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The Hero’s Journey: Examining Thanos’ Arc in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

*WARNING: SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR & THOR: RAGNAROK BELOW*

“I know what it is like to lose… to feel so desperately that you’re right, then to fail nonetheless.” 

10 years. That’s how long it took Marvel Studios to build Avengers: Infinity War. Ever since Tony Stark graced the silver screen for the first time in Iron Man; ever since Joss Whedon dropped a bombshell of a mid-credits scene in The Avengers; all roads have led to this. The arrival of one of Marvel Comics’ greatest villains, Thanos, was highly anticipated by comic and films fans around the globe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is something that I, like so many others, have grown up with and thus, Infinity War felt like a prize after being dedicated to this franchise for so long. Almost everyone we’ve been introduced to in a decade of MCU movies. The only ones missing are Ant-Man, Hawkeye, and The Wasp.

So, when Marvel announced that Infinity War would bring almost every hero from the MCU together for a smorgasbord of insanity-level feature, it was assumed that every hero would continue to build on their respective arcs. Cap would continue his rogue mission to save the world against a government that vilifies him; Star-Lord would continue to embrace the familial aspect of the Guardians; Iron Man would continue to struggle with his conflicted mindset about saving the world.

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However, with only two and a half hours to spare, there’s not a whole lot of time or room to give them all satisfying arcs. Since our heroes have already overcome their own personal challenges and are, more or less, at the peak of their hero nature.

A massive gasp then consumed the entire theatre audience –  the film ended – as if it was incomplete. No jokes, no reversals, no nothing; half of the entire universe was destroyed by the snap of Thanos’ fingers. For the first time in ten years, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had truly lost. For a blockbuster of this magnitude, that is an incredibly bold move to make, even with Avengers 4 only a year out. Regardless of the entire cast being confirmed for that sequel, Infinity War left our heroes in such a state of sorrow that we as the audience have almost no idea as to what will occur when Avengers 4 finally premieres in theatres. With no real ending for the heroes, it would seem that none of them had a true arc. From start to finish, aside from maybe Thor (who made that phenomenal entrance in Wakanda) every hero remains the same.

But then I really started to think about this film, and, as it turns out, there is someone who does have an arc in the film. The one person who experienced a satisfying conclusion after everything. It is not one of the heroes. By the time the credits roll, it was clear that Thanos himself was not only the true protagonist of the film, but the “hero” as well; just not the way that is expected from a blockbuster film.

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While the marketing campaign was in full throttle for the film, directors Anthony and Joe Russo had consistently said that Infinity War was a Thanos movie. Everything about it would be structured around him. It is he who gets the most screen time, the most dialogue, and the most fleshed out character arc.

Now, as I said above, Thanos is not a hero in the traditional sense. But, as any film buff will tell you, the best villains are the ones who truly believe that what they are doing is correct. That is what makes villains such as Killmonger in Black Panther and Magneto in X-Men so enthralling. Thanos’ story in Infinity War is a simple one. After watching his own planet face extinction, he believes that the universe has become overpopulated and the only way to save it is to destroy half of the life in it, therefore re-balancing everything. Before the Infinity Stones, he had gone around the universe invading planets and slaughtering half their populations. It is something that we see, via flashback, in the movie as Thanos invades child Gamora’s home world and has his forces kill people even as he takes an interest in the young girl. Now, even if he was not murdering populations he still could not be a good guy. Nebula’s horror story of being tortured as a child by him eliminates that possibility. Thanos is still not a hero.

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But the hero’s journey rings true for his entire time in Infinity War. Act one of the film sees Thanos destroying the Asgardian refugee ship as he wants the Infinity Stone Loki stole following the destruction of Asgard. This strive to get all six Stones is the “call to adventure” as he dispatches his children to retrieve two other Stones while he himself tracks down two on his own. He kills Loki, Heimdell, half of the Asgardian population and departs on his journey.

