Is Thanos The Protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?

As with the earlier post this week about Avengers: Infinity War, I’m gonna buffer in with a metric bootyload of spoiler space in the form of James Joyce, this time in the form of a passage from a significantly less-bullshit book, one of my favorites: Ulysses.

Note that when this passage is over —


Mild fire of wine kindled his veins. I wanted that badly. Felt so off colour. His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins: sardines, gaudy lobsters’ claws. All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground the French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years. If you didn’t know risky putting anything into your mouth. Poisonous berries. Johnny Magories. Roundness you think good. Gaudy colour warns you off. One fellow told another and so on. Try it on the dog first. Led on by the smell or the look. Tempting fruit. Ice cones. Cream. Instinct. Orangegroves for instance. Need artificial irrigation. Bleibtreustrasse. Yes but what about oysters. Unsightly like a clot of phlegm. Filthy shells. Devil to open them too. Who found them out? Garbage, sewage they feed on. Fizz and Red bank oysters. Effect on the sexual. Aphrodis. He was in the Red Bank this morning. Was he oysters old fish at table perhaps he young flesh in bed no June has no ar no oysters. But there are people like things high. Tainted game. Jugged hare. First catch your hare. Chinese eating eggs fifty years old, blue and green again. Dinner of thirty courses. Each dish harmless might mix inside. Idea for a poison mystery. That archduke Leopold was it no yes or was it Otto one of those Habsburgs? Or who was it used to eat the scruff off his own head? Cheapest lunch in town. Of course aristocrats, then the others copy to be in the fashion. Milly too rock oil and flour. Raw pastry I like myself. Half the catch of oysters they throw back in the sea to keep up the price. Cheap no-one would buy. Caviare. Do the grand. Hock in green glasses. Swell blowout. Lady this. Powdered bosom pearls. The élite. Crème de la crème. They want special dishes to pretend they’re. Hermit with a platter of pulse keep down the stings of the flesh. Know me come eat with me. Royal sturgeon high sheriff, Coffey, the butcher, right to venisons of the forest from his ex. Send him back the half of a cow. Spread I saw down in the Master of the Rolls’ kitchen area. Whitehatted chef like a rabbi. Combustible duck. Curly cabbage à la duchesse de Parme. Just as well to write it on the bill of fare so you can know what you’ve eaten. Too many drugs spoil the broth. I know it myself. Dosing it with Edwards’ desiccated soup. Geese stuffed silly for them. Lobsters boiled alive. Do ptake some ptarmigan. Wouldn’t mind being a waiter in a swell hotel. Tips, evening dress, halfnaked ladies. May I tempt you to a little more filleted lemon sole, miss Dubedat? Yes, do bedad. And she did bedad. Huguenot name I expect that. A miss Dubedat lived in Killiney, I remember. Du, de la French. Still it’s the same fish perhaps old Micky Hanlon of Moore street ripped the guts out of making money hand over fist finger in fishes’ gills can’t write his name on a cheque think he was painting the landscape with his mouth twisted. Moooikill A Aitcha Ha ignorant as a kish of brogues, worth fifty thousand pounds.

Stuck on the pane two flies buzzed, stuck.

There. We good?


Is Thanos the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?


oh wait I’m the one who introduced the question




Is Thanos the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?

The short answer is: nnnyyyynnnmmmaybe?

I mean, okay, first it’s important to know that this shit ain’t math. Like, we don’t have codified STORY MECHANICS where you can rip open the source code and look at the evidence for the thing. It’s all floppy, sloppy theorizing, but I’m down for that kinda floppy, sloppy theorizing, because that’s what makes all this story stuff fun to build, dissect, study, and replicate.

First it requires us to define our terms a little.

What the fuck is a protagonist?

Well, ‘protagonist’ is Greek for ‘professional player of the game of tag,’ which is to say, it’s the person in charge of tagging other characters and since Aristotle invented the game of tag (also hide-and-seek, and also a less-famous game called who-can-drink-the-hemlock-first) —

*receives note*

My Greek may be rusty there.

