The Avengers’ biggest villain, Thanos, explained

Thanos and Iron Man in Iron Man #55, Marvel Comics, 1973.

Darkseid and his servant Desaad in The Forever People #6, DC Comics, 1972.

Thanos and other Marvel characters on the Cover of Infinity Gauntlet #1, Marvel Comics, 1991.

Avengers: Infinity War is the first major film appearance of Thanos, a major Marvel supervillain with decades of comics history under his belt. But after 10 years of buildup, and six years of the character getting small cameos, the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t really told us anything about Thanos the Mad Titan, the biggest bad guy the Avengers have ever faced.

Here’s everything we know about Thanos from the comics and the movies. And don’t worry — there are no spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War in this post!

Who is Thanos?

We know precious little about Thanos’ story before the events of 2012’s The Avengers. He seems to be a powerful leader of armies, elite warriors and assassins who has conquered and destroyed numerous worlds in a far-off region of space. Damion Poitier played the character in his mid-credits appearance in The Avengers, while Josh Brolin played him in all subsequent appearances. Ultimately, Thanos seeks to collect and wield the power of all six Infinity Stones, but he hasn’t been particularly good at that so far.


Black Panther, explained

What are Marvel’s Infinity Stones — and where are they?

OK, well, recap Thanos’ story for me.

We were first introduced to Thanos in The Avengers, when he found out that humans had located the Space Stone on Earth (in the form of the Tesseract). He allied with the disgraced Asgardian Loki, providing him with an army of Chitauri and a scepter containing the Mind Stone so that he might bend others to his will in his campaign to recover the Space Stone. Ironically, all this plan did was bring about the formation of the Avengers, who defeated Loki and took possession of both the Space and Mind Stones.

Then, in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos tried again, allying himself with Ronan the Accuser to recover the Power Stone — only to be stymied by Peter Quill, a relatively inept scavenger. Thanos sent Ronan after Quill, with help from his best assassin, Gamora. Gamora took that opportunity to betray Thanos, attempt to sell the stone to the Collector and flee. Thanos sent Ronan again, with the aid of another of his assassin “daughters,” Nebula — but instead of returning the stone, Ronan decided to wield its power himself, and take revenge on the planet of Xandar for oppressing his people, the Kree. Nebula also defected alongside him.

Ironically, all Thanos’ plan did this time was bring about the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who recovered the Power Stone and handed it over to the Xandarian peacekeeping force, the Nova Corps, for safekeeping. Thanos lost the stone and two of his best assassins, whom he had trained from childhood and treated as “daughters.”

Apparently, after all this, Thanos has realized that acquiring the Infinity Stones is not something that he can accomplished by delegating. His last on-screen appearance in a Marvel movie was the mid-credits scene of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he resolved to take matters into his own hands.

Since then, Thanos has been biding his sweet time. His latest implied appearance was in the end credits of 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which what appears to be his flagship, the Sanctuary II, catches up with Thor’s Asgardian refugees. What happens next appears to be a matter for Avengers: Infinity War.

Is Thanos all about the Infinity Stones in the comics, too?

100 percent, yes.

Thanos’ first big arcs as a villain were all about him seeking to become omnipotent, mostly by gathering the Infinity Stones (which are known as the Infinity Gems in the comics). The first time he gathered the stones, he attempted to extinguish all the stars in the universe. The second time, he brought them together in the Infinity Gauntlet, granting himself omnipotence. He used that power to instantly kill half the population of the universe (don’t worry, it turned out OK in the end).

What else do we know about him from comics?

Thanos and Iron Man in Iron Man #55, Marvel Comics, 1973.

Thanos and Iron Man, circa 1973.

Jim Starlin, Mike Friedrich/Marvel Comics

Thanos’ first appearance was in 1973’s Iron Man #55, co-written by Mike Friedrich and Jim Starlin, and drawn by Starlin. Starlin has said he came up with Thanos while he was in a college course on psychology: a character who was motivated by nihilism and a fascination with death.

