WARNING: EXTENSIVE SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: ENDGAME BELOW
Thanos. Remember him? The purple, finger-snapping villain whom Disney spent twenty-two movies setting up? The ultimate evil? The entity single-handedly responsible for dusting half of the universe before peacing-out to the Garden to raise alien dragonfruit? The being so powerful that he can do literally anything?
Well, he went missing in Avengers: Endgame.
Gone is the multi-faceted, interesting villain that Infinity War spent two-and-a-half hours setting up, dispatched in the first fifteen minutes of the movie by a jaded Thor. And with him goes any semblance of satisfaction at the end of Endgame.
Don’t get me wrong — Endgame is an amazing piece of fan service. As someone who’s spent a lot of time invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past decade-and-some-change, Endgame surpassed even my wildest hopes and dreams; I loved nearly every second of its over three-hour runtime. It’s packed with so much content, so many references to previous films, that even now I still find myself noticing new things. But, what I didn’t love was how Thanos was treated, both as a character and as a plot device after his starring role in Infinity War.
Part of what makes movies like Infinity War, Endgame, or shows like Dragon Ball Z fun to watch is seeing heroes overcome trials and tap into a sense of strength never before seen. Understandably, it’s rather cliché by this point — but it’s also extremely satisfying for the audience to see the heroes’ sacrifice pay off, to see them overcome their challenges.
Attempting to take a different approach, Endgame dumps Thanos, replacing him with one of the oldest tricks in the comic book bag: another copy of him from an alternate dimension. Unfortunately for the viewer, the “Althanos” from 2014 isn’t nearly as interesting of a character. Devoid of his predecessor’s passion and lacking any of the character development forged in Infinity War, “Althanos” is a disappointment. In a genre that’s known for low-stakes and CG-inflated super-battles, the final battle in Endgame feels notably “been there, done that,” a fault that lies primarily with “Althanos” and his complete lack of motivation.
In Infinity War, Thanos is driven by a cosmic vision of peace through brutality. He seeks to preserve order by eliminating half of life to allow the other half to flourish with the now-overflowing resources of their respective worlds. His motives are neither logical nor pragmatic, but Josh Brolin’s masterful acting sells Thanos’ vision — as sick and twisted as it is — as a fundamentally understandable one. When he retires to the Garden after completing his mission in Infinity War, he doesn’t seem like a universe-trampling conqueror, but instead a martyr who has given everything for his cause.
“Althanos” has no such convictions. Devolving from Infinity War, he flattens markedly as a character in Endgame. Despite another stunning performance by Brolin, he’s just another villain ready to destroy Earth and recreate the universe in his image. Despite having had decades to form a personal philosophy centered around balance and the need to exterminate half — and only half! — of life, he throws it all away in about two minutes because the plot demands it.
The film makes a bold decision to off the original version of Thanos in its opening act, which is understandable. It’s obvious that the writers wanted to simultaneously subvert expectations and find a way out of the corner they had backed themselves into; Thanos was too powerful to be defeated by anyone but himself.
But therein lies the fundamental problem with how Endgame handles Thanos’ entire arc. By not finding a means to defeat a Infinity Gauntlet-enabled Thanos, Endgame denies the audience the payoff that they’ve expected since the end of Infinity War. Sure, the audience eventually gets to see a Thanos fade to dust in satisfying fashion, but it comes after seeing the real, defenseless, and rather pitiful Thanos dispatched by Thor.
In the end, Avenger’s Endgame is still a masterful movie. Full of homage, fan service, and pure glee, it’s a masterpiece of the superhero genre, an incredible payoff to nearly two dozen films, and a good time. However, for all its success, it fails its main villain, transforming him from cosmic philosopher to yet another CG villain bent on universal domination.