It’s easy to spot when the true hero of a story is its villain. Oh, sure, we know that there will be various goody-goody protagonists who oppose them, and that they’ll likely lose in the end, but it’s still their story. They are, after all, the ones moving the plot along, and whose goals and motivations the audience is interested in. A lot of the time, even though we shouldn’t be, the audience ends up rooting for such villains. One villain who tends to meet these criteria when he shows up is Marvel’s cosmic mastermind Thanos.
Thanos is from Saturn’s moon of Titan, where his fellow titans reside. While the rest of his kind are mostly benevolent and appear similar to humans, Thanos was born different, something which drove him to isolation and very unhealthy forms of introspection. Ultimately, he decided he hated life, not merely his own, but the very concept of life itself, and he would worship death. He even fell in love with Mistress Death, the cosmic personification thereof, and has committed numerous atrocities in her name, not the least was murdering his own mother for the crime of giving birth to him. With his deadly combination of great strength, intelligence, raw cosmic power, and extremely advanced technology, Thanos set out to impress his Mistress by inflicting as much death throughout the cosmos as possible. To this end, he has generally sought out objects of reality-altering power, and has only been defeated by large gatherings of heroes.
Love is an interesting motivation for evil. After all, we tend to think of love as a good thing, the most noble of ideals to aspire to, and that which leads us to the most selfless and altruistic actions. However, love can drive people to commit terrible actions which they might never otherwise consider, or if two people who are considered evil fall in love, that love in tandem can lead them both to greater heights of depravity. In the case of Thanos, his love for the goddess of death is both religious as well as romantic, which inspires him in both the material and ideal realms to become her greatest servant, and to win her love through acts of nihilism so severe as to be considered insane. It also means the concept of dying himself offers Thanos no fear, since he will simply go on to be with his love.
Thanos’s finest hour, as well as his most defining, was the miniseries The Infinity Gauntlet, which is to my mind the best crossover in any comic book ever. While he had threatened the cosmos several times, quite notably with the Cosmic Cube, and even once attempted to snuff out every star in the universe, nothing compares to his quest for the Infinity Gems. It began when Thanos, who had died some time back, was resurrected by Mistress Death and told that he was charged with slaughtering half of the universe’s sentient population. Rather than go about it the hard way, as it would likely have taken even the mad titan thousands of years to accomplish this, he decided to seek out the greatest power of all. The six Elders of the Universe each possessed a unique gem which gave them control over some aspect of reality. Thanos went to each of them, and one by one outwitted or outmatched them, thereby stealing their gems. When brought together on his Gauntlet, the Infinity Gems’ power increased exponentially, and Thanos became not merely powerful, but literally omnipotent. After flexing his muscles in a mostly sadistic fashion, Thanos set about impressing Mistress Death, and with a snap of his finger, completed his task. The surviving heroes of Earth rose against him, and mostly died in so doing. The cosmic entities also joined forces against him, once again to no avail. Ironically, Thanos lost the Gauntlet to Nebula, a shattered husk of a person he tormented by trapping her in a state of living death, and was forced to ally with the few survivors to defeat her.
So how, you ask, was Thanos so sloppy? How does an omnipotent mastermind who had crushed the most powerful enemies imaginable with barely a thought lose to so humble a foe? Normally, this would just be written off as writer laziness, but Thanos’s creator Jim Starlin did not make this mistake. Thanos’s archfoe/only friend Adam Warlock, who had seen into the very depths of the titan’s soul, revealed a secret that even he didn’t know about himself. Thanos gained unlimited power on three separate occasions, and on each occasion he lost it, because deep in the darkest corners of his mind, he knew he was unworthy of that power. Therefore, he subconsciously sabotaged himself and left tiny gaps in his plans that a clever or lucky foe could overcome. This idea says a great deal about who Thanos is. It would be hard to say that this makes Thanos a good person, but it does show that he has a certain level of self-awareness, or at least an idea of what a good person is, and the fact that he knows he is not one is somewhat sad. Perhaps it relates to Mistress Death never returning his love, despite the fact that she is willing to use him for her plans, or perhaps he secretly feels guilt over his crimes, but drives forward regardless as a result of his love. Once he realized this and the matter of the Infinity Gauntlet was resolved, Thanos faked his own death to avoid capture and retired to tend a peaceful garden in the middle of nowhere.
Comics being comics, Thanos returned several times after this for various reasons, and while I believe the Infinity Gauntlet would have been a fitting capstone to his story, he generally retained his imposing presence. Thanos makes a great villain because it’s always fun to watch him work. He is extraordinarily powerful, but also intelligent enough to outmaneuver his foes without brute force. Quite often, he allows his enemies to ensure their own downfall. Despite this, he also manages to seem somewhat human. He has goals and motivations that he sometimes fails to achieve. He has shortcomings and doubts about himself. He also has an odd sense of fair play with enemies he respects, such as Adam Warlock or the ill-fated Gardener (the only sympathetic Elder of the Universe. Thanos is forced to kill him, but feels bad about it). Given all this, it’s hard not to find Thanos to be a complex and likeable villain, who is clearly the hero of his own story.