Let’s more hastily define ‘protagonist’ as the ‘main character.’

Except wait —

*receives note*

That’s not it, either.

As I noted in an earlier discussion of Fury Road, the ‘main character’ is Mad Max because, his name is in the damn title, but he’s also not the protagonist, which is Furiosa. She’s the one with an effect on the plot. She’s the one with the problem to be conquered, and the one with the arc, and the one whose point-of-view we’re largely with — or at least the one we engage with most often. The film is her story, but Mad Max is still the ‘main’ character. (Though in a sense he’s also literally a supporting character, in that he uses his body as a support for her rifle.)

Usually, I like to define a protagonist as the ‘agent-of-change,’ and the antagonist as the one who opposes that change — either with change of her own, or in an effort to uphold the status quo. Villain ends up being something different altogether, as is hero, because then you’re dealing with the standard (and occasionally boring) duality of good guys and bad guys. Can the villain be the protagonist? Sure. (See: Maleficent or Reservoir Dogs or The Grinch or, or, or.) Can the good guy be the antagonist? Sure. (The Fugitive!) But where does that leave us with Thanos?

Is Thanos the POV character in Infinity War? Not necessarily — we are not proxy to all the beats of his story. The film doesn’t follow him, mostly — it assumes he’s Off Doing Thanos Shit, and we’re not with him. Is he the character with the problem to be conquered? Nnnyes? Mostly? Probably? He has a mission, though a spectacularly dull-headed one — one that is either a plot-hole if you believe him to be noble or one that instead confirms that he’s actually just a giant genocidal dildo (and a purple one to boot). Is he the one with the arc? Probably. Most of the heroes are either nudging forward their arcs from the past several movies or have no notable arcs to speak of — his is the most complete one, in that we get the full scope of it from the start of the film to its conclusion.

Is he the agent-of-change?


But if he’s the protagonist…

If he’s the agent of change…

That means the heroes, who oppose his change…

Are the antagonists.

Which, if you interpret again as a value-free narrative term — meaning, they oppose his change but are not necessarily ‘villainous,’ then that actually works. Are they also the bad guys? Well, no, obviously not. You can interpret Thanos’ mission as loosely as you like, but there’s few moral codes that assert his dipshit plan is actually the noblest one — he wants to kill a lot of people, randomly, in pursuit of some autocratic magnanimity. He’s a dick. A giant, bloated jerk. He’s the bad guy, and there’s really no way of wiggling out of that, unless you’re also a horrible monster.

It does however reveal the slightly problematic part of the movie which is, for me, the characters are playing defense for nearly 90% of it. Even when Tony, Spidey and Strange opt to “take the fight to Thanos,” they’re just doing what would have happened anyway — going where he’s going. It’s still not active, but reactive, which is the hero mode in this film. They become slightly more active with the intro of Cap, who — using the help of his Secret Avengers — opts to work on Vision’s bling and Shuri it out of his head in order to destroy the stone. They become more active in that, though they ultimately fail, and are forced to a fallback position of reactive. (And it goes toward my argument that, despite filmmaker assertions, this damn sure isn’t a “complete movie” unless you really, really want the movie to positively identify with Thanos as protagonist, main character, and Actual Good Guy. Given that the midpoint of a story like this is usually the All Is Lost turning point, and that point in this film happens moments before the credits, it’s pretty clear this is just one half of a larger story.)

So, again, is Thanos the protagonist?

Maybe? It’s an argument, and one you can support. Is he the villain? Also, probably yeah, unless you’re a dictator and a murderer, in which case, hey, he’s aspirational. It’s a fun way to think of the movie, and maybe intentional on the parts of the writers — the question now becomes: was that effective? Was that the best choice? That is left to you, and to the passage of time, to decide.

(Casual reminder now: if you like this sort of narrative dissection, you can find a whooooole lot more of it in Damn Fine Story, which also unpacks stories like Die Hard, Star Wars and… wait, Gilmore Girls? *checks notes* Yep, Gilmore Girls. Grab in print or e-book.)

