Is there anything more terrifying than an omnipotent being who believes in nothing? An all-powerful villain whose only love in his own blood-soaked life is the literal manifestation of life's absence. A god infatuated with death, armed with the ability to cause it on a universal scale with the snap of his fingers.
That's what Marvel's 1991 comic event The Infinity Gauntlet attempted to explore with a crazy, love-struck purple alien harnessing the immeasurable power of all six infinity gems together. Earth's mightiest heroes, and indeed the universe's most powerful cosmic beings as well, are just no match for the mad Titan who can bend all of reality to fit his wishes.
In the hands of his creator, Jim Starlin, Thanos' stories dive into some deep, complex territory. Starlin continued to craft a villain who is sometimes sympathetic, infuriating, and genuinely frightening. He can flip from calm and contemplative to lashing out with unmatched rage over the span of just a few panels and it feels organic. Every action and exchange is driven by Thanos' personal philosophy of the universe.
Thanos is often cited as being a nihilist. This isn't speculation either, it's literally written on his forehead on the opening splash page of the second issue of The
Infinity Gauntlet series. Painting with broad strokes here, the philosophical view of nihilism is the idea that life has no intrinsic value or meaning. Not only is there no grand plan for our own individual lives but it's pointless to try and construct one as a substitute.
Life is trivial. Thanos sees it as a burden. In fact, this idea is taken to its logical extreme with the mad Titan who loves, worships, and builds shrines to the illiteral embodiment of death in the Marvel Universe. And he loves death, mean that he's in love with Death. The Infinity Gauntlet comic only happens because Thanos is trying to impress Death and win her love.
But, there's already a problem here. Thanos' belief in nihilism faces a massive contradiction, and to explain why we need to explore the context surrounding Thanos' ultimate mission. A lot of the lead up to the Infinity Gauntlet event takes place in the pages of Silver Surfer comics. Thanos, who was dead at this point in time for reasons too complicated to get into, is brought back to life by Mistress Death to correct what she sees as a great imbalance in the universe. Thanos explains that with medical and scientific breakthroughs, lifespans have been dramatically expanded.
With humans specifically, Thanos tells the Silver Surfer that more than half of the humans ever born on this planet are presently alive right this moment leading Earth to become criminally overpopulated.
With all the terrible byproducts of human life, like pollution and nuclear waste, Thanos claims that Earth is a world rushing on its way to desolation and doom. The harm we do to our plan will eventually and inevitably be our downfall. Even if we expand to other planets, the universe's resources are finite. If left unchecked, populations will grow uncontrollably, life will continue to flourish until it doesn't until it can no longer support itself.
The pendulum will swing from one extreme to the other, from an overabundance of life to no life whatsoever. This is why Mistress Death only asks Thanos to kill half of the populace of the universe and not all of it. Sure, Death would enjoy a massive body count all at once but then what? Death needs life to continue so there can be a constant stream of souls for her to harvest.
Infinity Gauntlet Story
Thanos was more than capable of accomplishing this feat without the power of the infinity gauntlet on his arm, but he wanted to wipe out populations quickly before any heroes could intervene and that is what sparks the Infinity Gauntlet storyline with Thanos completing his promise to Death.
In three powerful panels, the mad titan casually snuffs out half of the life in the entire universe with a snap of his fingers, like they were nothing. Death on a grand scale. Immeasurable losses of life as if each being was nothing more than
a tiny momentary speck within an indifferent universe. Where have we heard that before?
- [Kaecilius] "Tiny, momentary specks within an indifferent universe."
Have we already had a nihilistic Thanos movie disguised as a Doctor Strange movie? If we peel away the rest of Kaecilius' crusty face will we find the purple mug of the mad titan? Probably not, although there's no way that wasn't a fan theory written about on some obnoxious nerd culture website with a title like, super hype news dot website? Plus Kaecilius has a slightly different view of death than Thanos.
- [Kaecilius] "Time is an insult, death is an insult."
In fact, Kaecilius' whole goal is to prevent death, to summon Dormammu and create a world of eternal life.
- [Kaecilius] "This world doesn't have to die Doctor, we can all live forever."
