What is Thanos? Everyone seems to think he’s a villain, because, once upon a time, he was a villain. There are a few of us who see him in a bit more of a shade of grey than black based on his actions post-Infinity Gauntlet, the last time, up until the end of The Infinity Revelation, that Jim Starlin actively portrayed Thanos as a villain. He did some shady things no doubt and always put his interests first... but he wasn’t a villain per se. More often than not, he was on the side of the good guys even as almost all of them tried to suppress the vomit that kept rising in their throats at the thought of fighting alongside the man who once killed half of the universe to impress a girl. And that makes him what exactly, especially here in Thanos vs. Hulk #1?
If you were to go by the title alone, Thanos is in opposition to the Hulk. The Hulk is ostensibly a hero/good guy despite being a monster that destroys things. Except, he’s a monster that’s usually on the side of the angels; the Hulk wants to survive and seems to naturally recognise that aligning himself with heroes is the best way to keep people from trying to kill him and his rampaging ways. That said, being in opposition to the Hulk does not make one a villain as the Thing proves. The Hulk offers such a wide variety of uses on the hero/villain spectrum that he’s a poor yardstick to measure another character by. He fights heroes and villains alike.
What does Thanos do in this issue? He threatens Pip the Troll, which is something I’ve seen heroes and villains do, so that’s a wash. He then looks to thwart Annihilus’s plans and, possibly, save the Hulk/Bruce Banner, which seems like a good thing. Yet, his demeanour is much more in line with the way other writers depict Thanos, usually. He atop his throne and makes large threats and does everything but preen a little. It’s not completely out of line with the way Starlin last depicted him Thanos #1-6, but it is a regression of sorts, suggesting that Thanos is more villain than hero (if he was ever a hero really). The ambiguity that remains, though, is a space that Starlin is very comfortable inhabiting, but other writers seem incapable of even glancing at when writing Thanos.
I joked the other day on Twitter after Tim O’Neill complained about the term ‘anti-hero’ that, given his character arc, Thanos is an ‘anti-villain.’ I find the idea/term stupid and simplistic (like anti-hero, it’s a lazy way to label a character too complex to fall into one of the two boxes given as the only choices), but, within those boundaries, it seems accurate. He’s a self-interested bad guy who finds himself doing good in the pursuit of those goals, much like an anti-hero is a good person who does seemingly bad things in pursuit of those virtuous motivations. Exactly how far he leans in this story isn’t known yet; this issue plants him firmly in the middle with any avenue open. I don’t mind the slightly more villainous depiction, because of that aforementioned ambiguity. In the hands of Starlin, Thanos is unpredictable. He could be a hero, he could be a villain. Read the story and find out.