Thanos Only Wanted One Thing, And It Wasn’t Balance

To say "Thanos was right" misses the point of the character, because all he really cares about is killing.

By Michileen Martin | Updated


If you’re one of the many, like James Cameron recently suggested to Time, who have argued that Thanos was right in wanting to halve the population of the universe, then you miss the point of the character. On the other hand, if you’re one of those who meet the “Thanos Was Right” crowd with arguments like “why didn’t he just double the resources” then you likewise do not understand Thanos. Josh Brolin‘s villain only ever cares about killing, more killing, and chances to do more killing, and that’s obvious as early as the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War.

I will not pretend to be an expert judge of character — either in terms of real people or fictional purple ones — but there is at least one piece of wisdom I have learned that I refuse to forget: if you want to know who someone is, ignore what they say and watch instead what they do and how they do it. Apply this to Thanos, and his motivations become clear.

Thanos murders half the passengers on the Asgardian refugee ship before Infinity War even opens, shortly before adding Tom Hiddleston’s Loki to the pile of corpses. It is perhaps the most intimate, and most quietly brutal murder we see Thanos perform in either Infinity War or 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. He lets out a quiet, shuddering breath once we hear that final crack of Loki’s neck, and it’s clear Thanos has received an intense, possibly even sexual, pleasure from what he’s done.

Loki’s death in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Once Loki is dead, Thanos slowly and purposely walks toward the bound and gagged Thor, still holding Loki’s corpse. He drops the body in front of Thor, reveling in the thunder god’s helplessness. These are not the actions of a cold, dispassionate man killing purely in the service of “what must be done” — this is a man who kills because killing is his favorite thing to do.

Thanos does not kill half the universe because he wants to create balance; he does it because he really, really likes killing people and that’s clear in everything he does. His grand quest for universal balance is a pretense. It’s something he uses to justify what he would want to do anyway, like a serial killer claiming he murdered his victims because some higher power told him to.

The fact that Thanos enjoys killing doesn’t mean that’s all he wanted, you say? Okay, let’s look at what else he does.

When talking to Doctor Strange on Titan, he calls his plan “random, dispassionate, fair.” He calls his snap “mercy.” Is mercy what Thanos delivers?

What he actually delivers, to much of the universe, is a cruel joke. We know that long before his quest for the Infinity Stones, Thanos was working toward his supposed goal one planet at a time — arriving on a world with the Black Order and his other forces, and using military force to wipe out half the population. This, he tells Gamora, turned her home world into a “paradise.”

Thanos and a young Gamora as the Zen Whoberi are massacred in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

But then in Avengers: Infinity War, he snapped his fingers and each of those worlds he already visited, whose populations he cut in half? He cut them in half a second time.

He slaughters half the passengers aboard the Asgardian Refugee ship in spite of Asgard’s population already being decimated by Hela and her undead armies in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. On Nidavellir he leaves no one but Peter Dinklage’s Eitri alive, in spite of the Dwarf doing everything Thanos asks of him. That’s not cold, amoral pragmatism — it’s naked sadism.

In the end, Thanos exposes himself as not caring about any kind of universal balance but instead his own gratification. Facing the Avengers at the end of Endgame, he tells them he plans to unmake the entire universe and rebuild it from the ground up in order to ensure its gratitude toward him and his weird chin.

Not only is this a much more obviously selfish plan, but could he even do it? The 2014 Thanos knows, from Nebula’s memories, that killing half the universe with the Infinity Stones fused the gauntlet permanently to the madman. How likely is it then that he would be able to use them to essentially destroy the entire universe and then rebuild it with a very specific design?

It doesn’t sound very likely, which means ultimately all Thanos would’ve been able to achieve had he won the battle at the end of Endgame, is to kill even more people than he did in Infinity War. And that would’ve been fine by him because it’s all he really wanted.

Thanos wasn’t right. Thanos wasn’t wrong. If you look at Thanos’ actions and still think he cared about overpopulation and resource scarcity, then I can only imagine when you hear about serial killers going on murder sprees you think, “this guy is clearly trying to make sure there are enough local job openings.”