The appeal of Thanos since his introduction in 1973’s Iron Man #55 has endured in part because of the cosmic powerhouse’s complexity. Yes, the Mad Titan revels in the role of ultimate supervillain, causing more death and destruction in sagas like “Infinity Gauntlet” than nearly any Marvel foe. Thanos is also notable, though, for moments of pragmatic heroism, including everything from teaming up with erstwhile Marvel heroes to literally saving the universe.
In the grand tradition of the best Marvel villains (see also: Doom, Doctor), readers know Thanos has committed unforgivable evils, but still see the potential good in the character. Thanos is the rare villain that transcends his do-gooder opponent, capable of operating as the big bad of a cosmic Marvel event as well as the lead in his own ongoing title. Below you’ll find some of the most memorable Thanos moments throughout Marvel comics history, from his psychedelic introductions in the ’70s on through his ongoing Marvel Legacy solo series. Thanos is truly one of the greatest villains in both Marvel and comic book history. While we may not see his heroic side in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers: Infinity War, it’s the depth of Thanos that has helped the Titan stand the test of time.
20. HEROIC: LEAD THE AVENGERS
Hallucination or not, the vision of Thanos leading the Avengers into battle is endlessly weird, and one of the great what ifs in the character’s history. During Jeff Lemire’s time writing Thanos, the “world killer” is sapped of his power, and sent to live out his remaining days as a mere mortal by his phoenix force possessed son, Thane. This leads Thanos (alongside brother Starfox) to enter the “God Quarry” and face a trial to regain his powers.
Thanos’ trial comes in the form of a reality where he leads the Avengers, including a fight he wins against a rampaging Abomination. Thanos’ reaction to this offer of a good and peaceful life of heroism is to quite literally smash Sam Wilson’s head between his enormous hands. But right up until that violent turn, Thanos was totally an Avenger!
19. VILLAINOUS: TURNED HULK INTO A PET DOG
When Iggy Pop and the Stooges shouted, “I wanna be your dog,” we’re not sure this is what they had in mind. Thanos commemorates his ascension to king of the universe by making the immortal Hulk his very own royal pet. Like the Inhumans’ Lockjaw, but with significantly more rage and a boatload more issues of solo comics.
Honestly, Thanos’ years-long imprisonment of Hulk is disturbing and vindictive. Hulk literally begs for death when confronted, and lives in a prison on top of the bones of Avengers and former heroes he may or may not have eaten. Visions of Hulk’s future rarely end happily, what with his own mad conquering in Future Imperfect. The future Thanos holds in store for the giant green rage monster may be the worst one yet.
18. HEROIC: SAVED AND RAISED GAMORA
We’ll stop several light years short of calling Thanos an admirable father figure, but he does take on Gamora as his ward. This being Thanos, he gives Gamora a home with the aim of turning her into the most dangerous woman in the universe, but in the end, isn’t that basically what all parents want? Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, as even Christmas gift-giving of toy dolls clearly supports Thanos’ ulterior aims to manipulate a Gamora devoted to his rule.
Still, Thanos remains surprisingly committed to giving Gamora the sense of family and holiday. After an attempted assassination on Thanos results in the incineration of Gamora’s new present, Thanos even promises to buy her a new one. And Thanos commits to watching dolphins with Gamora per her request. Somebody get this man a father of the year coffee mug!
17. VILLAINOUS: MADE PROFESSOR X BEG
While you can make a strong case that Professor X is a big old creep, it’s hard to say even his alternate earth counterpart deserved the fate Thanos and his Black Order held in store. During the Jonathan Hickman orchestrated events of New Avengers and Avengers, Thanos joined with a cabal including Terrax and Namor to literally destroy worlds before the impending multiversal incursion destroyed their own reality.
A view into one such world reveals the final moments of Thanos’ attack on the X-Men. Thanos drops the skulls of Professor Xavier’s generals (and supporting characters in Hickman’s time writing Ultimates) Xorn and Zorn at his feet. Professor X is left with a swift mercy killing as his only out, a fact that delights the sadistic Thanos.
16. HEROIC: FOUGHT THE BEYONDER
The first solo ongoing comic starring Thanos spins out of Marvel: The End with a surprisingly reformed Thanos seeking some version of redemption. This 2003 series is easily the most direct take on Thanos as an anti-hero, explicitly working through the ramifications of Thanos’ previous evil actions. Essentially, Thanos has been god and found it lacking; perhaps there’s a meaning to life in heroism he has not yet explored.
