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Thanos, the villain of Avengers: Infinity War, explained

Thanos has been promised to be Marvel’s baddest villain. But will he be its best?

Thanos in Infinity War.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

He’s the Mad Titan. He wrecks planets. He wants to destroy half the universe. He swats away superheroes like they’re flies on his dessert. He could very possibly end the lives of some of, if not all of, the Avengers.

His name, as the Avengers: Infinity War marketing blitz has already seared into your brain, is Thanos.

For 10 years, Marvel Studios has been pumping out superhero movies — 18 successful ones, to be exact. In that span of movies, we’ve seen the beginning of Iron Man and Captain America, the end of Ultron, Thor’s redemption, Ant-Man’s offbeat adventures, new additions like Scarlet Witch and Black Panther, and the weird birth of Vision.

But it’s Thanos, this ultimate, world-destroying villain, who marks the occasion that is Infinity War. The biggest, baddest Marvel villain of the past decade is the core of the biggest, baddest Marvel movie ever made.

Yet for all the hype, we actually haven’t been told very much about Thanos beyond his penchant for universe destruction. He’s amassed a whopping four minutes of actual screen time in those 18 movies, and the last we actually saw of him was in a post-credits scene in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

A villain this mysterious is necessarily going to raise some questions.

Why is he coming to Earth? Is purple his real color? What’s he like in the comic books? Does he have friends? What does he like to do for fun? And most importantly, what makes him different, and more important, than all the other villains the Avengers have faced together and apart?

Since Marvel hasn’t screened the movie yet, we don’t have all the answers. What we do have is what Marvel has shown us so far of its cinematic universe, and the comic book source material the film is loosely based on. Here, then, is a brief guide to what to expect from Thanos in Infinity War:

Can Thanos have it all (the Infinity Gauntlet)?

To fully understand Thanos, you have to understand the Infinity Stones. The Marvel cinematic universe has focused more on what Thanos wants than his own backstory, resulting in a characterization defined in large part by his desire to possess the stones.

In the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Infinity Stones are six “ingots” of immense power. We learn this in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, when the Collector explains to the Guardians (and the audience) why they’re such a big deal. He says:

Oh, my new friends, before creation itself, there were six singularities, then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots ... Infinity Stones.

The Collector goes on to say that the gems are so powerful, the people who hold them eventually blow up and die. We find out later in the film that beings have to be superpowered just to handle them.

2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron provided some important new intel by way of direct references to the stones and Thor’s visit to a magical, dream-inducing hot spring. Thor’s resulting vision reveals the Infinity Stones (we had previously never seen them together) as well as their locations in two different cosmic objects: the Tesseract (seen in The Avengers, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) and the Aether (Thor: The Dark World). And in 2016’s Doctor Strange, we learned that the Sorcerer Supreme has an Infinity Stone — the Time stone — as well.

The six Infinity Stones (known as Infinity Gems in the comics) are referred to as Time, Mind, Space, Reality, Soul, and Power. Alone, each one has the ability to enhance its wielder’s powers (for instance, the Mind stone will enhance the telepathic abilities of telepaths). If a being manages to collect and combine them all, you have what’s called the complete Infinity Gauntlet, which will grant you unparalleled omnipotence. So if the wrong person — say, someone like Thanos — gets his or her hands on all six, it’s time to clock out early and make plans for intergalactic travel.

Thanos in The Infinity Gauntlet.
Marvel Comics

In the comics, the Infinity Stones played a major role in Marvel’s 1991 The Infinity Gauntlet series, by writer Jim Starlin and artist George Pérez. Marvel is borrowing some of Infinity Gauntlet’s ideas for Infinity War, and appears to be combining them with bigger elements from a 2013 comic book crossover arc called Infinity.

In Infinity, Thanos launches an attack on Earth alongside a team called the Black Order (more on them in a bit). In Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos is appointed by Death (an actual character) to assemble the Infinity Gems and cull the universe.

Both iterations depict Thanos as a maniacal, hulking brute. He’s more about force than strategy, more about strangling the life out of his enemies than simply defeating them. He’s determined to do what he sets his mind to (usually bring death and destruction upon wherever he may land). And in those two stories, he’s so laser-focused to see his goal through that it eventually becomes his undoing: In Infinity Gauntlet, he’s too obsessed with impressing Lady Death and himself that he becomes distracted, while in Infinity, he’s defeated because he overlooked his own son and a betrayal within in his ranks.

The thing about Marvel’s movies is that we don’t really know Thanos that well, nor do we know how much of the Thanos we see in these two arcs will translate to Infinity War.

