The Thanos of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a complex, tormented figure. He's thoughtful and altruistic, a Malthusian crusader with a depraved sense of peace and justice.
But he wasn't always like that. When director Joss Whedon held the reins to Marvel Studios' Avengers franchise, the Mad Titan was devious and malevolent, closer in tone to his comic version than anything else. Unlike the quiet, brooding smile of the Russo brothers' Thanos, Whedon's purple giant had a smug, self-assured grin that hinted at ambitions far beyond those of mortal men. Moreover, he seemed to care very little for the ordinary man, while Josh Brolin's Thanos risked the universe precisely to liberate them. That discrepancy was left unaccounted for years — and now we know why.
Speaking over the weekend at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Whedon told IGN that he never really understood Thanos, or what to do with him. "Honestly, I kind of hung [him] out to dry," he said, speaking of the first time the Mad Titan ever appeared onscreen. "I love Thanos. I love his apocalyptic vision, his love affair with Death. I love his power, but I don't really understand it. He's had a lot of power and he was cool in the comics, and I'm like, Thanos is the ultimate Marvel villain! And then I was like, I don't actually know what I would do with Thanos."
According to the filmmaker, the original plan was to stick to the comics' depiction. He loved Jim Starlin's Infinity Gauntlet, and had conceptualized The Avengers with that story in mind. In the 1991 comic event, the Mad Titan rushes to collect all six Infinity Gems and eliminate half the universe, not for any philanthropic reason, but to impress Lady Death, with whom he is madly in love. As epic as that story was, it wouldn't work for the big screen. Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed Avengers: Infinity War, clearly share the same view. Instead of portraying Thanos as lovesick, they opted for a more realistic vision, in which the Mad Titan scrambles for control in his attempts to save the universe, rather than to win anyone over.
Despite kicking off in the opposite direction, Whedon admitted he was impressed by the path the Russos had taken, and that Brolin "killed it" in the role. "I thought they did what they needed to do," he said. "[Thanos falling in love with Death is] not a concept that will necessarily translate. It's sometimes also an easy out for a villain to say, I love destruction! They gave him an actual perspective and made him feel righteous to himself, which is always a better idea. So I liked what they did very much."
It seems only yesterday that Marvel Studios introduced Thanos in the mid-credits of 2012's The Avengers. Back then, it seemed like Whedon knew what he was doing, building a unique vision from the relatively few heroes Marvel had at its disposal. Whedon was a visionary, a cinematic force of nature, and fans liked to think he saw Brolin's Thanos coming from several movies away. But it's completely different looking from the eyes of the man himself. He told fans at Comic-Con that he "did not know" about this current version of Thanos, and that he "certainly didn't come up with it."
"It wasn't like, here's a set of directions," he explained. "I was like, I'm gonna get through Ultron, nap for four years, and then I'll come to the premiere. Which I did! It was like, this is so cool." It should be noted that working on Age of Ultron in 2015 reportedly wasn't enjoyable for Whedon, and discouraged him from handling any additional MCU movies.
Brolin's Thanos is the most recent fan-favorite among Marvel's growing list of larger-than-life villains. Introduced in 2012, in the mid-credits scene of The Avengers, he later played a part behind the curtain of 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, and appeared in cameo in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron. With this year's Infinity War, the Mad Titan took center stage, and brought his plan for universal "balance" to fruition.
The MCU's version of Thanos was little more than an idea in 2012 — a purple twinkle in Whedon's eye. It had been up to Joe and Anthony Russo to elevate that model of an all-powerful alien conqueror and transform it into a three-dimensional character, with fears, loves and growing motivations. Like most cinematic babies, Brolin's Thanos is a product of nature and nurture, forged in the mind of Whedon, but cultivated by the artistry of the Russo brothers.
Avengers: Infinity War will be released on digital HD on July 31, and on Blu-ray and DVD on Aug. 14.