The idea that his own curiosity would direct him in the direction of altruism is perfectly Thanos, and finds him pitted against Galactus attempting to use the Infinity Stones to cure his hunger. As far as reinvention tours go, stopping both Galactus and The Beyonder is pretty top notch cosmic hero-ing. Thanos may never truly make amends for his past, but this was the closest he ever came.
15. VILLAINOUS: KEPT NEBULA IN A STATE OF LIVING DEATH
For the crime of desperately wanting to be part of his family tree, Thanos used his newly assembled infinity gauntlet to zombify Nebula and refused to let her die. During the (surprisingly long) gap between Thanos iconic “freezing” and his return in the pages of Silver Surfer, Nebula roamed the Marvel cosmos professing her bonafides as the granddaughter of Thanos.
Needless to say, Thanos is not pleased that any space pirate (successful as they may be) would cash in on his (not at all) good name. Of course, Thanos’ petty cruelty results in his own downfall, as Nebula is able to steal the Infinity Gauntlet right off the newly all-powerful villain’s hand. Nebula’s own brush with omnipotence lasts for all of 60 seconds, before Thanos allies with the heroes in order to vex his would-be relative once more.
14. HEROIC: PREVENTED ANNIHILUS FROM A UNIVERSE TAKEOVER
When Annihilus leveled-up with Hulk-like strength levels, it was Thanos who managed to formulate a plan to stand against the longtime tyrant of the Negative Zone. As a whole, the 2010’s new “Infinity Saga” (a series of Marvel original graphic novels written by Jim Starlin) is a wonderful return to the glory days of Thanos. Nobody captures the pragmatic cruelty of Thanos like Starlin, somehow positioning a known mass murderer as the smartest, most reasonable character in any room.
The second graphic novel in the sequence, The Infinity Relativity, builds to a fist fight between Thanos and Annihulk. Thanos corrals the Guardians of the Galaxy in order to prevent the return of another Annihilation Wave, and the moderately heroic gesture nearly costs him his life!
13. VILLAINOUS: INVADED EARTH IN ORDER TO END HIS OWN SON
There are a handful of moments in Marvel history when Thanos invades Earth seemingly out of spite. The final Brian Michael Bendis issue of Guardians of the Galaxy is a good example, when Thanos convinces Earth’s cosmic enemies that the price of his membership is conquering Earth. He’s just mad at that infernal planet.
The 2013 Marvel event “Infinity” begins in this manner but quickly reveals that Thanos’ devastation of Earth is mostly a distraction for his real goal: locating and murdering his offspring. Over the course of Jonathan Hickman and Jim Cheung’s excellent event (as well as Thanos Rising), we learn that Thanos has been ridding the universe of his offspring like the mad tyrant that he is. Upon discovering his son, Thane, on Earth the black-hearted villain fails to kill his son, but not for lack of trying.
12. HEROIC: BETRAYED THE ANNIHILATION WAVE
Thanos operates as a compelling wild card in the great 2006 to 2007 Marvel cosmic event, Annihilation. Fresh off his test period as a complicated anti-hero in the Jim Starlin written solo Thanos comic, the traditional villain seemingly teams with Annihilus. Playing second fiddle to anyone is clearly beneath Thanos, though, and it’s only a matter of time before the cosmic epic reveals the behind the scenes plotting of Thanos to prevent Annihilus’ success.
Thanos does help Annihilus by turning a captured Galactus into a cosmic energy weapon for the Annihilation Wave. Once Thanos learns that Annihilus’ plan is to wipe out all life in the universe, the power obsessed Titan plots to release Galactus and foil his plot. Ironically, Thanos’ heroic turn never comes to fruition, as Drax punches a hole through his heart before he can save the universe.
11. VILLAINOUS: MADE EROS WATCH
Read Infinity Gauntlet too young, and mouthless Eros will haunt your dreams from here to Eternity. Read enough Eros appearances and you may not mind his inability to speak quite as negative, although the gruesome revenge of Thanos is still more than evident. There is literally no member of his family on Titan that Thanos hasn’t tortured or murdered (or tortured and murdered), but readers got a first look at his treatment of Eros in 1991.
