In 1991, Thanos got his due.
Marvel movie fans are still waiting for that day to come on the big screen (see you in 2018), but 25 years ago, Thanos shook up the Marvel Universe with Infinity Gauntlet, a six-issue comic book sensation that saw the villain gain omnipotence after gathering all six of the Infinity Stones. The cosmic tale was an instant success, going on to be one of the most influential comic storylines of the ’90s. Many of its ideas have been incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (most notably, Thanos’ obsession with tracking down the Infinity Stones).
“I had worked on Thanos, created him back even before I started working at Marvel,” recalls writer Jim Starlin. “I tried to up Thanos’ game every time he appeared.”
And up his game Starlin did. Thanos’ first act of godhood? Killing half the sentient life in the universe to impress his ladyfriend Death — an act that galvanized Earth’s remaining heroes into teaming up to stop him in a massive adventure Starlin crafted with artists George Perez and Ron Lim.
The startling move to kill half the universe didn’t receive much pushback from Marvel editorial (Starlin recalls editor Craig Anderson wasn’t showing much of their work around the office), but the ambitious project did hit a few speed bumps. Perez, unable to juggle duties on both Gauntlet and DC’s War of the Gods, left in the middle of the run — and Starlin was limited by what characters he could use in the battle against Thanos.
“A number of editors up there, there were about six of them, were very hesitant about letting me use any of their characters, especially the X-Men, which were extremely popular at that time,” says Starlin, who was granted use of just Cyclops and Wolverine from the team of Mutants.
That attitude changed after the book became a runaway success, spawning follow-ups Infinity War (1992) and The Infinity Crusade (1993).
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“With the next series, which was the Infinity War, I had everybody trying to get their things into the books, because the crossover books that they did sold so well,” says Starlin.
In a world in which the MCU is most often criticized for lacking interesting villains, Thanos truly has the potential to be a game-changer on the big screen. A key aspect of the character as Starlin conceived him is that he provides the own method for his defeat. He’s supremely ambitious and arrogant, but also secretly believes he is unworthy. In the case of Infinity Gauntlet, it’s suggested Thanos didn’t actually believe he deserved the power the Gauntlet gave him. His granddaughter Nebula (played by Karen Gillan in the MCU) is turned into the living dead by Thanos, and eventually gains the Gauntlet simply by taking it from his hand.
“At the time I was doing him, my reading list consisted of things of like Wilhelm Reich and Carlos Castaneda and the science-fiction writer Roger Zelazny,” says Starlin. “So I didn’t like characters that were one- or two-dimensional. I liked a guy to have a lot of different levels to him and layers and I think I pretty well succeeded with Thanos.”
Though the next Avengers movie takes its name from Infinity War, fans speculate the 2018 film will take more inspiration from the plot of Infinity Gauntlet. (While Gauntlet features Thanos as the big bad, the Infinity War comic sees the heroes face a series of doppelganger versions of themselves.)
Either way, when Thanos does step forward as the main movie bad guy, it will be the culmination of six years of storytelling. Thanos was teased in The Avengers, made a full-on appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, and was last seen in an Avengers: Age of Ultron midcredits scene. His prolonged period of sitting behind the scenes was even mocked by Marvel during its San Diego Comic-Con panel this year. In other words, fans are ready.
“I’d like to have had a bigger piece of Thanos than I do, but when the first Avengers movie came out, Marvel and I — we renegotiated some things, so I get a taste out of this thing,” Starlin says when asked if he regrets creating a character for Marvel now at the center of a billion-dollar franchise. “I’m not becoming the next Bill Gates, but I’m getting a little something out of it.”
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