Following our supposed “heroes'” battles with the children of Thanos, We meet up with Thanos again in act two where his adventure has taken him to Knowhere, a planet first introduced to the audience in Guardians of the Galaxy. It is here where the Reality Stone resides with The Collecter. The Guardians of the Galaxy arrive soon after to face the mad titan but are quickly defeated. In Thanos’ rising action (challenges he faces along the way), he fights the Guardians and abducts Gamora; we begin to learn more about why he decided to set off on this maniacal deed as well as his perspective on their familial relationship.

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Vormir: the planet Thanos takes Gamora to after discovering the previously undiscovered Soul Stone is being housed there, guarded by classic Marvel villain Red Skull. This is where the story’s classic twist reveals itself. To receive the Soul Stone, Thanos must kill something he truly loves and after Gamora relishes in the fact that he loves nothing, we slowly realize that, even after everything that has happened, Thanos actually loves Gamora and proceeds to throw her to her death. From his perspective, this is about as devastating as his journey can be, securing motivation to finish his mission and exciting character development.

Thanos arrives on his destroyed home world of Titan where, to his surprise, Doctor Strange and his band of “antagonists” have set a trap for him to steal his Infinity Gauntlet. His enemies mock his motivations as the battle begins.

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With three Infinity Stones on his Gauntlet and frankly nothing to lose, Thanos in act three decimates the combined forces of the Avengers and Guardians to take the Time Stone and sets off for Earth where the last remaining Stone is in Vision’s head. The Earth heroes attempt to destroy the Stone to foil Thanos’ plan one last time and they succeed. But instead of everything coming to an end, Thanos uses his newly acquired time Stone to revive Vision and take the Mind Stone, completing his adventure of taking all six Infinity Stones.

In a last ditch effort, Thor uses his newly crafted “Thanos killing” axe and pushes it into the chest of Thanos. Surely this was to be it but once again, Thanos gloats, saying “You should have gone for the head,” snapping his fingers and activating the Infinity Gauntlet.

Here is where we see the falling action and resolution for Thanos. He has a vision of a child Gamora, giving him the opportunity to try and make some kind of peace with the sacrifice he had to make to gain the Soul Stone. She asks what the cost of his mission was and Thanos replies “everything” in a seemingly distraught manner.  In the film’s last scene, we find Thanos on a beautiful planet, accepting the fact that his daughter is gone and watches the sun rise on a grateful universe. End of film. Classic narrative hero’s journey.

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To say that Infinity War leaves everything open-ended and will make for an unsatisfying conclusion is, from a certain perspective, wrong. We see a beginning, middle and end and marks a definitive ending for Thanos. He completed his mission, he’s watching the sunset; he no longer has to do anything anymore as he wiped out half the universe. He is a mad titan with a misguided heart of gold. It may have Avengers in the title, but this is really Thanos: Infinity War.

Thanos is a villain, through in through. But he can also be considered cinema’s most problematic hero. In almost every scene, he is attempting to justify his motives to just about anyone who is listening, trying to get them to see why he actually does not want any other planets to go extinct like his did. But, he then resorts to some fairly dastardly things, such as torturing arguably his least favourite child Nebula as well as crushing any hero who stands in his way. Though, it should be noted that Thanos does not kill just to kill. I re-watched the film several times to note that in every sequence, the only time Thanos kills is when he is pushed to do so. As he arrives on Earth, he merely throws all the heroes aside and when Vision does not give up the Stone willingly, it forces Thanos to act.

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Every great cinematic villain is the hero of their own story. Through their narrative lens, it is they who is doing a great service for the betterment of the universe. In every trailer, Thanos was depicted as a crazed lunatic bent on world destruction. But once the credits roll, you realize that Thanos was actually in search of the least-destructive way to wipe out half of everything in the universe. It is a noble goal because he thinks he has to. He chose the easiest possible adventure that would satisfy his mission and, while his methods still regulate him to villain territory, Avengers: Infinity War perfectly encapsulated the hero’s journey and delivered the definitive version of an iconic Marvel Comics character.

 

 

 

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