Avengers: Infinity War writers on why Thanos is the protagonist of the film

May 7, 2018 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s Avengers: Infinity War interview with scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from The Backstory Marvel Article Archive.

Want to read the full 6,000 word Markus and McFeely interview?

The archive is free for subscribers or can be bought as a single issue below.

***This excerpt is SPOILER HEAVY – please only read if you want SPOILER SPECIFIC insight***

Early on, we learn Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) needs to destroy Vision’s (Paul Bettany) Infinity Stone before Thanos can take it, an act that will kill Vision. Gamora asks Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) to kill her if she’s ever captured by Thanos so she won’t reveal the location of the Soul Stone. Thanos is technically enacting a utilitarian plan of sorts whereby he has convinced himself he can create balance from the chaos of the universe by using all six Infinity Stones to indiscriminately destroy half of all life, an act he believes will benefit smaller populations who will now have more resources. That’s his biggest sacrificial act, but it’s impersonal. The emotional stakes rise when Thanos learns he must kill Gamora because she represents the one thing in the universe he loves, and that becomes the price of admission for earning the Soul Stone. Finally, out of 14,605,000 possible futures where the Avengers lose to Thanos, Dr. Strange sets in motion the events leading toward the one future he previewed where they can actually can beat him. Of course, the only downside to Strange’s plan lies in the fact that Thanos needs to win for the moment, thereby destroying half the universe’s sentient life. So there’s certainly a lot of sacrifice in the film, and it continues to manifest from uniquely personal, differing perspectives as the theme flows through the characters.

“I would say it developed organically,” Christopher Markus says of their incisive take. “We didn’t sit down and go, ‘Everyone’s gonna need these sacrifice beats.’ When you want to raise the stakes and have the stakes taken seriously so it is not the ever-present Death isn’t real in the MCU complaint, you need people to really choose something other than self-sacrifice because self-sacrifice has become rote. It’s almost a given. You’re a hero? Oh, you’d be willing to die. The more painful step than killing yourself is having to kill someone you love for this greater good.” This harkens back to the classic comic-book character device wherein the hero’s true weakness lies in his/her inability to protect those they love. As a changing theme, it works brilliantly in the film, yet through the act of change the scribes reveal their most interesting point of view on the characters. “Your readers will get all this,” Stephen McFeely says. “Once we made the decision to make Thanos the de facto main character and to really run at the movie’s ‘hero’s journey for Thanos,’ could he lose in the end? He’s the protagonist. He overcomes odds. He sacrifices a lot and gets what he wants in the end. That means at the end of act two something bad was going to happen to Thanos. That’s when [Gamora] goes over the cliff. It has dual implications: It’s the worst thing that can happen to him, but it’s a necessary evil to get what he wants.”

If Thanos is the film’s protagonist, going through the most change and overcoming odds to succeed, that can only mean one thing. “I think the Avengers are the antagonists,” Markus says. “The Avengers are trying to stop the protagonist from completing his hero’s journey.” It all boils down to a matter of perspective, and in this case the writers defied the audience’s expectations of embarking on a journey that satisfies the needs of the Avengers, as we’ve seen occur over the past decade, and instead mixed up the formula by viewing it from the villain’s perspective. While we don’t see Earth in trouble now, theoretically one day the struggle for shrinking resources will be a bigger problem. “If we continue to use all our resources, if we continue to grow and grow and grow, we will destroy the planet,” McFeely says. “That’s just the case for every planet. Thanos is taking a millennium view as opposed to one of, I have to live on this Earth. Sometimes you have to burn crops in order to let them grow again. It’s just taking that idea to this natural, crazy conclusion. Cap says, ‘We don’t trade lives.’ Thanos trades lives because he thinks he has a greater goal than the Avengers, who have a small-planet view of what’s right. He has a much grander view.” Markus agrees, while adding, “[The Avengers are] not moral antagonists. They’re doing these things for the right reasons. But structurally and in terms of the journey you’re really tracking, [the protagonist is] Thanos.” McFeely interjects with a clarification: “Structurally, [the Avengers] are the antagonists, but for the audience they are clearly the protagonists.”

As for giving insight into Thanos’ past, the writers originally had a flashback on Titan showing the audience how he was different from the other Titans and endured social rejection. At one point, they even had scenes showing how he recruited his cronies in the Black Order. Ultimately, these scenes were discarded as information that slowed down the narrative, and he simply tells Dr. Strange an abbreviated version of the Titan flashback. “We tried a lot of different ways to present [Thanos as a protagonist] and came down to…I guess everybody’s heard us talk about the ’90s heist movies, right?” McFeely asks. “Where one guy is doing the diamond heist and everybody else is trying to get the goods or get him. It’s the only way we could get through a story that involved so many characters—to make Thanos the central hub, and [the others] were spokes off of that.” When fleshing out Thanos as a protagonist, it was important for the writers to show a new side to him, and that meant reinforcing his fatherly love for Gamora. “We definitely wanted it to be a legitimate relationship,” Markus says. “Not entirely one-sided. I mean, yes, it’s extremely fucked up and he murdered her parents behind her back, but he did take care of her. He did raise her. Even when it’s a bad relationship, there are bonds with the person who raised you that are never gonna go away. And that’s gonna make you very conflicted when you have to try to kill them.”

To read the complete 6,000 word article in The Backstory Marvel Article Archive, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.

Backstory’s Marvel Article Archive includes feature length spoiler specific interviews with Avengers: Infinity War directors The Russo Brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely—plus read over 25 articles featuring interviews with the creators of past  films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Backstory Marvel Article Archive will continue to be updated with new Marvel content from Backstory, so single issue buyers and subscribers will gain access to new Marvel articles 30 days after they run in the magazine.

For more info on the Backstory Marvel Article Archive, view the Table of Contents.