31 responses to “Is Thanos The Protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War?”

  1. Per your last entry, he’s also the one who gets any kind of denouement, albeit a slight one staring at the sunset on some presumably alien field. I heard Adam Savage and his Tested crew call the scene where Thanos and chastened Nazi/curator of the Soul Stone finally kill his long abused daughter as “the emotional core of the movie” and I wanted to vomit. If they’re assessment is accurate and that was the emotional core of the movie, then yep, he’s the protagonist.

    What are your thoughts on theme as it relates to protagonist/antagonist? Because that’s another angle here. The theme, stated by our Avenger friends is that they don’t trade lives, because that’s giving in to despair. They won’t kill Vision if they can help it. Thanos’s plan is literally trading lives on a universal scale, a plan that is monstrous morally, but unquestioned in its efficacy (even when Thanos gives anecdotal evidence that his plan has worked on Gamora’s home world). So, if Thanos is the protagonist, what does that do to the theme? To the ultimate answer of the question of trading lives? What does Thanos being the protagonist tell us about what the movie is trying to say?

    • I’d argue the movie didn’t think very much about what it was trying to say, and kind of softballed on that point. Because mostly it doesn’t add up, thematically, to me.

      • I’ve been trying to piece together the “trying to say” thing for days now, and I’m on board with you here: it seems Marvel didn’t think much about it. Given some of the wonderful messages in some of the most recent films in the series, this is unfortunate. Perhaps, tho, the themes they were pondering when they first conceived of his character and plan a decade ago, don’t suit our current moment, so they came up with this. Hm.

  2. I haven’t seen a lot of the Marvel movies – but I’ve seen a few. And the ones I see I generally like. But I’m not really invested in the individual characters after the credits roll.

    So, with that backgroung – I’ll bite – why is Thanos a dick? Is it because he didn’t get randomly selected to turn to ash? Would he have been less of a dick if he’d committed suicide? (I’m assuming half his people died too – if not, then yeah, totally, he’s a dick and there’s nothing more to discuss)

    Let’s just say his prediction was right – overpopulation was gonna lead to ruination. His solution to solve overpopulation was brutal – but it wasn’t based on a trait (racism, religous, i’m-better-than-u-ism). I suppose it would be interesting to know if half the animals also turned to dust – and what about poison ivy? That shit can definitely go.

    Is the objection that we should have tried something else first? Or we all go down together? From the logical aspect if he’s protagonist then yeah the heroes are antagonists. But I thought that was in fact an interesting twist. I wanted the heroes to win and I wanted Thanos to be wrong. But what if he wasn’t?

    • Wait are you seriously asking why he’s a dick?

      I mean…

      Killing his daughter.

      Killing half the life in the universe instead of, I dunno, using the Gauntlet to manifest food or resources or just doubling the number of planets.

      Being like, a basic-ass murderer for most of the movie.

      For collecting a cult of violent maniacs to run around with.

      For just acting like a dick all the time.

      • Yeah, OK point taken about being a dick all the time.

        But as far as killing his daughter – that was supposedly his ultimate sacrifice and wasn’t that meant to say “look, I believe in what I’m talking about so much that I’ll kill Gamora to achieve the bigger end”. In essence I guess she was the one life truly traded – to me the ash turners weren’t trades they were just unlucky random selections.

        Also, your part about “using the Gauntlet to manifest food or resources or just doubling the number of planets”. I was kind of assuming that the Gauntlet wasn’t *that* powerful if it was then there’s really no story at all – everything becomes easy. Also, in part two there will have to be a way of destroying the Gauntlet, right? Otherwise if it falls into “good hands” they can just give us rainbows and unicorns all-day every-day.

        But even if he was a dick so are a lot of “great” people. Even Ghandi has his detractors. Unfortunately there are a lot more dicks though. I’ll grant you that!