Starfox and Thanos have always been a bewildering pair of brothers, with only textual claims to shared parents connecting the two. It’s not difficult to see why Thanos would resent Eros, though. Whereas Thanos was born a deviant on Titan and destined to a life as an outsider, Eros was born with conventionally good looks and superpowered charm.
10. HEROIC: DESTROYED THE CANCERVERSE
His motivations may be called in to question, but to his credit, during Thanos: Imperative the ultimate villain does in fact align (briefly) with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova to prevent the spread of the Cancerverse. In order to prevent an evil version of Captain Mar-Vell from unleashing the Avatar of Life in the Marvel Universe, Thanos outwits the leader of the Revengers. Thanos surrenders to the entity, and his impending execution invites Lady Death into the Cancerverse, finally putting an end to the domain’s expansion.
Sure, shortly thereafter Thanos is infuriated when Lady Death rejects his puppy dog eyes once more, and Star-Lord and Richard Rider have to stay behind to keep him in the collapsing Cancerverse. Thanos still gets credit for helping the Guardians solve one major problem, though, even if he’s ultimately the biggest problem of them all.
9. VILLAINOUS: BLEW UP AT LEAST 14 WORLDS
It didn’t take much convincing from Namor to get Thanos, his Black Order, and Maximus the Mad to join him in their worlds-ending crusade. Depending on your views of the multiversal incursions, you could conceivably argue Thanos acted altruistically in self-defense, protecting the Earth-616 universe. Of course, this ignores the bloodthirsty joy that accompanied Thanos as he slaughtered worlds, and the likely disappointment that he wasn’t the cause of the incursions himself.
Thanos has rarely been so well suited for a role, reveling in the violent needs of the Marvel Universe prior to 2015’s Secret Wars. If only it weren’t for the pesky morality and valuing of life that turned Marvel’s Illuminati (the likes of Black Panther, Iron Man, Black Bolt and more) off from the battle in the first place.
8. HEROIC: STOPPED THOR’S RAGE
When Thor essentially lost his mind to bloodlust, Thanos stood opposed, thrilled with the opportunity to knock the god of thunder down a few heavens. With the “warrior madness” upon him, Thor becomes a nearly unrecognizable brute, backhanding the Lady Sif and Beta Ray Bill as if they meant nothing to him. Ironically, “Blood and Thunder” features a possibly hallucinated female presence guiding Thor’s actions, much akin to Thanos and his Lady Death.
Thanos joins the likes of Adam Warlock, Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange in battles against the enraged and maddened Thor. “Blood and Thunder” is an uneven crossover as a whole, but there are delicious moments of battle, including Thanos standing up to Odin as he tangentially prevents the destruction of gleaming Asgard.
7. VILLAINOUS: ENDED GAMORA, PIP THE TROLL, AND ADAM WARLOCK
Thanos comes out of the gates swinging during his debut in Iron Man #55 and Captain Marvel #25 to #33. This introduction from creator and plotter Jim Starlin is Thanos as vindictive destroyer, pining for Earth’s Cosmic Cube to ascend to godhood. It’s in the villain’s return that Starlin gets to flesh out Thanos’ motivations and mannerisms, setting himself up as a complex foe/ally of Adam Warlock, Gamora, and of course, Pip the Troll.
True to his nature, Thanos turns on the erstwhile heroes. In Avengers Annual #7, Gamora attempts to take out Thanos, only for the father figure to leave her mortally wounded. Thanos then turned his sights on the hated Pip the Troll, leaving him lobotomized. If it weren’t for Adam Warlock’s quick thinking to absorb his allies’ souls into the soul gem prior to his own death, Gamora and Pip may have been lost to Thanos forever!
6. HEROIC: WALKS CAPTAIN MARVEL THROUGH HIS FINAL MOMENTS
Despite his rage and murderous impulses, Thanos is highly capable of showing respect to deserving foes. Undoubtedly, Thanos finds a worthy adversary in Captain Marvel, the kree warrior capable of cosmic awareness. Indeed, when Thanos finds himself temporarily allied with Genis-Vell, he asks the new Captain Marvel if he’s worthy of his father’s esteemed fighting spirit.
