Ultimate supervillain Thanos wiped out half of humanity onscreen last year, ensuring more than half learned his name up here in the real world. But what most don’t know is that the comic book version of Thanos wasn’t driven nearly as much by a desire for cosmic balance as he was just trying to get laid. That’s right: Whereas movie audiences know genocidal utilitarianism to be his main motive, the print Thanos killed half the universe as a first-date bouquet for the Grim Reaper.
In the Marvel Comics universe, the personification of death is a woman, and her prune-chinned paramour’s pursuit is textbook one-sided affection. In his relentless quest to “earn” her love, Thanos marks himself as being both the first name in bad guys, and the last word in “Nice Guys.”
Let’s start with his early adventures in 1973’s Captain Marvel (the comic predecessor to the one from the movie), where Thanos’ obsession with Mistress Death is revealed. Stage 1 of a Nice Guy’s adulation is quiet suffering, when he objectifies his intended not for her body, but for her perfection. In his mind, she is a Platonic ideal of which — through no fault of his own, naturally — he’s eternally unworthy, and so it is with Thanos and his darque lady (who in this case actually is a divine force, so grant him that free parking on this one).
As he attains godhood for the first time, he moons over the silent figure who drives his every action, beating his breast as only an extra crispy Nice Guy can. “Though you’ve never spoken to me,” the self-professed loneliest man in the galaxy tells her, “I truly love you with a passion none may ever match.” Alas, she never acknowledges him, and after Captain Marvel inevitably destroys Thanos, the panels linger on Mistress Death — whose appearance flits from icy beauty to skeleton — revealing her true face, laughing at her doomed suitor.
When Death resurrects her loyal servant in 1990’s The Thanos Quest, it’s clearly in a professional capacity. Directing him — through intermediate supervisors, no less — to eliminate half of all life in the universe, she shows an admirable willingness to overlook his behavior out of respect for his professional skills. But as is always the case with the Nice Guy, her good faith isn’t rewarded: He only uses the assignment to get closer to her, acquiring the Infinity Gems not for the mission but to make himself her equal.
Like the worker who drops unrequited bombs of affection in his colleague’s — or worse in this case, director’s — lap, he never once considers her lack of affection toward him. Surely she feels the same passion and chafes under the same bonds, surely. Surely?
If that were the case, though, she would have worked closely with him on this project; instead, he reports to her major domo. It’s the greatest mass murder of all time, but she still leaves its plot to middle management rather than deal with The Mad Titan’s clumsy attempts to build a personal relationship atop their work one. And still, Thanos fails to acknowledge — perhaps even recognize — this gentlest form of rejection.
If you had to summarize The Thanos Quest in basic Nice Guy terms, it’s a book about a guy who thinks a woman’s affections automatically unlock after a certain amount of due diligence. Accepting his bloody task, Thanos insists he just wants to make her happy, working hard to give her what she wants, asking nothing in return — it’s just a side effect, really, that achieving success in this quest also grants him unlimited personal power.
Thanos’ willful misreading of Death’s intentions will be all too familiar to anyone who’s dealt with a Nice Guy in real life: Even while wearing a bauble that grants him omniscience — literally, the power to know everything — he remains oblivious to her disdain. He’s described by everyone he meets as a cunning manipulator and a devious strategist, yet he’s too blinded by his Nice Guy need for an unblemished romance to even see what interests her. Affection, for Thanos, is ultimately about his needs on his terms.
Too bad for him, then, that after he achieves new heights of power in the comic, Death quickly insists that his newfound godhood puts him out of her league. Again, it’s the gentlest of rebuttals — she is trying to let him down without him losing face — but the purple dope never takes the offered exit.
Which, naturally, brings us to the eradication of half the universe. In the Avengers: Infinity War movie, this cosmic-scale genocide is the inconceivable third act, but in the film’s inspiration, 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet, it’s just the inciting event for the main story: one weirdo’s pursuit of a woman who can’t make it any clearer that she’s not interested.
By now, his adolescent yearnings have developed into juvenile egoism. This is the collegiate stage of the Nice Guy: older, but no more mature. He’s internalized a list of things women supposedly want, and believes that once he favors her with the right combination, he’ll claim her attraction. It’s just logic, right? That’s how human feelings work!
