Thanos and the Banality of Evil

Could you become a monster?

Posted May 06, 2019

Elio Martino
Elio Martino, personal drawing collection
Source: Elio Martino

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ENDGAME

Avengers: Endgame just smashed the box office records, in no small part because they created a villain worthy of the history books. What made Thanos a truly great archetypal villain, was that he escaped the clutches of the mustache-twirling two-dimensional cliché villain. Instead, the writers managed to achieve something that appears to elude most other superhero movies: they held up a mirror to the audience and showed us, somebody, we could relate to. In short, they humanized him. There is something deeply uncomfortable about this that the writers have tapped into. Could any of us, given the right circumstances, become monsters? Putting someone in the slow cooker of pressure and time, can a dose of the right ideology, a dash of messiah complex and the doubling down of one’s own hero’s journey create the perfect storm that history will qualify as ‘evil’? To answer these questions, we need to delve into Thanos’ character arc and our own history.

Thanos has permeated our collective consciousness to become a universal meme, likely to be held to the same level as Darth Vader; if history looks favorably upon Marvel. In many ways, Thanos is on his own hero’s journey we can all relate to as traditionally heroic. Thanos’ goal is to end suffering across the galaxy, his ambitions are noble and pure, larger than himself, one he is willing to sacrifice everything for. This is perhaps the first tell-tale sign to us that something may be wrong. In order to sacrifice everything, others must also pay a price to achieve his vision. The parallels with collective ideologies in our own history begin to emerge. Communism had seemingly noble goals, it just cost millions of deaths, suffering, and absolute poverty to achieve these means. Would you be willing to sacrifice lives, for the ‘Utopian dream’?

The second device the writers used to their credit was to avoid the well-trodden trope of fascist ideology. As a civilization, we are very vigilant toward fascist principles of supremacy; it’s an easy, now cartoonish way to create a hated villain, a level they did not stoop to. Instead, they did something else deeply uncomfortable, they made Thanos’ plan ‘fair’. He does not discriminate, he is not governed by emotions, hatred, bigotry; he is governed by one simplistic rule: 50% of the galaxy will be culled, so that the other 50% may thrive in peace. We can’t mount cardboard cut out to point fingers, nor can we brand him with a dirty title. We have to yet again swallow the uncomfortable truth that in his own twisted way, this makes logical sense.

His hero’s journey is also about ‘the greater good’. He wants the stones, not for ‘world domination’, but to carry out his ‘final solution’ despite the cost to himself. He knows the stones will take a toll, even going so far as to walk the walk and take on the Avengers personally. He does not make others fight his battles for him, he takes this burden on himself.

However, this is where the cracks in the veneer appear, as they do with every genocidal maniac, and we get to the heart of the matter: the messiah complex. Once Thanos decided he was the savior of the galaxy, and that his thinking was elevated beyond what others are able to comprehend, he began that downward spiral which has led leaders in our own history to conquer continents, wipe out civilizations and commit atrocities all in the name of ‘ the greater good’. Thanos has a cross to bear, this makes him, in his mind, noble. After all, he has evidence he was right, after his world was destroyed by greed and the ever poignant depletion of resources, he made a vow to make sure this never happens again. He has drunk his own Kool-Aid, as they say. This leads him onto his own twisted hero’s journey of sacrifice and redemption, which only ends with the completion of his task, or his death. To his credit, Thanos lives and dies by the sword, he truly believes in his own mission. Indeed, he is the most dangerous type of villain, a zealot until the end. This type of detached, messianic philosophy, almost Zen-like, is captured with his actions; he intentionally lets individuals live during combat, even complimenting them during their attempts to kill him, he is somehow above those petty human emotions like anger.

The inevitability of Thanos’ arc, however, is where we begin to see true echoes of our own dictators responsible for genocidal campaigns that taint our sociopolitical history.  Underneath the veneer of selflessness and dispassion the cracks show the ugly truth, when Messiah becomes God. Thanos best summarizes this with the following line in Endgame (not verbatim):

Before now I have killed dispassionately, but I will take pleasure in this.

I can see now that wiping out half the universe will not work, I need to start again and they will never know what I did.

Now that his plan has been foiled, Thanos’ narcissism, fear, and anger seep through. This small planet of individuals will never stop, they can’t appreciate what he has done or will do, they are stuck in their ignorance and self-absorption. Now his duty is clear, he, in all his wisdom, decides that the only option is to wipe out all life, and create life that will appreciate the world he has gifted them. Not only that, Thanos is a vengeful god, his dispassion is replaced with seething anger, the same anger he probably felt when his former planet rulers did not listen to him. This reminder of an old trauma is the final crack in his veneer, underneath is an angry, power-hungry man, his motivations fueled by his own insecurity, resentment, and rage. It is at this point we remember those scenes in which his armies slaughtered entire planets of people in his quest for his ‘final solution’, before he had the power of the infinity stones. It’s now we remember that he brutally tortures his own daughter to gather information, and killing the other for the Soul stone, losing all semblance of humanity and the importance of life, to the greater plan. It is here we remember it’s the same old issue we see in our own historical dictators, wrapped up in something more sophisticated. Thanos wrestled with his shadow and lost.

Social psychology has led to some disturbing and yet fascination traits about human beings that demonstrate beyond mere ‘good’ or ‘evil’, most of us will and can perform horrific acts, given the right circumstances, ideology, and personal torment. From Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment to Milgram’s experiments investigating obedience to authority, which we continue to learn and develop new theories from, even the most seemingly decent human beings can commit atrocious acts.

Whether we like it or not, our history is filled with human beings that have got deeply lost along the way, trapped in their own torment or desires, either unaware of their own shadow and allowing it to consume them through projected hatred and anger, or who’ve become consumed by its power to make the changes which require others to lay down their lives on the altar of ‘the ultimate good’. People become consumed by fear and sadness, which lead to anger and resentment, and with enough power can lead to sinister acts. This could be a school shooting so that others may feel one’s pain, or given enough charisma, power, and ideology, to genocidal acts to fulfill one’s ambitions of narcissism and desire to play God. 

There is a deeply discomforting truth lying here. All of us have the potential to fall into this trap, to allow our deepest desires and insecurities to consume us. Combined with the right ideology of the ‘greater good’, and the quest to be our own hero in our journey, we can all do terrible, awful things.

This is what makes Thanos a great villain.