When Thanos wiped out half the universe with just a snap, Marvel proved that the six-year wait was worth it. Clip teases of the Mad Titan doing nothing paid off in a display of power, brutality, and unflinching determination. Rather than be another throwaway Marvel villain, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR portrayed Thanos as a complex figure with distinct ideas. Like all good antagonists, he represented a dark foil to one of the primary heroes: Tony Stark.

How you might ask, is a homicidal alien conqueror in any way reflective of Iron Man? After all, Iron Man wants to save lives, while Thanos wants to commit murder on an unprecedented scale. The answer lies in how both character’s philosophies drive them to commit specific goals in the name of progress.

You Think You’re The Only Hero?

Marvel Villain
Iron Man, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

There would not be a Marvel Cinematic Universe without IRON MAN, which laid the foundation for franchise building. Tony Stark began as a self-centered, narcissistic playboy who cared little for what his technology did after it was sold. It was only after nearly dying and seeing his tech used by terrorists that he decided to change his ways. Now, Stark sought to use his abilities and mechanical skills to ensure his work protected people, rather than harm them.

Tragically, no matter how good Stark’s intentions are, his work constantly creates conflicts that reflect his inner demons. The original IRON MAN trilogy framed through using antagonist who sought to punish Stark for his past crimes. It was his lack of self-control that produced each Marvel villain, forcing the more “enlightened” hero to confront his past.

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Yet, despite proving victorious over his opponents, Stark’s success remains tied to his hubris and belief he can fix things. He builds more and more suits to fight bad guys and, thematically, to protect himself. For most of IRON MAN 2, Tony didn’t even want to acknowledge his crisis of mortality, let alone how it tied into the strained relationship with his father. If anything, Stark’s pre-AVENGERS arc is the begrudging realization that he good deeds are still somewhat selfish.


It’s only after THE AVENGERS that Tony Stark becomes comfortable working on a team without hogging the spotlight. Not only does Stark learn humility through teamwork, but the events he witnesses in New York also force him to reanalyze his own flaws. IRON MAN 3 further highlights the consequences of Tony’s recklessness by forcing him to become less dependent on armor. The focus of Tony’s toxic obsession becomes less about his image and more about using his tech as protection.

Marvel Villain
Tony Stark/Iron Man, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

These good ideas, however, much like Stark’s foes, ended up causing more harm than good. Ultron, an A.I. originally created to protect humanity from future unforeseen threats, goes rogues and sees humanity as the threat. Stark’s reaction to this screw-up: build ANOTHER robot- Vision – to counter Ultron without knowing if he’ll also be corrupted. These creations display his need for security, yet are rooted in the belief that what does will benefit mankind.

Stark’s endorsement of the Sokovia Accords further highlights his desire to restrain even the Avengers in the name of national security. His argument that the Avengers need rules stems from personal knowledge of what a man without self-control can do. Yet his actions are that of a man desperately looking to enforce his philosophy on behalf of everyone’s interests. The result is a conflict that leaves the Avengers inherently fractured, unable to “fight the forces no one else could.”

Building Up a Marvel Villain

This brings us to Thanos, a Marvel villain committing murder for a cause that, in his eyes, is quite rational. Thanos, as the movie constantly reiterates, is intent on preserving “balance” in the universe as a means of preserving life. Paradoxically, this preservation means conquering and wiping out half of a planet’s population to ensure the other half’s survival. In other words, he hopes to end galactic overpopulation through genocide.

Marvel Villain
Thanos, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

This is a shift in priority from comic book Thanos, a Marvel villain who committed atrocities to romantically impress Death. Compared to that emotional motivation, his actions in INFINITY WAR reflect a code built upon past experiences. The failure to save Titan from destruction convinced Thanos that only a man of his conviction could truly save the universe.

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To save EVERYONE, however, Thanos’ logic dictates that he must wipe out half of the universe’s population. Where another Marvel villain would have sought world domination or genocide because “reasons,” Thanos views death on an intellectual level. In fact, where the Avengers previously served as obstacles to the antagonist, Thanos sees them as more of a nuisance. They can’t really stop him, so he doesn’t need to kill them unless provoked otherwise.

Burdened by Wisdom

Despite their radical differences, both Iron Man and Thanos wish to save the world through unconventional means. They are futurists who plan on a long-term basis and reject obstacles that obstruct their goals. Thus, in Stark’s mind, Thanos is the unseen thing driving him to build protective measures against his nightmares and fears. He plans ahead to stop someone like Thanos from ever threatening the people that he loves.

It’s this affection for knowledge and sacrifice that grants Thanos a genuine respect for Stark’s actions.  He sees Stark as a reflection of himself: someone with the resources and fortitude necessary to turn goals into reality. And, most importantly, he’s willing to sacrifice so much to achieve that goal.

Marvel Villain
Thanos, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

A similar mindset drives Thanos to collect the six Infinity Stones in order to “balance” the universe. Even his adopted daughter Gamora is sacrificed so that Thanos can obtain the Soul Stone, despite the action genuinely hurting him. Thanos believes his goal to be a righteous one and enforces it because he genuinely sees himself as the hero. Furthermore, his focus on random genocide suggests a lack of bias toward his victims, treating their deaths as without prejudice.

You Have My Respect

Tony’s plan, compared to Captain America’s, is reflective of his intellectual mentality: lure Thanos away from Earth and defeat him off world. No one is endangered but the heroes and all they have to do is yank the Infinity Gauntlet off Thanos’ hand. Unfortunately, Star-Lord’s emotionally vengeful outburst ruins this perfectly logical battle strategy.

Marvel Villain
Iron Man, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Yet it is another irrational moment that saves Stark’s life: Doctor Strange giving up the Time Stone to Thanos. After observing over fourteen million possible realities with only one positive outcome, it’s clear that Stark must survive for Thanos to lose. But this also means Thanos must first “win,” with the Time Stone proving essential to undermining the other heroes’ sacrifices.

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Prior to this moment, however, Stark and Thanos engage one another in a fight driven by their ideological goals. Iron Man wants to protect Earth and Thanos wants the universe balanced, neither of which can happen if the other wins. And both characters willfully risk everything to make sure that their goals are fulfilled. Only Thanos can see that passion in both Stark and himself, making his acknowledgment of an adversary even more unsettling.

The Greater Good

Throughout INFINITY WAR, Thanos doesn’t care how people perceive his actions, so long as they benefit society. Likewise, Tony Stark’s questionable character decisions stem from his drastic desire to ensure the world is safe at all costs. What’s important to consider here is that both characters see themselves as the protagonists. They toil and fight and sacrifice everything to ensure that their goal, regardless of public opinion, comes to fruition.

It’s this dynamic that elevates Thanos into an MCU Marvel villain of a higher caliber. Yes, he is a sociopath who would eliminate billions without a second thought, but he doesn’t view these actions as wholly malevolent. On the contrary, being “burdened by knowledge,” makes him the only one capable of solving problems that no one else could.

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