- Thanos is one of the most complex and fully formed villains ever put on screen.
- Because of that, "Avengers: Infinity War" is the MCU's "The Empire Strikes Back."
Warning: Major spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Villains in superhero movies are usually forgettable.
In this latest era of the genre, many times they are ominous figures in the background of the story who suddenly appear — often in some ugly ship — to take on our hero, who (if the storytelling was done correctly) we now have a vested interest in. The bad guy, on the other hand, we know little about and is just there to be used as the good guys’ last obstacle in the movie.
It’s something audiences have complained about a lot since Marvel Studios kicked off the latest superhero craze with “Iron Man” in 2008. Gone are the days of Gene Hackman as the wisecracking Lex Luthor (in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies) or Jack Nicholson as the playfully deranged Joker (in Michael Keaton’s Batman). Now it’s CGI goliaths that give us little to care about, audiences have said.
These CGI-heavy villains are often compared unfavorably to one of the greatest of all time, Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Christian Bale-era Batman movies.
That performance, which led to Ledger receiving a posthumous supporting actor Oscar win, is so special because Ledger and director Christopher Nolan took the time to craft an arc for the character.
And that’s the biggest thing. If the creatives go into the project dedicated to giving their villain more than just a mean backstory, the movie itself becomes a better experience.
But recently, the MCU has featured more nuanced villains, and it has led to critical acclaim and lots of box office coin.
Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” gave us a grounded villain in Vulture, played by Michael Keaton. He's a blue collar guy who finally found a way to make some money in this world thanks to Chitauri technology, despite doing illegal things with the tech. A well-grounded interest that audiences can relate to was just one of the aspects of the movie that led to “Homecoming” earning over $880 million worldwide.
And then there’s Killmonger in Disney’s “Black Panther.” Michael B. Jordan’s performance is gripping and his motivations behind his villainy are so well played on screen that it launched the internet into a frenzy with many making the case that Killmonger was right. That kind of reaction is one of the things that’s helped the movie become the third-highest domestic grossing movie of all time.
Coming into “Avengers: Infinity War,” the big question was how the directors would handle Thanos.
He's the biggest villain of them all in the current phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who is obsessed with capturing all the Infinity Stones. We’ve only seen brief glances of him in the last ten years as Marvel/Disney has built up the franchise by telling the stories of dozens of heroes. How do you prove that Thanos is worth the wait?
Well, for starters, directors Anthony and Joe Russo put him right at the opening of the movie. He decimates the ship the Asgardians were on after fleeing their planet at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok,” and kills Loki for the Space Stone. He also kicks the crap out of Thor and The Hulk in the process.
That’s quite a way to start a movie.
And Thanos’ wrath continues on through the entire movie. But what makes “Infinity War” not just a great superhero movie, but (and I’m very serious about this) “The Empire Strikes Back” of the MCU, is the layers that Thanos is given.
In many ways, “Infinity War” is Thanos’ movie. The story spends a lot of time covering why he wants to bring “balance” to the universe by destroying half of all lives. There are key scenes that show that he really did love and have affection for his “daughter” Gamora. And we explore why the destruction of his home planet only fuels his belief that he's right.
It’s all madness. Thanos is a psycho who believes genocide is right. But “Infinity War” had to show just what the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy are up against: The Dark Lord, like Darth Vader, is conflicted, but is too blinded by inner hate to care what comes from his actions.
Then there’s just the performance itself. Thanks to remarkable CGI and a motion-capture performance by Josh Brolin, Thanos is an incredible sight up against our heroes, but also displays that pathos that elevates the character and the story.
This is just like Vulture and Killmonger.
My feeling is part of the mission in the past 10 years of the MCU was to get the heroes to a point where audiences were fully sold on their stories and their motives. With that accomplished, they now used “Infinity War” to tell Thanos’ story.
Because of the care in getting Thanos' story right, I think “Infinity War” will be talked about and analyzed for years to come — like “The Dark Knight” or “The Empire Strikes Back.”