Thanos and the Hero’s Journey
There was a lot of legitimate talk about Thanos being the protagonist of Avengers — Infinity War. While Thanos is clearly not a hero, from a storytelling perspective, he certainly is. If we set aside our moral framework and value judgments about Thanos’ means to his end, we can see what we’re watching — a superhero movie about someone trying to save the Universe from the tragedy of the commons. He makes sacrifices. He loses things that are important to him. But most importantly, his story follows the classic structure of the Hero’s Journey.
There are different expressions of this storytelling pattern, but I’ve found that I like Dan Harmon’s the best, as it applies to screenwriting. Let’s see how Thanos’ story arc in Avengers — Infinity War fits this framework almost perfectly. You can learn more about his take on story structure here.
You — Establish the protagonist. This is the toughest one to demonstrate, as Thanos gets a pretty standard villain’s intro. We open the story on him having laid waste to what we already know is a spaceship full of mostly civilians (bad), and then proceeds to wallop and/or kill several established heroes directly on screen (also bad). However, from a storytelling perspective, our “heroes” aren’t all that great. They are deceptive (Loki) and dishonorable (Hulk employs an ambush) while Thanos is presented as strong, cool under pressure, imperturbable, and having hidden reserves (he beats up the Hulk!). We don’t get Harmon’s classic “invoke sympathy for the protagonist” move on Thanos’ behalf, but other than that (and the moral dimensions, which, remember, we’re throwing away) it’s more of hero’s introduction than it originally seems to be.
Need — Something ain’t quite right. Thanos’ world is incomplete. He needs four more Infinity Stones to finish his collection. Humans love collecting things. Having the Full Set seems to be an innate human desire: Pokemon! Sports cards! Purses! Guns! While we’re not a fan of his end goal (We’re not, right? Right?), this actually humanizes him. We all know what that feels like. I only have four more to go, and then I’ll have all of them! Thanos isn’t just mean or rude or generically evil — he has a real need, both in his means (get all the stones!) and in his end (save the Universe!). The Need is real, and he’s been trying to fulfill it in one way or another across the span of several movies.
Go — Crossing the threshold. At this point, crossing the threshold is simple for Thanos. Some iterations of the Hero’s Journey require the protagonist to first refuse the call of the journey, but it’s not a real necessity. If that’s a sticking point for you, recall that Thanos in cut-scenes from previous movies has tried to have others do this work for him — repeatedly refusing the call — but in the end relents with a note of “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”
He sends his children to Earth to retrieve half of the missing pieces of his collection (What a good papa! Thanos is not a helicopter parent, willing to let his children rise and fall on their own merits, even when there are real stakes!) while he for the first time uses the Space Stone he has just acquired from Loki to create a portal to begin his own journey. He literally creates his own portal (threshold), then steps through it.
Search — The Road of Trials. Often in fantasy or superhero movies, the hero’s road of trials involves them going on a series of quests to fetch the powerful items that they need in order to win the day. For our “hero” Thanos and his children, quests abound! We see Thanos’ children engage in their own trials and tribulations as they attempt to help their father. While we don’t get to see Thanos take on the population of Knowhere to retrieve the Reality Stone, we do see the aftermath.
How trying was it for him to do that? Probably not that much, actually. But what comes next? His own daughter, whom we later understand that he actually loves, shows up and stabs him the neck, seemingly killing him. Of course, it was just a Reality Stone-induced ploy, but after understanding later how Thanos feels about Gamora, we are left to wonder if was really just a game for him. Did it actually hurt him to see how quickly and eagerly she would murder him after all he had done for her? Of course, he meets his daughter’s live-in boyfriend in the same scene, and we know from countless rom-coms how awkward that can be ;)
After this, Thanos is on to his hardest trial — finding the Soul Stone — during which he has to confront his past (his treatment of his children) and his “failures” as a father. Gamora is a terrible liar, and Nebula easily cracks under torture — both things that are anti-values for Thanos. In his throne room, Gamora once again rejects him and everything he has tried to do for her and for the Universe. The one person who he thought was actually capable of sharing his vision and abilities completely rejects and fails him.
Find — Meeting with the Goddess. In Harmon-talk, this step is the hero’s lowest point. In this story, I’m going to mark it as Thanos and Gamora’s arrival on Vormir, the home of the Soul Stone. How low are we though? Well, the devil lives there. The Red Skull has been re-purposed from a Captain America villain into a wraith-like guardian of the resting place of the Stone. He’s the devil. We’re in hell. Pretty low.
But who is the Goddess? Viewing story structure as a circle, it’s the opposite of where you were at the beginning. At the opening of the story, Thanos is surrounded by his children and allies, relying on his prowess in combat. Now, he is alone save Gamora, and the battle that rages is purely internal. When he makes his decision to actually throw her to her death, he has now truly learned what it means to “do it himself.” Everything he was in the beginning of the story — reliant on his physical strength, surrounded by his children and allies, fully armored — has been reversed. It is now only Thanos and his will.
