Avengers: Endgame provides an epic and emotional conclusion to Marvel Studios' Infinity Saga, but it squanders a meaningful end for Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his character arc. Ever since The Avengers’ post credit scene in 2012, the Mad Titan has loomed over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, despite being relegated to teasers at the end of each installment, or brief mid-movie interludes as in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Indeed, in his quest to obtain all six Infinity Stones, Thanos’ actions have both directly and indirectly caused much of what has occurred in the shared universe. As such, anticipation was high for Avengers: Infinity War to deliver on the sense of power and threat attributed to him. But when the movie was released, the cinematic Thanos surprised comic book fans. Instead of slaughtering billions to court the literal embodiment of death, the onscreen Thanos was grounded with a highly warped sense of altruism, since he believed that he was saving the universe through a mass culling of its inhabitants.
Thanos and Infinity War immediately benefited from this change. The villain and his quest were ripe for allegory and thematic exploration, and though Infinity War only told half a story, the stage was set for Endgame to bring it full circle. Regrettably, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo, opted to go in a different direction with Thanos and the Avengers in Endgame - and the film is weaker for it.
Thanos Was The Best Thing About Avengers: Infinity War
When Infinity War arrived, it soon became clear that Marvel had listened to the widespread criticism about its underdeveloped villains, and worked hard to rectify these issues with Thanos. Rather than being sidelined with little screen time, Thanos was essentially positioned as the lead character of the film, and this move allowed for several things to occur.
As the MCU’s various characters came together to combat the Mad Titan, he acted as a focal point for the movie’s sprawling narrative threads. The second was that audiences could really understand the danger that he posed. The increase in screen time not only ensured that Thanos’ brutality could be emphasized through more fight scenes. It also meant that there was more time for him to be fleshed out, and for Brolin’s performance to shine through. This is evident when his relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is explored, even if several aspects of this pairing are misguided at times.
Enhanced by his stature - and stunning motion-capture CGI - Brolin’s Thanos is a beguiling presence, formidable not just through his physical strength, but his mental power as well. Weathered by defeats, he serenely clings on to the twisted belief that erasing half of all life will lessen the need for resources, and thus improve existence for the remainder. As such, the fact that Thanos actually succeeded was a dark, shocking pop-culture moment, and a dramatic setup for a grand finale. But sadly, Endgame could not deliver on its promise.
Thanos Is The Generic Big Bad He Always Risked Being In Endgame
One of the most noticeable changes that occur between Infinity War and Endgame is how dramatically the focus changes. Certainly, Endgame is preoccupied with the core Avengers team, as they come to terms with the fallout of Thanos’ plan and their own personal issues. On paper, this is a savvy move to re-center on the heroes, contextualize the horror of the Decimation, and to give team members (like Chris Evan’s Captain America) a fitting send-off as their actor’s contracts expire. Ordinarily, this may not have harmed Thanos too drastically, but the way in which the narrative further treats Thanos means that he’s critically sidelined. It doesn't help that he is saddled with a reduction in screen-time either.
Within the movie’s first 20 minutes, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has beheaded a retired Thanos, which, admittedly, does help to keep the story unpredictable. But as the Avengers flounder without hope, so does the story without a principal antagonist as its crux. Indeed, much of Endgame’s run-time is devoted to the confusing time travel plot, which lacks the lingering sense of menace until midway through when Thanos “returns.” Through the shared network of Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) implants, the villain learns of their temporal meddling when she travels to 2014. It's this younger version Thanos that follows them back to the “present” Earth and tries to acquire the gathered Stones from the Avengers. Angered that the team would undo his future triumph, Thanos now wants the Infinity Gauntlet to destroy the universe and replace it with a new one.
The problem with this is that there’s little effort to differentiate the younger Thanos from the elder that Thor murdered earlier in the film. In the five years since the snap, the protagonists are shown to have grown and changed because of the tragedy. But in the four that followed 2014 it would appear that Thanos has remained static. In fact, it could be argued that upon learning of the Avengers’ plot, he regresses by falling back upon a one-dimensional aim to just destroy the universe wholesale.
