A smarter critic than I once advised me that the key to giving a fair review is to remember one thing: no one tries to do a bad work. Whether the end result is good or not, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt that they were trying their best to make something good. In “Thanos Rising” #1 by Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi, it’s easy to see that effort hammered into every page, futile though it ultimately appears to be.
After all, on a technical level, there’s nothing wrong with the book. Aaron’s writing is in typically good form with plot delivered in a straightforward and clear way, but every line tinged with Aaron’s authorial voice: the dark comedy of the weird, set against everyday minutiae. Bianchi’s artwork, meanwhile, may be better than it’s ever been. The muddy colouring and unconventional, story-obscuring layouts of the past are replaced by bright, detailed panels and more simplified story-first page layouts. There’s not a single image that looks phoned-in or rushed.
If the problem isn’t with execution, it would seem to be with the concept. “Young Thanos” suffers from the curse of all prequels: it’s the bits that didn’t matter enough to be mentioned before now. There’s no tension in this will-he-or-won’t-he story (he will; we’ve seen it), and there’s no tragedy to mine from a character who contains no innocence. This doesn’t feel like Thanos. Instead, Thanos is what’ll be left when he’s gone, and that moment can’t come soon enough.
Despite Aaron’s attempt to bring readers on-side, the young version of Thanos doesn’t resonate in a fraction of the way the adult version does even in his brief, mute appearance in the opening pages. How can anyone who draws and reads and craves parental approval compete with the world-obliterating grandeur of a mad god victorious in ashes? Thanos is a cosmic-level villain, a master manipulator and conqueror, a literal lover of death. The story of how he got to that point seems destined to be banal and prosaic compared to the impossibly grand gestures that characterise him.
Perhaps Aaron and Bianchi can make it work as the series progresses. There are moments of genuine brilliance in the execution, not least the scenes between Thanos and his mother. But in the long run, it’s hard to feel like this is doing anything to improve the character. It’s enough to know that he’s the Mad Titan — filling in the gaps can only make him less interesting. And in the same way learning that Darth Vader was whiny and lovesick made him look ridiculous, the more time spent with this version of Thanos, the less threatening the adult version seems. For a villain that readers have to believe is intent on wiping out the universe, that can’t be a good thing.