The frame whites out, and we cut to Thanos, apparently suspended or floating, and it isn’t until the camera pans down that we see he is in the waters of Vormir, having earned the Soul Stone. The cinematography is very much “waking from a dream,” even though we know that what happened was real. The Goddess is at the very bottom of the story arc, and often once you’ve had your Goddess experience, you awaken into a new take on the world. That is exactly what happens here.
Take — Meet your maker. So where does Thanos go now? Back to his home planet. His birthplace, and the place where he first saw the ravages of over-population. His Maker. He expects to collect another Infinity Stone here, but finds that one more of his children has been lost. Sometimes, “Take” just lets you move on with life, but in other stories there is more fighting to be done, and so it is here. The “underworld” doesn’t want to let you go with your newly acquired knowledge, so you face another road of trials.
Thanos has to face the full force of the space-faring wing of the Avengers plus the Guardians of the Galaxy. Although they almost defeat him, his previous trials have in fact made him stronger. It’s here where we begin to see the heroic payoff of Thanos’ dedication to his will power. The Avengers and Guardians have him almost defeated by pulling off the gauntlet, but they are undone because of their own lack of discipline. Starlord lets his emotions get the better of him, and Thanos is able to use that to get the upper hand again.
Return — Bringing it home. Having defeated the forces that tried to stop him on Titan and obtained the next to last part of his collection, Thanos heads to Earth, the site of his army’s largest recent defeat (cf. The Avengers). His children whom he relied on up until now have failed him. Note what happens here. He doesn’t appear in force, on the battlefield. Instead, he appears in a quiet forest, away from the action. He is a very different person than he was at the beginning of the story. He faces round two with the Avengers and, because he has now grown powerful through multiple trials, easily defeats them.
Change — Master of both worlds. Having learned all of his lessons, nothing can stop him. He even reaches backward through time to obtain the last stone in his collection. And though he has the most powerful weapon in the Universe at this point, the outcome is still in doubt. Thor has gone through his own hero’s journey through the course of the story, and here their paths intersect. Who will win? Who has actually learned their lesson?
We know the answer. Despite his moments of self-awareness in the shuttle with Rocket, Thor reverts to his haughty, hubristic self. He wants to savor Thanos’ defeat and get his taunts in, just like he always has. He doesn’t take the situation seriously enough, and Thanos calls him on it. Thor fails to overcome his early nature, and even though he has a power equal to the infinity gauntlet (note how Stormbreaker is able to pierce the full force of the blast from the gauntlet), he himself is unable to truly wield it effectively. The weapon is up to the task, but Thor is not. Thanos, however, has his own superweapon, and has faced all of his weaknesses. Though he is impaled on Stormbreaker and Thor is shoving it through his heart (why doesn’t this kill him? He already threw his heart off a cliff on Vormir), he has the hard-won will and discipline to execute his plan.
With a snap, Thanos completes his journey. He is rewarded with a true hero’s ending. He sits peacefully in an idyllic setting, the sun rises, and the score falls into a quiet and beautiful series of resolving chords.
Clearly, Thanos is not a hero. But the Russos presented him using the full power of the heroic story arc, and it was highly successful. Take a look at r/thanosdidnothingwrong. Or, if you’re hating yourself today, Google “Thanos thicc.” He has fans, and this is not a coincidence. The hero’s journey is what it is for a reason — it speaks to a deep storytelling need in our conception of culture. By deliberately playing with it, the Russos have provided us with a unique and oddly satisfying movie-going experience.
What does this mean for Avengers: Endgame? They most likely won’t execute the same thing twice in a row. I’ll note that one major character was left at the end of Infinity War at the bottom his heroic arc: Tony Stark. His defeat on Titan is most likely his Meet the Goddess moment. I would expect him to finish his arc in Endgame. Thor’s story in Infinity War is a classic tragedy — it’s a full story circle, ending with the hero brought down by his fatal flaw. It makes sense that he’ll learn something here, and become more powerful in doing so. While Captain America doesn’t have a real arc in the first movie, he does express the Kantian view that “we don’t trade lives,” even if it’s one-for-billions. It will be interesting to see if his journey in Endgame is to learn that sometimes maybe you do have to trade lives, or if it is to stick to his principles and by doing so somehow triumph.
Regardless, it will be fun watching the Russos weave different takes on this classic story structure into a another billion-dollar cinematic juggernaut.
Roland Hess is a Technical Program Manager overseeing Google’s Ads Machine Learning infrastructure. He also writes techno/urban/dark fantasy novels about magical tech, applying software dev and AI principles to magic, weird dimensions and crazy adventures. You can read the first two of his three-book Lincoln, Fox and the Bad Dog series on Kindle and Google Play Books.