Back Issues: The Avengers’ big bad — Thanos

Infinity Stones are the prize for villain

After arriving out of left field (well, deep space) in the mid-credits scene in 2012’s “Avengers,” Thanos steps onto the main stage in “Avengers: Infinity War,” opening in theaters today.

The purple-skinned despot’s first, brief appearance may have only made people unfamiliar with the source material think, “Hmm. Who’s that guy?” But those of us who have been reading comics for a long time immediately recognized the villain and knew Marvel was throwing down a literal gauntlet for its heroes.

Thanos is part of a race of superhumans known as the Eternals. A genetic anomaly made him a Deviant, born with a monstrous appearance. Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi’s 2013 limited series “Thanos Rising” chronicled his youth, which mirrored the development of a serial killer as he moved from slaughtering small animals to murdering his fellow immortals and his own mother.

He was led along this journey by a mysterious girl who turned out to be the physical embodiment of Death. The horrible acts Thanos went on to commit were long dedicated to winning her love, hence the smile at the end of “Avengers” when Thanos’ adviser warns him that to attack the Earth would be to “court death.”

All this happened, in the comics’ chronology, before Thanos’ first appearance in 1973’s “Iron Man” #55.

Thanos came into conflict with Earth’s heroes when he tried to obtain the powers of a reality-altering object called the Cosmic Cube. Later, he would battle the Avengers and the original Captain Marvel as he tried to tame the powers of the Soul Gems, later called the Infinity Gems.

Giving the bearer mastery over Reality, Power, Space, Time, the Mind and the Soul, these gems are better known to movie-goers as the Infinity Stones. In 1991’s landmark limited series, “The Infinity Gauntlet,” Thanos assembled all six on the titular glove and attempted to win Death’s favor once and for all by snuffing out half the sentient life in the universe with a snap of his fingers.

(I’m betting that’s how the movie ends, with “Avengers 4” already slated for next year.)

This brought Thanos into conflict with a host of Earth heroes and cosmic beings, including Adam Warlock, who is the other central figure in Infinity Gem/Stone-related stories. His absence from the MCU (except a hint in one of the 47 post-credit scenes in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) seems odd given the role of Thanos and the Stones, but I think the Vision may take his place to a certain extent.

Recent stories have focused on Thanos as the murderous, nigh-unstoppable world ravager we’ve glimpsed in the movies and trailers, but a funny thing happened in the post-“Gauntlet” comics. We got a kinder, gentler Thanos.

In his encounters with both the Cube and the Gauntlet, Thanos basically defeated himself, making errors that gave his opponents a chance to seize victory against his all-but-omnipotent powers and never accomplishing his true goal, getting Death to love him back.

After being deprived of the Gauntlet, Thanos retired to a quiet world as a farmer, content to let Warlock handle all that power (though Warlock did make Thanos the secret guardian of the Reality gem when the Gauntlet was split up by cosmic entities). He aided the heroes against Warlock’s evil double, the Magus, in a story actually called “Infinity War,” and even tried his hand at being a hero in a short-lived series initially written and drawn by Thanos’ creator, Jim Starlin.

Starlin has continued to explore Thanos, Warlock and other cosmic characters in various “Infinity” titled works. Meanwhile, Thanos, in part, it seems, propelled by his role in the movies has returned to central mega-villain status, not letting multiple apparent deaths slow him down.

Despite being titled “Infinity,” the 2013 story only mentioned the gems briefly. It focused on the Avengers going into space to help stave off a threat headed toward Earth while Thanos targeted the planet with his own agenda.

It seems like that story will be a heavy influence on the movie. Thanos’ crew, the Black Order, was introduced there, and the Black Panther’s home nation of Wakanda in particular felt their wrath.

***

Recommended Reading

* “The Infinity Gauntlet” — The story that put Thanos on the map. Thanos assembles the six Infinity Gems, giving him power that dwarfs that of the heroes and cosmic entities who assemble against him.

* “Thanos” Vol. 1 #1-6 — After once again obtaining and surrendering ultimate power, Thanos decides to become a force for good. But he’s still Thanos.

* “Infinity” — While the Avengers face a universe-threatening enemy in space, Thanos sets his sights on Earth. Likely to be a big influence on the movie, with the introduction of the Black Order.

COMMENTS