Originally published in the Avengers: Endgame special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2019.
Thanos is the villain of Avengers: Infinity War, but he’s also arguably the protagonist. Like in many superhero films, it is the villain, not any one of the heroes, who sets Infinity War’s events in motion, and who pushes the story along to its conclusion. Accordingly, Thanos has the most complete character arc in the film. He’s given more screentime than any other character (29 minutes; Gamora comes in second with 19 and a half; most characters were onscreen for under ten minutes each). Most importantly, he’s treated with empathy by the writers and directors – at least, as much empathy as can be summoned for a genocidal maniac.
For me, that empathy stems from how damned lonely the guy is.
We’ve all been lonely at some point in our lives, but few of us have faced the multitude of lonelinesses felt by Thanos. For starters, he’s the last, or one of the last, survivors of his species, the Titans, following a devastating depletion of resources that all but destroyed his home planet. That’s bound to do a number on you, and certainly does on Thanos. Obsessed with what he considered a solution to overpopulation, he sets out to destroy half of all life in the universe, thereby theoretically giving the remaining half access to more resources. Nothing will stand in his way.
Thanos is delusional, and that automatically isolates him. His plan to eliminate half of all life in the universe has good intentions, nominally speaking: he’s aiming to prevent his own planet’s fate befalling others. But that plan wouldn’t work in practice, and not just because it involves genocide. Even indulging his “sacrifice” of lives, the same inequality between the powerful and the downtrodden would still exist, and would likely even worsen; if indeed all life was eliminated, there’d also be the same ratio of food to population, as all food and ingredients come from, at some point, a living organism. The math doesn’t balance out.
Thanos’ failure or even refusal to think his plan through, and his obsessive pursuit of it, demonstrates how delusional he actually is. He’s had a long time in which he could have considered these complications. But he’s so convinced, so obsessed that his plan is the only course of action, that he mentally blocks out any chance for doubt or debate. Hence, he kills naysayers and surrounds himself with yes-men, viewing people in absolutes and refusing to truly engage.
The thing about delusions, of course, is that those delusions are inherently personal. Though it’s possible to convince others of personal delusions, it’s a difficult process, and no converts will truly believe those notions as much as the original deluded individual. Thanos’ psychology inherently isolates him inside his own mind. It’s a cliche, but a true one, that nobody understands poor Thanos.
Thanos puts himself in a lonely place by declaring himself the Universe’s saviour warlord. It’s lonely at the top, and in Thanos’ hierarchy, he has no peers whatsoever. It’s true: he does have allies. His remaining “children” – Corvus Glaive, Proxima Midnight, Cull Obsidian (known in the comics as Black Dwarf), and Ebony Maw – are orphans Thanos took in after conquering their civilisations, but unlike Gamora and Nebula, they remained unwaveringly faithful to their adopted father and master. Powerful beings in their own right, they act as emissaries and enforcers of their master. But brainwashed toadies aren’t the same as friends or even companions – and their status as “children” of Thanos is based on conquest and kidnapping.
In order to attain the Soul Stone, Thanos must sacrifice something or someone he loves. He chooses his estranged “daughter” Gamora, throwing her to her death and collecting the stone. Thanos claims to love Gamora, and given that his gambit works, he clearly does harbour some love for her. In his twisted manner of thinking, he believes he truly loves his “children.” But his willingness to sacrifice them, either in battle or in ritual, suggests he’s merely convinced himself of this notion out of a desire to fulfill his more overriding obsession. Somewhere deep down, he almost certainly knows this to be true. Perhaps the likely revenge of his other estranged daughter, Nebula, will expose his abusive family dynamic for what it is. Even if it doesn’t, that family unit isn’t coming together anytime soon.
It seems redundant to mention it, but Thanos’s plan itself leaves him more alone in the universe, as it does all surviving beings. With half of all life disappearing, he literally eliminates half his chances at connecting with someone else. He gets his win – but he celebrates it alone.
Thanos smiles at the end of Infinity War, looking out on his beautiful, pristine vista. But it’s an empty vista, and one gets the feeling the smile is just as empty. Thanos might have achieved what he set out to do, but like many who pursue specific material goals thinking they’ll attain happiness in the process, he won’t be satisfied. His inner emptiness won’t go away, and within a short period of time, his satisfaction at a job well-done will turn bitter. And what then? Will he keep Decimating until there’s nobody left?
Possibly the saddest thing about Thanos is that he doesn’t realise that loneliness is a significant cause of his dissatisfaction with the universe. Isolation lies at the heart of his unhappiness, and his actions demonstrate attempts to both ameliorate that, through forcibly “adopting” children, and to lean into it, by setting out on a quest to destroy half of all life. If that sounds paradoxical, it is, but it’s a common practice. The condition feeds itself, and one ends up isolating themselves yet further simply because isolation is familiar.
In the comics, Thanos does everything he does in an effort to impress the literal goddess of death. In Infinity War, he doesn’t even have that connection to hope for. He’s achieved what he wanted, but he may never attain what he needs. His inner predicament is largely of his own creation, and it’s a vicious cycle. There may be no redemption for Thanos, given his crimes, but what he really needs is a dose of self-awareness – and to truly open himself up to others. Locking your heart away only results in catastrophe.