Thanos, the Protagonist

The following post has MAJOR spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
Do not read if you haven’t seen the movie.


Avengers: Infinity War was a real treat. I found myself highly enjoying the
action, the humor, and the last ten years of superheroes all sharing the screen
together.

Though there were lots of parts I loved about the movie, what makes the story
especially excellent is Thanos. Here is a villain for whom most MCU fans have
been patiently waiting since we saw glimpses of him at the end of the first
Avengers film. And yet, in Infinity War, it isn’t his villainy that makes him
a powerful adversary (though he is an excellent villain). Instead, it’s how
the screenwriters, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, walk us through the
narrative from Thanos’ perspective, giving us emotional insight that has
previously only been ascribed to the heroes in this universe. Reminding us what
Thanos has had to lose in order to achieve his goal of eliminating half the
universe to end suffering makes his plight all that more relatable.
In my opinion, it makes him the protagonist.

In most conventional stories on screen, you can follow the main character
through something called the “Hero’s Journey”: this is the cycle of events that
drive the plot and make the character who they are. Dan Harmon, the
screenwriter behind Commmunity, lays it out in 8 simple steps
here:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

What I found was remarkable in this story is that there’s really only one
character who experiences a full journey of this kind so explicitly: Thanos.
Thanos exists in the universe, but he’s plagued by the suffering he saw
overpopulation bring to his home. Driven by this, he travels to planets around
the universe, non-discrimantly killing half the inhabitants in an act of what
he deems as charity. But it’s brutal, and Thanos himself acknowledges it. What
he wants is a merciful way to eliminate half the universe. And so begins his
quest to collect all of the Infinity Stones—together, they can remove half
the universe with the snap of a finger. It’s mercy, he says.

To do so, he needs to fight off a whole new set of adversaries: The Avengers
(and friends). Thanos is all powerful, but that doesn’t stop the Avengers from
getting in a couple of pretty awesome beatdowns. This is something he needs to
learn how to adapt to. The really important part, however, is not just
figuring out how to beat the crap out of each of the avengers, but instead, how
identifying how to to acquire the soul stone, which hadn’t appeared in any
previous movies. In order to do so, he learns, he must sacrifice something he
truly loves. A soul for a soul.

Through this sacrifice, we see not only the price that Thanos must pay
(everything, as he succinctly says at the end of the movie), but also his
fundamental character change. He is wraught with anguish and grief at the
thought of killing his daughter in his plight to save the universe. However, he
proclaims that he has turned from his destiny before (he was not strong enough
to do something like this in the psat) and that he will not let that happen
again (he has changed). He kills Gamora, receiving the soul
stone in return, putting him steady on the path to Universal annihilation.
By the end of the movie, he’s returned back to the universe, having changed,
and succeeding in his major goal.

As far as stories go, this is actually pretty basic. It follows very closely
what an audience would expect to happen. But the reason it’s shocking is
because Thanos isn’t the “hero”. He’s the villain. And this is what brings me
back to why I think this movie was excellent—the filmmakers subverted my
expectations through the entire movie by making a movie that was actually not
about the Avengers at all, but instead about a distraught Titan simply trying
to make right in the universe.