From what little we’ve seen of him, he ‘s physically imposing but has yet to flex his full powers. Psychologically, he seems to be more in line with what we saw in Infinity: a villain who’s calling the shots with a heavy side of cruelty. We learned in Guardians Vol. 2 that he was a sadistic father to his adoptive daughters Nebula (who plays a big role in the Infinity Gauntlet comic event) and Gamora — pitting them against each other and making them battle. And Marvel has told us so many times that he’s the most fearsome villain in the Marvel universe.

But it’s not clear yet if these elements will combine to make Thanos not just the biggest villain in the MCU but also the best villain.

Will Thanos solve Marvel’s villain problem?

All we know about Thanos is that he’s the biggest, baddest villain and that he wants the Infinity Stones to destroy half of the universe. That Thanos has so far been a character defined solely by these two factors is a little worrisome considering Marvel has a cinematic history of villains who have wanted to do essentially the same thing, give or take an Infinity Stone or two.

Loki and the Red Skull had their own plans for Earth in The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger. Ultron wanted to destroy it in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ronan the Accuser wanted to do the same, but to a different planet, in Guardians of the Galaxy. Ego, the Living Planet, wanted to take over the universe in the Guardians sequel, as did Hela, goddess of death, in Thor: Ragnarok.

Marvel villain after Marvel villain was defeated in part because Marvel was making way for Thanos — a villain that the films have been promising since The Avengers has the capability, unlike those who came before him, to tear apart the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Thanos doesn’t live up to the hype, the disappointment won’t just be Thanos but also all the villains Marvel disposed of in prepping us for the Mad Titan himself.

One of the ways Thanos promises to be different is that there’s a distinct possibility that he’ll kill an Avenger or two. None of Marvel’s main superheroes have died facing a villain, and Thanos killing one (or three) would bolster the claim that he’s bigger and more deadly than Hela or Red Skull or Ultron. But beyond that, from a storytelling standpoint, Marvel needs to find a way to make Thanos a villain with a story, to give him a motivation beyond destroying the universe simply because that’s what he does. The biggest, baddest villain in the MCU needs a distinct voice — something that’s unfortunately lacking in Marvel’s previous movie villains.

After all, Thanos is what the past 10 years of Marvel moviemaking has been building up to; he’s got a lot to prove. But he’s not going to do it alone. He’s got an army to help him take down the Avengers and a cadre of fearsome generals to do his bidding.

Thanos’s Black Order, explained

In the official trailer for Infinity War, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot with major implications for the movie. Loki is pictured surrounded by four individuals who aren’t Thanos:

Loki and Thanos’s Black Order in Infinity War.
Marvel Studios

From the left, that’s Proxima Midnight (the woman holding a spear), Ebony Maw (the skinny guy), Corvus (who’s holding a weapon), and the Black Dwarf (the giant). These four characters appear in the aforementioned Infinity comic book arc and essentially function as Thanos’s four generals. (In the comic books, there’s a fifth member of the Black Order who is named Supergiant, but it’s unclear if she’s in the movie.)

Each one has his or her own special powers and skills, which should make for some flashy fights with the Avengers. Proxima and Corvus are your hand-to-hand combat gurus. The Black Dwarf is the muscle. Ebony Maw is the manipulative and maybe magical trickster.

Ebony Maw tangling with Doctor Strange in the Infinity crossover arc.
Marvel Comics

I’m expecting to see Proxima and Corvus take on Cap and Black Panther, while the Black Dwarf looks to be physically on par with the Avengers’ heavy hitters like Thor.

But what’s really exciting is that these characters also come with their own motivations that will hopefully make their way into the film, helping to flesh out not only them as individual baddies but also the alpha villain they serve.

In the comic books, some of them want to please Thanos, while others are looking to use this opportunity to move up in the world. For example, at the end of Infinity, Ebony Maw uses Thanos’s long-lost son against him. Barring a drastic plot twist, the introduction of Thanos’s son doesn’t seem like a possibility in Infinity War, but keeping Ebony Maw’s personality and mentality is definitely doable.

These mid-major villains could shake up what’s become the standard Marvel villain protocol. They may not necessarily be looking to take over the universe or destroy Earth — and that’s a good thing, because there have been so many of those already. There’s an opportunity here to give each one a distinct personality and then showcase how that interacts with a boss like Thanos. Perhaps a couple might even double-cross him.

Of course, this excitement still exists primarily as speculation. There’s no golden rule that Marvel has to abide by its comic book source material. The Black Order could end up fizzling out or not living up to their comic book counterparts. Either way, we’ll get answers to these questions, and to see if Marvel cashes in on its big villain moment, when Infinity War hits theaters on April 27.

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