That wouldn't really fly with Thanos' view of death as something to be reverred, besides Kaecilius was only echoing a line said earlier in the movie by none other than-
[Dr. Strange] "We are made of matter and nothing more. You're just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe."
This is actually an incredible moment in the Doctor Strange movie and it completely changed my opinion of the film when I watched it again recently. Up until this point in the film, we see scene after scene, conversation after conversation, of Stephen Strange being a self-absorbed, egomaniac. He one-ups and humiliates other doctors. He believes his work to be more critical than others. He obsesses over both maintaining his perfect record and only undertaking impressive medical cases.
Hell, his response to the surgery performed on his hands when he wakes up after his life-altering car crash was...
- [Dr. Strange] "I could have done better."
Time and time again, we're shown his arrogance and how highly Strange thinks of himself, but when he meets the Ancient One he finally reveals his true existential anxiety that deep down life is meaningless, his life is meaningless. The Ancient One responds with a simple, yet kind of profound statement.
- [Ancient One] "You think too little of yourself."
- [Dr. Strange] "Oh, you think you see through me, do you? Well, you don't."
One chapter even specifically talks about Strange's journey away from his own nihilistic mindset and it has interesting parallels to Thanos' arc. As we saw earlier, the arrogant Stephen Strange believes that life has no meaning, we're all just momentary specks and all that.
As author Paul DiGiorgio writes -
- [Dr. Strange] "Caught in the paradox of saying life had no meaning while also believing that his life had more meaning than anyone else."
This is the same mindset we see in Thanos, his ego runs wild in the pages of The Infinity Gauntlet story. There was even another comic that implied Thanos was only infatuated with Death because his own namesake literally translates to death, so maybe he's just obsessed with himself? And perhaps that's rather fitting. After the Ancient One tells Strange to drop his own ego countless time throughout the film, she delivers this speech as her final words before she dies.
numbered, your time is short. You'd think after all this time I'd be ready but look at me. Stretching one moment out into a thousand just so that I can watch the snow."
Relationship With Death
Death is what gives life meaning, and in Thanos' case, this is literal. Death is the being who brought him back and imbued his life with meaning and Thanos knows this. He knew this before he was even raised from the dead. He understood that his life would only be restored under the condition that he would fulfill Death's one and only request. How exactly can that mix with his nihilistic views? How can he believe that life has no meaning when Thanos himself was given life explicitly so he could fulfill a specific role in the universe?
This logical inconsistency with Thanos' thinking is not bad. If Thanos was strict nihilist who wanted to end life simply because he didn't see the value in it, then he'd be kind of a boring character in my opinion. These contradictions, the conflicted mindset of the mad Titan, is what transforms him from yet another cookie cutter villain to one who actually has depth. He's flawed, he's paranoid, he acts inconsistently out of love for someone who consistently scorns him, and he grows from it. In the excellent, albeit not actually canon, mini-series Marvel Universe The End, Thanos realizes an outcome where he makes the entire universe blink out of existence. Not just the sentient life in it but the stars, planets, everything.
At first, he basks in the glory of his triumph, the infinite black void is a testament to the power of Thanos. But he quickly learns that ruling over absolute nothingness might be a secure empire, sure, but without life what would be its value? Value, it took Thanos swallowing up the entirety of all that is to realize that life does have inherent value. He should know, he's the prime example. Thanos was resurrected to kill half of the population of the universe. Not for fun, but for a purpose, to protect life from the dangers it creates. Fittingly, with our comparison to Doctor Strange earlier, Thanos describes his own role as that of a doctor cutting away cancer to save the patient. Yet, when he finally ends all life except himself, he repeats this imagery but realizes that it is he who is cancer that must be eradicated from the universe. In one final act, Thanos becomes that healer he always thought he was. He restores every inch of the Marvel Universe
with one exception, himself.
Thanos, the ultimate nihilist, sacrifices himself to restore all other life in the universe. Thanos could have comfortably lived forever in the vast emptiness of the existence that he created, but while a life that lasts forever may be significant, a life that ends is more meaningful. As author George A. Dunn beautifully writes,
-[George A. Dunn] "Impermanence is a feature, not a bug, of human existence."
And for all of Thanos' power, this conflicted nihilist is actually pretty human after all.