Marvel’s “grey villains”: Why Thanos, Killmonger and Loki work

Marvel have a villain problem. It’s not just long debated: it’s a fact. For far too long in the 18-strong franchise, villains more complex than your obligatory Big Bad were much needed and hard to come by.

Yes there was Loki, he of Asgard and adopted, emo brother of Thor, burdened by familial woes and self-righteous, glorious purpose. For a very long time, he was the sole purveyor of what could be deemed a more “complex” villain. Be it conquest, forgiveness, betrayal or redemption, the character only earned the marker of “Marvel’s Best Villain” due to the longevity of character development and potential for change, much of which only being allowed thanks to fan-servial resurrection.

Due to this, Loki has graced more films than any other Marvel villain to date, namely three Thor films, the first Avengers outing and most recently, Avengers: Infinity War. By the end of 2017’s game-changing Thor Ragnarok it is debatable as to whether Loki is even a villain at all, which is precisely what makes the character work so well; even when he has committed heinous, murderous acts for his own personal gain, his charming nature makes him engaging, as does his being flawed and relatable in his patheticness.

Whilst not necessarily the same, there are definite comparative dualities that make successive villains Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther) and Thanos (Josh BrolinAvengers: Infinity War) equally as compelling. As the first MCU film to centre on a black lead with a predominantly black cast and crew, Black Panther excelled in its representation of black culture and its portrayal of hereditary historical and societal black issues, touching upon colonialism, alienation and preservation of culture and pilgrimage to a homeland, a compulsion of many a person of colour.

Set in Wakanda – a fictional and technologically advanced African nation that shields its wealth from the world to protect its resources from the potential for colonialism and war – Black Panther celebrates African language, culture and history and offers a glimpse (albeit, a science fictional one) into what African nations may have grown to become had they not been pillaged in centuries previous. Eric Killmonger, the film’s antagonist to its king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), is an American-born Wakandan with a grudge against his ancestral homeland and a claim to its throne. His belief that returning to Wakanda will offer him a sense of belonging intertwined with his fury results in a quest for dictatorship, acceptance and a longing to fill The Void of ancestry following slavery that so many African Americans continue to feel. Such deeper, more personal motivations provided a more complex insight into the motives of Killmonger than any Marvel villain seen previously, even Loki who – let’s face it – has always been a sly weasel of a character.

As audiences should expect, given ten years of the MCU and six years of build-up, Thanos needed to be the biggest of Big Bads. He did not disappoint, and solidified his status in the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War – before the credits had even rolled – by slaughtering a whole host of Asgardian refugees and not one, but two major characters.

Thanos – as everyone knows by now – is hellbent on collecting the Infinity Stones, six elemental stones with unknown ability that make the bearer the most powerful being in the universe. But perhaps unprecedentedly, the “Mad Titan” has seemingly altruistic motives. Tired of seeing civilisations burden their planets by relentlessly depleting its resources, he plans to kill half of the universe’s inhabitants so as to allow these worlds to recoup. It is such a rationally reasoned quest for genocide that when Thanos explains it midway through the film, it almost sounds appealing because – as with all good villains – they are the heroes of their own story by their own perspective.

The sincerity with which he believes in his cause is undermined by his hubris. Unlike Loki and Killmonger, who ultimately start their respective crusades for selfish reasons, Thanos believes himself to be a saviour of life and not a bringer of death, and seeing such black and white perspectives juxtaposed onscreen results in a swathe of grey. Such grey narratives make for more interesting conflicts whereby viewers are able to see compelling – and wrong – points of view in places that they did not anticipate.

In equipping Thanos with the “Hero’s Journey” – a traditional storytelling technique that endears the main protagonist to the audience and allows them room to grow into their optimum self – directors Joe and Anthony Russo deploy the character with an unprecedented depth. Thanos is the Big Bad of Infinity War, but the aforementioned endearment and consequent sympathy to the root of his cause – to preserve life and the wider universe – confuses the narrative structure of film that audiences (especially Marvel ones) are so accustomed. You are propositioned with the temptation of power, and what you’d do with it. You are privy to Thanos’ rationalisation of his quest and actions to achieve it. You are invited to like him.

By the end of Infinity War, it is clear who should (and will) win such tussles in the as-of-yet-unnamed Avengers 4, but the parity of good vs evil is more skewed than ever before in the MCU. Then again, isn’t it fun to question your own psyche along the way.

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