Born on Saturn’s moon Titan, Thanos has always been a space-based foe of Earth’s superheroes, belonging to a powerful, genetically engineered offshoot of the human race known as the Eternals.

Wait, isn’t that the same origin story as the Inhumans?

Yeah, basically. Jack Kirby really, really liked shaggy God stories. He created the Eternals at Marvel Comics after creating the New Gods (a new pantheon of gods born after the old pantheon died) at DC Comics — and after co-creating the Inhumans (genetically advanced humans with godlike powers) with Stan Lee.

The Eternals and their foes, the Deviants, are two distinct races genetically crafted from proto-humans 5 million years ago by beings known as the Celestials (Ego is a Celestial, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). At a certain point, many of the Eternals traveled to Titan to begin a new life away from Earth. Those Eternals are known as the Titans, giving Thanos his most famous sobriquet, the Mad Titan.

And, though he was created by Starlin, Thanos bears a strong resemblance to one of Kirby’s Shaggy Gods: Darkseid.

But is Thanos an actual ripoff of Darkseid?


Jim Starlin readily admits that he was inspired by Jack Kirby’s work on the New Gods and the Fourth World, which was super popular at the time, when creating Thanos.

“You’d think that Thanos was inspired by [the New Gods’ villain,] Darkseid,” he told Comic Book Artist magazine in 1998, “but that was not the case when I showed up. In my first Thanos drawings, if he looked like anybody, it was [the time-traveling New God,] Metron. I had all these different gods and things I wanted to do, which became Thanos and the Titans. [Editor Roy Thomas] took one look at the guy in the Metron-like chair and said: ‘Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!’”

Darkseid and his servant Desaad in The Forever People #6, DC Comics, 1972.

Darkseid and his servant Desaad, circa 1972.

Jack Kirby/DC Comics

Thanos and his fellow Titans didn’t start out as Eternals, though — because the Eternals didn’t exist yet. Jack Kirby brought them into Marvel canon after his Fourth World stories were canceled at DC, which was three years after Starlin’s first Thanos story. Thanos and the Titans were eventually retconned into being an offshoot of the Eternals.

So, to recap: Jack Kirby wrote the Fourth World saga at DC Comics after Marvel Comics refused to let him do it there. Jim Starlin was inspired by the Fourth World to create Marvel’s Thanos, based partly on DC’s Darkseid. Kirby left DC to come back to Marvel and wrote another Fourth-World-like pantheon of gods, the Eternals. And Thanos, who was inspired by Kirby’s original Fourth World work at DC, was retconned into being an Eternal.

If you’ve got all that straight, you might just have a future in comics journalism. But if you only take away one thing from this explanation, it should be this: Thanos is a ripoff of Darkseid, not the other way around.

Thanos and other Marvel characters on the Cover of Infinity Gauntlet #1, Marvel Comics, 1991.

From the Cover of Infinity Gauntlet #1.

George Pérez/Marvel Comics

Wait, why does Thanos even want the Infinity Stones so bad?

Where Thanos of the comics may differ from his cinematic counterpart is in his motivation. Just as Darkseid was obsessed with the Anti-Life Equation, Starlin’s Thanos is obsessed with Death. That is, the sentient cosmic entity that represents the concept of death in the Marvel Universe: capital-D Death.

The Death of the Marvel Universe can manifest physically in a number of ways, but often appears as a humanoid female, even if skeletal. Death appeared to Thanos in his youth, presumably because of his obsession with death and nihilism, and the two formed a relationship — a relationship that apparently hit rocky shores when Thanos was first defeated by the Avengers. Since then, Thanos has been characterized by his desire to make a tribute to Death on a cosmic scale — i.e., cause a truly staggering number of deaths — in order to win back her affections.

Thanos’ “It’s Complicated” relationship with Death has never been directly mentioned in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, it seems to have been cheekily referenced in an end credits scene from The Avengers, in which the Other says that to attack Earth would be to “court death.”

So we can’t say for certain whether Thanos’ dalliances with Death will be a major part of his cinematic incarnation — at least, not until Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters on May 4.

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