It's finally happening; after years of build-up, Thanos is following through on his goals of universal conquest. In Avengers: Infinity War, The Mad Titan will unleash his wrath upon Earth's Mightiest Heroes and attempt to seize control of the Infinity Stones for himself.
Ever since Phase One of the MCU, this has always been planned as the grand finale for Marvel's universe in its current state. While Marvel probably didn't have Thanos mapped out as the ultimate villain when Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. were first conceptualizing the first Iron Man film all those years ago, it was still relatively early on that Thanos was settled upon as the endgame villain for the current roster of MCU heroes.
Looking back at the eighteen films which comprise the main story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos played a part, directly or indirectly, in six of them, dating all the way back to 2011's Thor. It's been a long time coming, but it's all going to pay off in Infinity War.
As early as Iron Man, was Marvel Studios playing with the idea of Tony Stark inhabiting a larger world of super heroes and villains. From Samuel L. Jackson's surprise appearance after the closing credits, to a momentary cameo from Captain America's Shield, it was clear that Marvel had the ambition to move forward with a cinematic universe... If Iron Man and/or The Incredible Hulk achieved a certain degree of financial success.
While Edward Norton's take on the Hulk ended up being somewhat underwhelming at the box office, Iron Man was a hit, and the MCU was born. In 2011, two Marvel movies were released back-to-back: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Thor saw the MCU dipping its toes into cosmic territory for the first time, and a brief detour into Odin's treasure vault revealed several iconic Marvel artifacts, including the Eye of Agamotto and – more importantly – the Infinity Gauntlet, sporting a full set of Infinity Stones.
Of course, the release of Thor: Ragnarok six years later confirmed that those objects were fake - just included in the movie as fun Easter eggs for the fans - but the implications behind their fleeting appearance fueled excitement over the future of Marvel's storytelling. Thanos' very first fingerprint on the MCU timeline appeared in the post-credits scene of Thor, which showed Loki, who was seemingly killed after his fall from the broken Bifrost Bridge, miraculously alive and scheming to steal the Tesseract.
In 2012, The Avengers revealed the true circumstances behind Loki's mysterious survival. He was rescued – though "salvaged" may be a better word – by Thanos, who used him as a cog in his grand scheme to take over the universe. The opening scene of the superhero team-up does not reveal the Mad Titan's identity, but it does show his lieutenant informing him that a plan is being put into motion for Loki to conquer Earth and deliver the Tesseract to Thanos, allowing him to move forward with his own plan to conquer the universe.
Of course, thanks to Captain America, Hulk, and the rest of the Avengers, (and also Hawkeye), things didn't go as planned. Earth did not roll over and submit to Loki's rule and cower in fear as an alien portal opened up over Hell's Kitchen. Earth fought back and defeated the Asgardian traitor, with Iron Man even going so far as to intercept a nuclear missile and send it back through the portal to an enemy ship – which looks identical to the one seen in the post-credits scene of Thor: Ragnarok.
In the first post-credits scene of the film, the underling from earlier reports Loki's failure to his boss, proclaiming that the humans are stronger than they could have predicted, and that "to challenge them is to court death." At this line, Thanos reveals himself and smiles, accepting the challenge. In an instant, the trajectory of the next half-decade of MCU films was established.
The addition of Thanos to Marvel movie lore was the work of writer/director Joss Whedon, who decided to introduce him as the man pulling Loki's strings, enabling his conquest while working towards a far greater goal, showing that, while the Avengers had saved the day, Phase One was only a prelude to greater battles yet to come.
Guardians of the Galaxy
For his appearance in The Avengers, Thanos was portrayed by actor and stuntman Damion Poitier, who was credited as "Man #1" to keep his role a secret. When it came time for the Mad Titan to make a full-on appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel brought on A-list star Josh Brolin to perform motion capture for the capture.
The legend goes that Thanos was originally intended to play a bigger role in the quirky sci-fi adventure, but the decision was ultimately made to keep his part minimal - more of a cameo than anything. Guardians was relatively uninterested in being "connective tissue" for other movies, as evidenced by Thanos's abrupt exit from the film and Rocket Raccoon's contempt during The Collector's explanation of the Infinity Stones. As part of an interconnected cinematic universe, Guardians had to lay down some groundwork for future stories, but that doesn't mean it couldn't poke fun at itself while doing so.
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