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'Infinity War's' Thanos is the most compelling Marvel film villain yet

By: Michael Cavna The Washington Post
May 15, 2018 Updated: May 15, 2018 at 4:25 am
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Thanos (Josh Brolin) has made his plans clear: Half the universe has to go. MUST CREDIT: Marvel Studios

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a weakest link during its unprecedented, decadelong winning streak, that has arguably been the depth of its villains. Fortunately, 2018 has been a very good year for Marvel baddies.

In March, "Black Panther" delivered an exceptionally engaging villain in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the abandoned American son of Wakandan royalty who fights his way to his ancestral homeland to claim the throne.

Now, after years of teasing, Marvel has given us the character who stands to become the studio's greatest multipicture villain: Thanos, the hulking, mauve Mad Titan as played by Josh Brolin, in "Avengers: Infinity War."

Brolin's Thanos might be homicidal, bent as he is on destroying half of each planet's species to promote survival by "balance," but he is also soulful, and perhaps even sympathetic when he must make a personal sacrifice.

Yet what is it about Thanos on the screen that makes him so uncommonly compelling? One key element in his larger mad makeup is his deep, reflective intelligence.

"He's wise. He's 1,000 years old," says Joe Russo, promoting "Infinity War" with his brother and co-director, Anthony Russo.

Joe Russo amends that. In a universe featuring such intellects as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Thanos is "the wisest character in the movie," he says.

The interesting wrinkle when it comes to wisdom, the director says, is the degree to which Thanos has absolute belief in his sociopathic convictions - to the idea that killing half is for the greater good of all.

"He's been a world conqueror, sort of the Genghis Khan of this universe. He does have a philosopher side to him," Russo says. "What's interesting about him is that he's wholly committed to that philosophy ... and his entire philosophy is about random execution."

As proof of how deeply rooted that belief is, Russo points to how Thanos plots his path to genocide, as the Titan gathers six Infinity Stones that increase his power.

"He has many opportunities throughout the film to kill the Avengers," Russo says. "He doesn't do it because he feels like they can't stop him. He also doesn't want to display animus.

"There's one moment where there's one (Avenger) standing in his way who he's willing to finally execute, but he needs to on a practical level."

And this profound adherence to a belief system makes Thanos perhaps the MCU's greatest villain ever.

"When villains have a code that you can respect because they are wise and determined to adhere to their philosophical principles," Russo says, "it makes them more interesting.

"His means for achieving it are psychotic. That's where it gets complicated. He wants to save the universe. The plan that he has is insane. But it makes for complicated viewing and makes him a three-dimensional villain."

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