This switch up, coupled with his sparse interactions with the heroes, ensures that the nuances and connections that defined him in Infinity War are lost. Nowhere is this more evident than in Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) climatic tirade against Thanos, which he dismisses because at this point in his life Thanos has yet to kill her lover, Vision (Paul Bettany). The line certainly works as both a joke and as evidence that Thanos doesn’t really care for those that he’s trying to “save.” But by dismissing such character history, Endgame also shuns the subtext that Infinity War, and the wider MCU, had set up for the Mad Titan.
Thanos’ Infinity War Arc Was About Sheer Force Of Will
Thanos’ plan succeeds because he is an intelligent being, a formidable fighter, and with each successive Infinity Stone he is granted even more destructive power. But underneath all of that, he is propelled by determination. Thanos is convinced that his plot to wipe out half of the universe will save it from the fate that supposedly befell his home world, Titan. Moreover, as his visit to Vormir proved, he will sacrifice anyone and anything to achieve his aims.
For audiences that are frequently informed about humanity’s dire impact upon planet Earth, it may seem like a sympathetic argument. Yet, as many pointed out, Thanos' snap doesn’t really make much sense and wouldn't work. For example, ecosystems would have collapsed due to the fact that half of all plants and animals would have been erased. Plus, Thanos would have had to continue snapping his fingers as populations gradually re-expanded once more.
Jokes have been made about how Thanos didn’t think about simply doubling resources. But as his emphatic speech on Titan proved, Thanos was never going to consider ideas like this. His dogged adherence to that flawed and unbending stance mimics real-life despots of the past and present, who are convinced that their worldviews and policies are right, regardless of their shortcomings and who will be harmed by them. Thanos is frightening because he reflects the darkness of reality, and that he is insanely committed to making his harmful ideology work. And that’s where the Avengers - and Avengers: Endgame itself - should have provided a counterpoint to Thanos and what he represents.
Endgame Doesn’t See The Heroes Prove Their Way Is Better
As mentioned earlier, Thanos recalls how his plan met resistance when he first proposed it prior to Infinity War. But what exactly is this opposing view in the MCU? Audiences themselves recognize the inherent horror of Thanos’ actions, both in seizing and wielding power, but Infinity War and its sequel don’t directly rebut what he says and represents. Moreover, it’s somewhat strange that Endgame chooses not to contest or undermine Thanos’ argument from Infinity War. This could have easily been done by showing the team philosophizing (as prior Avengers movies have done). If not, Endgame could have depicted the huge ecological collapse that would occur after the Decimation, or revealed that the destruction of Titan did not occur in the way that Thanos said it did, thus emphasizing his perverse mindset.
The most obvious physical and metaphorical threat to Thanos is the Avengers themselves, and what they represent. If the Mad Titan is an icon of selfishness and a brutal, hegemonic ideology that is (quite literally) divisive, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are the selfless, compassionate collective that strives for unity. Indeed, Marvel may have a patchy record where onscreen gender, race and LGBTQ representation is concerned, but the underlying message underneath the Avengers is that a range of people from different places, backgrounds, outlooks and skills can accomplish more – and can be greater – than that of the individual. They fight not just to just to protect their own interests, but everyone else’s freedom and their lives.
This is not to say they are perfect though; they snark and argue, and Thanos won in Infinity War because the team had succumbed to self-interest and stubbornness in Captain America: Civil War. But crucially, Endgame had a chance to show them rectify that failure, and prove that collaboration and compassion are undoubtedly better than what Thanos could ever offer. Sure the Avengers do reform in Endgame – eventually complete with reinforcements from Wakanda, Asgard, the Ravagers and the Sanctums in one of the movie’s most epic moments – but the film still doesn’t articulate this deeper idea of love trumping power. The Avengers merely match the manpower of Thanos and his horde, and he is ultimately defeated through the cunning of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) via a manipulation of time, and a secondary Infinity Gauntlet which simply turns his own power against him.
This is not to say that Captain America finally shouting “Avengers assemble!” is a hollow moment, or that Iron Man’s bittersweet victory is unfulfilling. However, such moments in Avengers: Endgame could have been more cathartic if the film had made use of the solid foundation - and villain - that its predeceasing films had put in place.
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