        • The Gauntlet IS that powerful — I mean, the Reality Stone alone is pretty wild, and when you get all those bad boys together, I’m sure you could find a solution that’s a positive one and not a murdery one.

          That said, I think the Gauntlet is *already* destroyed.

    • Thanos’s people were all long dead which does raise an odd side question about cases like him in the moment of the finger snap.

      As far as being based on a trait, it definitely was. He’s arrogant and full of hubris. He’s convinced his answer is right because his people didn’t listen to him and they all died, so he’s going to show the whole damn universe how right he is by killing half of it.

      • The action was based on a trait (but to be fair, we’re never told if there was an intense moral debate between Thanos and anyone – aside from a quick discussion with Gamora).

        My point is more that the victims were indeed selected randomly. I mean in most of these stories of “enforced death to preserve resources” the villains are villains because they get a free pass – right?

        Great “half a movie” though (I agree with OP that everything points to this being half a movie – and someone should point out to the studio that a year is too fucking long for an intermission).

  3. Oh yeah, and of course part 2 will bring most of ’em all back (probably through the old time-travel cop out). I mean otherwise Marvel just burned about a billion dollars of licensing revenue… And you know that ain’t gonna happen!

  4. Love your theme question. That Thanos destroys the story’s theme simply reinforces that he’s not the protagonist. He has no arc, experiences no change, alters not at all throughout. Even his tears over his decision to murder Gamora lack meaning because his goal is vile. I cannot wait — CAN. NOT. WAIT — for our heroes to smush him like a bug.

    • …maybe not, if you feel genocide needs to have a cultural, political, or ethnic backdrop to it. It’s definitely mass murder, but… I also don’t think genocide is an unfair term, in the general sense.

    • It’s not an inappropriate term for this context. Depending on how you choose to define it, you could make the argument that it’s not genocide because it doesn’t have a particular target—Thanos wants to kill *everyone* rather than a specific group of people—but I don’t think there’s a better word for the scale that Thanos achieves.

  5. Thanos is like the celestial gardener (not big “C” Celestial from elsewhere in Marvel comicdom). Much like a gardener prunes a rose bush that it may grow healthy and full, Thanos culled the universe so the remainder would be strong, healthy and able to maximize their growth potential. It’s insane from our POV, but he sees himself as doing the hard, unwelcome but necessary chore nobody else has guts to do.

    I loved your perspective here, Chuck, thanks for that. Viewing protagonist as agent-of-change instead of simply the main character(s) really helps put things in a proper storytelling light.

    One of the co-writers of the movie agrees with your view of Thanos as protagonist, btw. Here’s a quote from an interview with Buzzfeed News:

    “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” said McFeely. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.” – Stephen McFeely

    Original reference page here:

    • ‘Thanos is like the celestial gardener (not big “C” Celestial from elsewhere in Marvel comicdom). Much like a gardener prunes a rose bush that it may grow healthy and full, Thanos culled the universe so the remainder would be strong, healthy and able to maximize their growth potential. It’s insane from our POV, but he sees himself as doing the hard, unwelcome but necessary chore nobody else has guts to do.’

      The trick is, it doesn’t actually make sense. Thanos isn’t a moron, and we all can immediately recognize that you don’t need to cut half a garden down if you can just replant in bigger beds — he has the Infinity Gauntlet, so could easily ensure there were enough resources or planets for the current population, but instead of aiding life, he ends life. Again, some might view this as a plothole, but it’s actually pure character juice — he’s just a genocidal monster. And that’s important. Because it shows us that, while he may be the protagonist, he is not the hero of the piece. (And there’s where I take issue with McFeely’s rendering of HERO’S JOURNEY, because, yeah, no.)

      • I haven’t read any of the comics, but my impression from the movie was that everything the Gauntlet could do in the vein of creating things was temporary. Every time Big T made an illusion or turned one thing into another thing (like turning Drax into cubes) it only ever lasted a set time. So just with regards to the movie, I didn’t think it *could* make more resources, or make space bigger overall. But by combining all of its powers, especially that of the Soul Stone, it *could* do the finger-snappy-death thing.