In Marvel’s first original graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin, Mar-Vell’s final moments find him locked in an ending battle against Thanos that ultimately proves futile. The adversaries back off, and together walk into the realm of death as warriors who have seen their time pass by. Thanos’ ability to turn from violent foe to dignified guide to the afterlife is part of what makes the villain so appealing. As Thanos tells Mar-Vell of death, “Do not fear her for she is merely that which awaits us all.”
5. VILLAINOUS: ERASED HALF OF ALL LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE
Thanos’ most famous act of destruction comes in Jim Starlin and Ron Lim’s Infinity Gauntlet. Once he has accumulated the full near-mint condition set of Infinity Stones, Thanos is finally in prime position to woo his mistress, Lady Death. His generous gesture of true love takes the shape of a “Snap” heard around the universe, when Thanos uses the infinity gauntlet to quite literally wipe out half of all life in the universe.
It’s a challenge to even put this act in perspective given the scale of the mass extinction. The early ’90s Marvel event attempts to put the extreme devastation in context by specifying the disappearance of Reed Richards, Hawkeye, and Daredevil, among many others. Although the events of would ultimately be reversed, there’s still a feeling of very real loss throughout.
4. HEROIC: RESTORED THE MARVEL UNIVERSE FROM ITS END
Saving the universe is undoubtedly positive, although it’s less of a clear moral victory when you’re also the cause of universal collapse. That’s the case in Jim Starlin’s 2003 six issue event, Marvel: The End. Thanos achieves even more power than he amassed in Infinity Gauntlet through “the heart of the universe.” In order to prevent the likes of the Living Tribunal and Eternity from threatening his power, Thanos absorbs all of everything into himself.
Thanos winds up in a state of nothingness (not for the last time), save the presence of Adam Warlock and Lady Death. Following a conversation with Warlock, Thanos determines he needs to sacrifice himself to undo the damage he’s done and restore the universe to its previous state. It took some massive villainy to get there, but Thanos does conclude the story with a heroic sacrifice.
3. VILLAINOUS: WHAT HE DID TO HIS OWN FATHER
It’s safe to say that Thanos doesn’t hold his parents in particularly high esteem. His mother tried to kill him immediately out of the womb, and his father, Mentor, has stood opposed to Thanos the conqueror since the civilization on Titan was introduced. We’re not saying Thanos’ parents necessarily had it coming, but it’s not hard to see why the mad Titan would seek vengeance upon them both.
Indeed Mentor hardly denies his own hatred of his son, telling Thanos to his face that he wishes he’d smothered him as an infant. Classic father and son stuff, really. It’s honestly a testament to Thanos’ own medical confusion and desperation in Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato’s story arc that the “world killer” even turns to his father.
2. HEROIC: SAVED DEATH WITH DEADPOOL
Like many of Thanos’ “heroic” acts, his partnership with Deadpool (or as Wade might say, “sidekick-ship”) to restore the balance of “Death” to the Marvel Universe ultimately ends in abject villainy. You don’t see too many Marvel heroes punch out Eternity over and over. Nonetheless, for a time Thanos and Deadpool worked together to return a very necessary possibility of death to the Marvel Universe.
Naturally, Thanos is particularly self-invested in this “heroism,” as he attempts to once again woo Lady Death. His involvement with Deadpool is fueled almost entirely by jealousy, as Death has been romantically entangled with Deadpool over the year (to the point that Thanos cursed Wade with eternal life). Motivations aside, Thanos does successfully manage to free Death from Eternity’s imprisonment, thereby returning order to the universe.
1. VILLAINOUS: WHAT HE DID TO HIS OWN MOM
If there’s one thing Thanos readers were missing until Marvel NOW!, it was the visual of a near naked Thanos’ mom getting stabbed by her deviant son. In an odd approach, The Thanos Rising miniseries by Jason Aaron and Simone Biochi expands the details surrounding this haunting matricide, and melds Thanos’ origin with serial killer fiction like Dexter.
In two issues, every moment between Thanos and his mother is harrowing stuff. Sui-San attempts to literally take a knife to her newborn son, screaming about the death in his eyes. In his quest to find himself as a murderous youngster, Thanos finally turns to dissecting his mother, quite literally searching for answers on the inside. It’s a revolting turning point for Thanos, and a clear reminder that no matter the story, Thanos past is too filled with blood to ever find true redemption.
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