I’m Bad, and That’s Good:
How Thanos Redeems Infinity War
I watched Infinity War for the first time this past weekend, and it reminded me of a lot of the writing advice I’ve both given and received over the years. Stories need smart plots, but they also need proper pacing. And characters need room to grow. Infinity War is a good movie because it both accepts and flouts these assertions. It’s essentially one long climax punctuated by quips and banter (I know, I know…that’s what she said). Yet, it works because it’s not really a standalone movie, which allows us to forgive some its lack of character development and pacing issues.
That said one way in which Infinity War nails it is the antagonist. Thanos is a damn good bad guy. Yes, his arc is a bit predictable when it comes to his adopted daughter, but the point is he has an arc. Remember, a character’s arc is not entirely about how they evolve. Characters don’t exist in vacuums. It’s also about how they are revealed.
We’ve seen villains as good guys, like Wreck-It Ralph and Dexter and Riddick. We’ve seen villains who seek or find redemption, such as Darth Vader and Spawn. And we’ve seen a ton of antiheroes, such as Lisbeth Salander and Deadpool and Roland Deschain. But writing a villain who plays the role of antagonist while demonstrating emotional evolution and eliciting empathy from the audience is more unique.
Let’s compare Darth Vader and Thanos. Both want to end conflict and suffering. Vader’s gig is that order will prevent strife. Thanos’ deal is he thinks killing half the universe will fix overpopulation and starvation. They have similar goals and are willing to commit similar atrocities to achieve them. The key difference is Vader never feels regret for the deaths he causes. His only expression of “feeling” is for the suffering of his son at the very end. Thanos, on the other hand, suffers the guilt of making an impossible choice, on both the large and small scales. Both are excellent villains, but for Infinity War, a Vader wouldn’t do. Thanos is necessary to counterbalance the film’s other character-based shortcomings.
This premise is something most writers struggle with. In my first novel, The Spider in the Laurel, the main character’s struggle is very much an internal one. He—Rafael Ward—is the “good guy,” though in a very Jason Bourne kind of way. By the end of the novel, however, he is drifting towards more of an Evey Hammond role: the citizen who comes to understand the only way to fix what’s broken is to break it further.
In the sequel, The Long Oblivion, Rafael Ward faces a clear antagonist, in addition to battling his own demons of regret and guilt. The antagonist in book two is driven by a very relatable desire, one which Ward himself has relied on to justify his own actions. Two different books; two different types of antagonists. As authors, we need to remember to write our characters for what the story needs. To do this we have to read, watch, and listen to everything we can, both in and out of our genre.
Look, I’m not telling you the audience MUST feel sorry for every villain who’s conflicted about their victims. We need irredeemable baddies like Joffrey Baratheon and Anton Chigurh as much as we need Hannibal Lector and Harley Quinn. What I am saying is that I, as an author as well as a fan, am impressed with how Thanos was written. There’s an accessible humanity in him that buoys Infinity War when it might otherwise sink under the weight of its own wit and explosions. He’s bad alright, and that’s damn good.