        Also, with regards to genecide, I think he has a throw-away line somewhere about liking Stark so he will let half of his species live, which implies it was 50% of the total, not necessarily 50% of each race. So it’s wipe-out for some, happy-days for others, and something in between for the rest.

  6. I actually think Marvel has this problem a lot. (Problem? Is it a problem? IDK?) Example:

    In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers really has to be viewed as the villain for that story to make any sense. The Avengers don’t give up one life to save millions, right? But… like… Steve will trade many lives for just Bucky’s. So he’s a villain, right? He basically lets the world burn to save one man, who doesn’t even want to be saved (or, at least, not in the way Cap goes about it). It’s Cap’s name on the marquee, but he isn’t the hero. The protagonist… maybe? That seems more like Tony, though, really. I guess it depends on whether you consider the primary action of the plot to be the implementation the Accords, or saving Bucky Barnes’s life. In the context of this one film, Bucky’s salvation is massively important. In the wider MCU, it’s definitely the Accords.

    There are serious questions throughout the MCU about personal responsibility. Is Bucky Barnes a hero? Like, ever? Is Nick Fury? Is Killmonger? Is Scarlet Witch? What about The Hulk? Or Loki? Or Black Widow? It’s not really clear what constitutes “fault,” and there seems to be a very uneven application of blame and forgiveness– not just among the characters, but in the storytelling itself. This is interesting! It’s complex! But it’s also confusing as hell, at this point.

      • Thanks for sharing! The Paragon video is really interesting. Especially when she says that Paragons “tend to think of themselves as the highest authority on their own behavior.” By her definition, which I think makes sense, Thanos is a Paragon character. Just, you know, the evil kind. He is intractable. He accumulates followers by force of his personality and vision. He has a strict definition of right and wrong, and he pursues his own “right” relentlessly.

        So Steve Rogers and Thanos are both Paragon archetypes. Cap believes in the sanctity of individual lives, as well as the intrinsic “rightness” of freedom. Thanos believes in balancing the universe by eliminating unnecessary lives–the “greater good” over the individual–and in order at any cost. It makes me wonder if this whole storyline hinges on the fact that these two ideologies (Cap vs. Thanos) are polar opposites.

        And oh! Oh! Tony Stark is like the middle ground here, isn’t he? He exists in the gray area between absolute individual freedom and absolute control to restore order. Cap was willing to send his entire team to jail to save one (pretty messed up) life, but also willing to break them out of prison (thereby “rescuing” them from the consequences of their actions). Tony wouldn’t do either of those things. He believes in freedom of choice, and he believes in consequences–most harshly for himself, of course.

        Is this why Strange had to save him? Am I just spitballing here? (Yes. Yes, I am.)

        I’m also off-topic slightly, since I’m supposed to be dissecting Thanos-as–protagonist. But maybe he feels like the protag to the viewer because he is a Paragon character? And we are used to seeing Paragons as heroes? *crickets crickets*

        • I’m so glad you enjoyed the video! 🙂 Her entire trope series is easy to get lost in. I think I’ve watched them all at least 3 times.

          YES! YES! YES!!!! Thanos and Cap are both Paragon archetypes, but I hadn’t thought of Tony Stark as the middle ground. And yeah…I feel like Strange is also a middle ground kind of character.

          Strange and Stark both have the arrogance thing going, They were both wounded, but used their injuries to move forward, to BECOME the heroes they were meant to be. I feel like this movie was about pitting similar archetypes together so we could see to similarities and contrast of these characters in the Marvel Universe. SOOOO much fun!!!!!

  7. I think Thanos is actually an “Anti-Villain.” He truly believes he’s doing the right thing. His desired ends are evil, but he thinks he’s doing good because he’s “saving the universe.” He probably knows mass murder is bad…but it’s also a means to an end. He would like to be the Paragon Hero: the guy who does good when good can be done, the guy who inspires everyone around him. Yeah…that ain’t happening! LOL

    (Captain America as a great example of a Paragon Hero.)