Thanos goes on to perform awkwardly grand (and unwelcome) gestures to unlock Death’s devotion. While earthbound Nice Guys put women on metaphorical pedestals, Thanos builds an actual monument, complete with Rushmore-sized busts. But it’s his next lavish gift that fully captures the other side of the Nice Guy’s affections — namely, that their romanticism is entitled, and their dedication entirely conditional.
After mutilating his granddaughter Nebula, turning her into an undead corpse as a noncommissioned art project (try graciously rejecting that, ladies!) he shows his true self. As Death is characteristically unmoved, Nice God Thanos is triggered to scream in her face. “What does it take to please you?” he roars. “You deny me even the slightest of smiles!” (What’s worse – telling a woman to smile, or ignoring that she’s already a grinning skeleton?)
None of this is requested or accepted by the aloof embodiment of the grave, and she spends five out of six issues cornered by God Himself, while her friends talk to him so she doesn’t have to.
Only after all his gifts flop does he try fulfilling her actual needs — issue one ends with the abrupt erasure of the Marvel heroes — but even then, just because she’ll have to love him if he gives her what she wants. If there’s a better example of everything coming up Milhouse than attaining unlimited power to toil more efficiently in the friend zone, art has yet to produce it.
After bribing and berating her fail, Thanos flirts with self-awareness. “I deluded myself into thinking you could ever care for me,” he says. But since the problem can never be with the Nice Guy himself, clearly, it must be the object of his affections’ fault for tricking him into thinking she was perfect.
Now, if you’re a powerless human, at this point you probably just insult the woman you’ve been fawning over, then claim you’ve nailed way hotter broads. But when you wear the Infinity Gauntlet, you slip back into type by creating, then dating, the “perfect” woman solely to make Death jealous… if you can call the living sex doll Terraxia — literally, just a copy of himself with breasts — a fully formed woman.
“Her devotion to me is total,” he says of his creation. Which is really the ideal all along, isn’t it? The Nice Guy can’t imagine an equitable relationship, only a consort who understands his every desire while lacking any of her own. (He’s also oblivious — again, despite his supposed omniscience — that he’s demonstrating his callousness to others’ needs to the very woman he hopes to lure into a relationship.) He’ll never realize that he doesn’t actually want the work of a relationship, just the wish fulfillment of a fantasy. All the women he loves are perfect, because they’re all the same extension of his wants, devoid of any individual traits worth regarding, let alone adoring.
But let’s go back to that moment Thanos screamed at a woman for not being attracted to him. His god-sized tantrum expresses itself as a shockwave of destruction radiating through the universe, collapsing nearby star systems. This emotional snap precedes the more literal snap of the fingers, but is nearly as destructive, without any of the deliberation. It’s also far more revealing of his character: The untethered ability to pivot from devotion to decimation is the hallmark of Nice Guys (and Nice Gods), who demand much, offer little and scorch the earth behind them. They’ll fawn and flatter through an eon of failures, because the alternative is to acknowledge rejection, and if rejection pierces their thick, purple skulls, their egos decompress with the force of an exploding truck tire. Afterwards, he’s always sorry, and didn’t mean it, baby.
Mistress Death can’t blink (even when she has eyelids) without Thanos groveling at her perfection. He won’t let her forget that no one else could be so devoted, and if she’d only give him a chance, she’d see he’s really perfect for her — and if not, he’ll change into whatever she needs. This has never worked and never will, but this supposed galaxy-level tactical genius keeps trying, as if his superpower is imperviousness to the word “No.”
Death’s stubborn suitor spends all of Gauntlet screaming at her for refusing his advances. How dare she reject him? After all he’s done for her! And without even being asked? The bitch. The ungrateful bitch. Honestly, you’ll never have more sympathy for the Grim Reaper than you will when reading this comic. Death may come for us all, but she has the good sense to stay away from Thanos — and as Nice Guys do, he complains bitterly that she’ll come for every guy but him.
The funny thing is, if Thanos could own his failure, he could admit that Death can be wooed by mortals — elsewhere in the Marvel Comics Universe, for example, whenever immortal quipmaster Deadpool dies, he enjoys an extended love-in with Death until his resurrection, where she gabs with him like a real friend. Were Thanos capable of earning knowledge through the process of learning, rather than simply acquiring mystical omniscience, he might discover that women tend to be more attracted to men who talk to them like real people, rather than objects of blind, misplaced devotion.
But that would take real work and self-reflection — not just a snap of his fingers.