It was a grin that changed the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a pleased acceptance at the declaration, “to challenge them would be to court death,” that invited fans both new and old to glimpse a sense of where Avengers were heading. Thanos’ introduction in the mid-credits scene of The Avengers (2012), and his pleased response to the inevitable showdown he would face against Earth’s mightiest heroes, laid the groundwork for Marvel’s following two phases of films, leaving audiences to wonder what he has to smile about.The task that this introduction created not only pushed Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige and his stable of creatives to build towards this climactic event with each installment of this franchise, but it also provided Marvel Comics with the opportunity to reintegrate Thanos as a central player throughout its line of books. Marvel has taken the past five years to rebuild the character in a number of ways, including a new origin story in Thanos Rising (2013), the event Infinity (2013), from which Avengers: Infinity War borrows Thanos’ cabal of subordinates. Marvel Comics has also published the solo series Thanos (2017) that puts Thanos through an emotional gauntlet. At the same time, Marvel has retained the character’s core elements, as carefully constructed by visionary comic writer Jim Starlin. Ultimately, Marvel has taken all the necessary steps in order to make sure that by this weekend’s release of Avengers: Infinity War, anyone who desired to would know the name Thanos and the weight it carried with it. Josh Brolin’s depiction of the character in Infinity War thus becomes a fascinating synthesis of Marvel past and present in order to create the definitive version of the character.
In the modern age of comics, when the name Thanos comes up, it’s a sure bet that Marvel is about to embark on an event, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1973, Jim Starlin ushered in a new threat in the pages of The Invincible Iron Man No. 55. “My name, Iron Man, is Thanos!” says the purple-skinned alien who lacks the stature and musculature that would become defining features of the character in later appearances. His similarity to DC Comics’ Darkseid, who had appeared seven years earlier, is unmistakable. Starlin has made no secret of his inspiration from Jack Kirby’s tyrannical New God, but the character has become far more than a rip-off over the course of the decades, guided largely by Starlin’s hand. Thanos’ first appearance, which also saw the first appearance of Drax, feels somewhat silly by current narrative expectations, with Iron Man being forced to fight a robotic version of Thanos while the real version escapes in classic villainous fashion. But, the beauty of comics is that even in the quaint and the trite, the seeds of sagas are planted.