    • Arguably, though, every well-wrought villain should believe they’re doing the right thing, because a villain for villainy’s sake is pretty cardboard.

  8. Thanos is the hero of his own story (as with most villains) and all it took to snatch the narrative away from the heroes was ten years and an infinity gauntlet. Not too shabby. Now how the hell are they going to wrest the narrative back Avenging Guardians-leviosa? I know. They’re going to… wait, what’s happening? I… I’m—oh shit. I’m turning to ash. NO NO NO! I have to get this down. You see, Tony—

  9. [GeorgeWashington]Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?[/GeorgeWashington]

    I honestly think people are making WAY TOO MUCH hay over the Russos saying that this was a stand-alone movie in what I think was a marketing movie to increase the impact of the movie’s dramatic punch. It’s clear from watching the movie that it is in no uncertain terms part one of two. It’s no different than DC attempting to convince people that Superman wasn’t in the Justice League, until it became too obvious for even them to keep up the pretense (eventually teasing it in one of the trailers and post-release marketing now straight up adding him back to cast shots).

    And yes, I know many people don’t follow that stuff nor should they be expected to do so. But I think a lot of people are using that as some sort of mallet to hammer home their points about the movie that I don’t think really holds that much water unless you demand it to be iron-clad. It’s a valid criticism, IMHO, to point out that it was kind of a jerk move to do that to some audience members, who came expecting ‘yet another Marvel movie’ and getting Superhero Armageddon. I don’t think it is when some folks seemed determined to say that they failed to make the movie they intended to make or promised to make, which is an argument I’ve seen in some quarters. I think it’s pretty clear that Infinty War is a magic trick and the end of the film is the Turn(arguably the entire previos-MCU films or at least Avengers 1 and Caps films are the Pledge). The sequel movie will be the Prestige. Whether or not that’s misdirection or fakery is an exercise to the viewer, I suppose.

  10. Yeah, I come down on the side that if Thanos were the protagonist, we’d spend a lot more time with him. I think people have trouble wrapping their head around who the protagonist even was because there were so many danm characters in the movie. Thanos IS the closest to a tradtional one-person protagonist we have in this movie, yes, but because we spent so much time with the Aveners as a whole, I personally feel the Avengers as a group are the protagonsist in their way. We followed them mostly, we saw their pain, we saw their struggle, we saw them have the ultimate goal that’s been building for 10 years: stop Thanos. Thanos we saw in scenes…filled with Avengers, mostly. The Avengers are the protagonist.

  11. I was one of those arguing in the last IW comments that Thanos was the protagonist, which I still believe. But it’s a little more complicated,

    Dan O’Bannon taught that antagonists are just the protagonists of a different version of the story, and that the essential conflict is that what they want and what the “normal” protagonist wants are mutually incompatible. Either they both want the same thing and there’s not enough to go around, or one of them getting what they want makes the other’s wants impossible to fulfill. Done right, any story should work if you flip protagonists. After all, from Hans Gruber’s point of view, Die Hard is a crime caper story that goes bad, and it doesn’t take much to imagine that movie.

    O’Bannon’s model seems pretty accurate here. What Thanos wants isn’t to kill half the sentient life in the universe–that’s just a means to an end. He *wants* to be proven irrefutably right. The Avengers want to protect humanity (and others). Impasse. Conflict. Thanos seems to win, fade to black.

    But of course, we’re only halfway through the BIG story. One of the places a story midpoint can be is: after initial challenges, the protagonist briefly seems to be on top. One of the other places: the antagonist is winning–and then the protagonist realizes they can’t beat the antagonist playing by the antagonist’s rules.

    I think the Brothers Russo are trying to have it not just both but actually THREE ways: have an ending that’s not just Thanos’s “That’ll do, pig” moment, but two midpoints, one for Thanos (midpoint=short-lived victory) and one for the Avengers (midpoint=we’ve been doing this all wrong).

    Whether they can pull it off remains to be seen next year.

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