The MCU, honestly, hasn’t had the best luck with bad guys. Aside from a select few, they’re basically cookie-cutter businessmen and dark lords who, more or less, either want money, power, retribution, or… whatever the hell Trevor Slattery wants. (A lovely speedboat, I guess.)
Loki is the first time the MCU truly hit the mark with one of their villains. He’s tragic, charismatic, and more of a big jerk than a villain, most of the time. And for a while, we didn’t really get a villain quite as good as Loki. At least, not until the likes of Erik Killmonger from Black Panther (2018) and Hela from Thor: Ragnarok (2018) came along. (Now that I think about it, the MCU’s best villains are played by some really attractive people.)
But it be argued that the MCU introduced us to their perfect villain with Thanos. A villain who was more than a match for the entire Avenger’s roster, and then some. He’s intentions were clear, and even, at some level, justified. His means might have been twisted, which he knew they were, but deep down, he also knew and we also knew that without a doubt he believed himself to be on the side of good.
His motives are layered and complex enough that if the movie was titled Thanos: Infinity War and not Avengers: Infinity War, some people would regard him as a hero. And heck, some people already do. But what makes a hero? More over, what makes a villain? If the hero is the good guy who does good things for good intentions and the villain is a bad guy who does bad things for bad intentions, what do you call someone who does bad things for good intentions? Or good things for bad intentions? And what is Thanos?
To answer these questions, let’s first define some terms.
Let’s begin with the hero. A hero is a character who possess most of what’s known as “conventional heroic attributes” like optimism, honesty, strength, selflessness, courage, and virtue. Think the blue boy scout himself, Superman.
Standing against the hero is his villain. A villain is someone who not only is bereft of the aforementioned attributes, but sometimes even perverts them into something dark and twisted. Case in point: Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars.
I’ll talk about both archetypes in more detail when I eventually do an entry about the evolution of our heroes and villains. Basically, heroes are characters who intend to do good things in good ways. And villains are characters who intend to do bad things in bad ways.
So, where does this leave Thanos?
Thanos is someone who seeks to better the universe, a goal that is undeniably selfless; heroic even. But, he’s also an extremist. He will fight to attain his goals, no matter what the cost. Even if it means wiping out half the life in the universe. Well, there are two more archetypes that lay between the roles of hero and villain. But that line between them is so thin that differentiating them could prove difficult.
First, there is the antihero. Antiheroes are heroes who don’t fit the usual hero mold the likes of Superman were structured from. Think Deadpool, The Punisher, Rorschach, and arguably Batman. These are heroes that do heroic acts, not for sake of some principle or moral ideal, but for unjustifiable reasons – like greed, vengeance, or satisfaction. Alternatively, they’re heroes whose actions are, from a certain point of view, villainous but are driven by a sense of morality and idealistic purpose.
On the opposite end of the line is, what the internet now calls, the anti-villain. And this is where Thanos falls, along side the likes of the MCU’s Baron Zemo from Captain America: Civil War (2016), Ghost from Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018), and the aforementioned Erik Killmonger and Loki. But by far, the best example would be Magneto. Before the internet gave their own name for it, this archetype was originally called the “sympathetic villain”, a villain who is driven by the desire to attain a goal which is ultimately good through actions that are ultimately evil.
You will notice that, like I said, the line between these two archetypes is extremely thin. And from what we’ve learned from the definitions of both, an reversal of ends and means do not define either role. Someone with righteous intentions obtained through immoral actions could either be defined as an anti-hero or anti-villain. So what sets the line between the two?
The answer: Perspective.
Perspective is an important tool in the arsenal of any storyteller. It tells your reader or audience from whose point-of-view they’re getting this story from. It tells them who the main character is and who to root for. And that is essential because people tend to empathize with the main character, especially if they’re likable. People will feel for them and want for them. People want to see their character succeed, no matter how much they would actually despise them in real life.
Take for example, a class of characters called “villain protagonists”. Wagner Moura’s portrayal of druglord Pablo Escobar in Narcos (2015-2017), or Penn Badgley’s stalker Joe Goldberg in You (2018 -), or Johnny Depp’s criminal mastermind John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009) are all awful characters. They’re bad guys. But because the story is told from they’re perspective, people outright defend them and their heinous actions.
What sets Deadpool, a mercenary who kills and tortures for questionable reasons, from Thanos, a being who believes that survival is worth sacrifice and has even proved it? Why is Deadpool considered an antihero and Thanos isn’t? Well, because it isn’t his movie. (Sorry, Thanos.)
At the end of the day, Deadpool is the protagonist of his movie. It’s his name in the title, and we follow him from beginning to end. Thanos, on the other hand, is the villain because we’ve been told that he’s a villain from the perspective of the heroes we’ve followed for other a decade. Regardless of his morals, intentions, or ideals, Thanos serves as nothing more than a foil to the Avengers, and thus makes him a villain. An anti-villain, but a villain nonetheless.
There’s an incredibly grey area in between these two archetypes. So much so that they’re nearly interchangeable. An antihero cannot be a paragon of truth and justice, and an anti-villain cannot be disregarded as a mustache-twirling spawn of Satan. In the end, it’s all about perspective. The role of an antihero serves as a reminder that heroes don’t always come along in shining armor. Their very nature make you question how much of a hero they actually are. And the role of an anti-villain is to show you that evil can often come from necessity; that evil can be anyone, including someone just like you.