one who is Mad. Mae, protagonist of Night in the Woods, is mentally ill. She experienced extreme dissociative episodes in her youth, and suffers from anxiety and depression as an adult. She sees a (useless) therapist and deals, daily, with the effects of these illnesses. The game treats them seriously.
Thanos is Mad. He kills people, but sometimes he doesn’t, as part of a big plan that only makes sense to him. His kids seem into it – the ones who didn’t abandon him at the first opportunity, that is – but no-one else in the universe agrees. Because his idea is patently, inherently bonkers.
Writing stories is difficult. The best narratives are ones where individuals or groups come into conflict over mutually exclusive but equally valid goals. But as a writer, I can exclusively confirm that this is, like, super hard. Ideally, plot follows character, but sometimes character must fit plot. And when the mandated plot is “purple man wants to kill 50% of everyone, everywhere”, character is gonna need to suck its gut in a little.
That’s what makes Thanos’ moniker of “the Mad Titan” so useful. He’s regal and urbane and respectful, but whatever else he is, he’s Mad. That gives Infinity War‘s writers a blank cheque for his terrible plan. It’s very, very dubious if it will work at all, but that doesn’t matter. He’s had thousands of years to reconsider his course and apparently hasn’t, but that doesn’t matter either. He’s Mad. A magic, nebulous kind of crazy with no specific diagnosis or symptoms beyond making irrational decisions.
Consider the Marvel Netflix shows. Wilson Fisk, antagonist of Daredevil, is a major reason that show was lauded by critics and audiences alike. Vincent D’Onofrio, himself autistic, played Fisk with genuine vulnerability. Contrast this magnificent characterisation to Diamondback, the idiot who eventually usurps the far more interesting and nuanced villains in Luke Cage. Diamondback is so fixated on Cage that his plans stop making any sense, making him a disappointing and ridiculous figure on a show where every other antagonist is intelligent and calculating.
Fisk is autistic. Diamondback is Mad.
The key difference is whether the character’s neuroses make them more human, or less. Fisk is a violent criminal, but when we see him struggle to connect to other people, we feel sympathy. Diamondback had a tragic childhood, but when he smirks evilly about how he doesn’t even have a plan right now, we roll our eyes. He’s just a cartoon for Luke to punch. And for me, Thanos veers too close to this second category.
This is all the more glaring because recent Marvel films have fixed the franchise’s problem of bland, uncompelling villains. A big factor is providing them motivations that the audience can understand. In Black Panther, Killmonger’s basic argument is that racism is bad. Racism is bad! In Spiderman: Homecoming, the Vulture gets a climactic speech about how capitalism is unfair. Capitalism is unfair! These are both reasonable, even commendable, positions. It’s their methods that make them villainous, and raise the question of whether they truly believe in these ideals, or just use them as convenient excuses to follow their self-serving plans. Vulture buys himself an awful nice house, after all.
Providing Infinity War with a villain like this, someone the audience could understand and even relate to, was a stated design goal. Not a Malekith, not a Ronan the Accuser, not a… whoever the guy in Ant-Man was. Someone with a solid motivation for his actions. The problem with Thanos is that his motivation only works on paper. Actually, no. Less than that. It only works when spoken aloud. Even writing it down makes it sound dumb.
In short, Thanos’ status as Mad – irrational, delusional, divorced from reality – is a crutch. It can wave away any flaws in his reasoning. But it also puts up a barrier between him and the audience. The Vulture wasn’t mad. Killmonger wasn’t mad – well, he was, but “mad” as in “very angry”. Viewers can follow their thinking even if they disagree. That’s what made them such strong characters. By contrast, the last villain to be described as insane was Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnarok. And while he’s, uh, a great character, people mean that in a comedic sense. He’s not compelling.
There has also been criticism that the film presents Thanos as really, truly, genuinely loving Gamora. Villains can and should be shown in loving relationships; the scene Killmonger shares with his deceased father is one of Black Panther‘s most powerful moments. Likewise, Vulture’s status as a husband and father is a major facet of what makes him interesting. But his actions don’t conflict with his home-life. He keeps his family in the dark about his career, which is bad, but understandable. Thanos, meanwhile, adopted Gamora after slaughtering her biological family, pitted her in brutal combat against her siblings, and treated her from childhood as a weapon. A weapon he likes – his favourite knife, embossed with little rubies – but a weapon nonetheless. Presenting this as “love” seems uncomfortably close to the “love” real-life abusers claim to have for their victims.
But Thanos’ love doesn’t need to make sense, or be palatable to the audience. Because he’s Mad.
Making a monstrous character like Thanos three-dimensional and sympathetic will always be an uphill battle. The Russos should be commended for even trying. But presenting his crusade as well-intentioned has backed them into a corner, one they wouldn’t face had the film stuck with his boner (heh) for Death. Ridiculous as that concept may sound, a Nice Guy villain who doggedly pursues an uninterested woman could actually be a timely and effective commentary on modern misogyny – and even if it’s villainous, unrequited love is a fundamental, easily-grasped character motivation. But instead, Thanos’ impossible goal requires an equally impossible logic. One that, if questioned, defaults to insanity.
Thanos’ moments of decorum and genuine respect for his adversaries elevate him far above lesser Marvel antagonists. But despite admirable effort from the Russo brothers and Josh Brolin, I just couldn’t get into Thanos’ head as I could with other villains. He’s big and purple and crazy. When he sheds a single tear over the pain his moronic decisions cause him, I can’t empathize. Because he’s a cartoon. In a deep, fundamental way which other characters – including the talking space raccoon – aren’t. Faced with either utter sadism or a melancholy madness, the lesser evil was chosen. But that still makes Thanos, compared to better villains, a lesser evil.
also call me a communist but when he said his random genocide was fair for rich and poor alike i muttered “just eat the rich, though”. if nothing else it’s gotta be faster than all this space quest nonsense
This is really well done! This articulates a lot of issues I had with how Thanos was written. Thanks for this!
And thank you! I appreciate the read, and definitely appreciate the kind words