No villain looms larger over the Marvel Universe at this moment than the Mad Titan himself, Thanos. Ever since he first appeared at the end of The Avengers, his presence has sent shockwaves through the Marvel films with notable appearances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron. There is no doubt that he will be the featured antagonist of the third Avengers movie and climax of Phase Three. That a few whispers or a smirk from this character can be cause for so much concern shows just how potent he is.
The same can be seen in comics today. After his death at the end of Secret Wars, he returned in the pages of The Ultimates and Civil War II. He is the cause of so much strife in Marvel Comics at this moment and appears ready to claim more power and cause more harm after his recent escape from custody. Now he is receiving a new series this week created by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mike Deodato. It has already been said this series is setting up “something massive” in Marvel Comics.
So before the third Avengers film hits theaters or his full machinations in comics are revealed, it’s time to catch up on who Thanos is and why he’s one of the greatest Marvel villains of all time. This list of 5 essential stories will provide you with a great place to start.
The Infinity Gauntlet
If you can only make time to read one Thanos story, then it absolutely must be this one. This is the definitive mini-series that showcases the character at his best and worst. It features him winning everything he ever dreamed of and then losing it all by no fault but his own. The fireworks of that arc alone are reason to check it out. You get to read about all of the most popular heroes in Marvel Comics and all of the most powerful entities in their universe in a showdown that is nothing short of incredible.
Yet the best part of The Infinity Gauntlet is the character study of Thanos himself. After years of plotting and stories featuring Marvel’s greatest cosmic characters, Thanos finally achieves ultimate power over all creation. The choices he makes with that power and the characters he surrounds himself and connects with reveal who he really is. And while nothing ever truly ends in superhero stories, the ending Thanos is provided here is one that will never be topped for its poetic grace and beauty.
Mar-Vell Vs. Thanos
Thanos’ creator Jim Starlin was hard at work building a mythos for the character before The Infinity Gauntlet was ever pitched to Marvel editors. So much of the essential Thanos can still be found in his earliest stories though. Beginning in Iron Man #55 and continuing in Captain Marvel #25-33, Starlin and his collaborators put all of the key elements together that would make Thanos a long-lasting villain.
Everything including his family, his motives, his obsession with death, and his costume can be found in the pages of these issues. What is most exciting about them though is Thanos’ first great rivalry with Captain Marvel. Their placement in Marvel’s cosmic pantheon is forever secure and these early encounters not only sow seeds for what is to come, but make for some spectacular tales of their own. This is Starlin, Thanos, and Captain Marvel all at their absolute best.
It is difficult to improve upon either of the Annihilation series when discussing Marvel’s cosmic events. While the first Annihilation event featured Annihilus as the primary antagonist, Thanos played a key role in the event and was in top form for the entire thing. The goal of Annihilus was to wipe out all life in positive space and conquer it for his own hordes in the Negative Zone. Thanos’ obsession with death led him to be Annihilus’ right hand man, pursuing his own plots while performing the role of servant.
Needless to say, things don’t work out exactly as Thanos plans. However, his plotting and interactions with the brutal Annihilation Wave show exactly how nasty he can be. Annihilation also provided catharsis to decades of storylines in Thanos’ own mythos as he is allowed to confront both Drax the Destroyer and Galactus in key moments in the series. Annihilation is a must read anyway, but will also please Thanos fans and clarify why the character is essential to cosmic Marvel.
The Death of Captain Marvel
For as bad as Thanos can be, this is the story that reveals how the character views himself to be noble and some of his (very few) noble qualities. Captain Marvel was Thanos’ first great rival and in this classic Marvel story, he is faced with a terminal diagnosis of cancer from an earlier battle. Throughout the story he says goodbye to many heroes, allies, and friends. But at the end of it all, it is Thanos who greets him.
Thanos is gracious and introduces Captain Marvel to his lover Death. As Captain Marvel dies, they are no longer enemies, but fellow wanderers looking into the great unknown together. It is a poignant moment that transcends the superpowered battles of comics to look at how even the greatest of enemies can find common ground when facing something as powerful as death.
Here is a great recent example of why Thanos will never cease to be a threat in the Marvel Universe. While he isn’t present in the first volume of the series, it’s worth reading the entire thing to understand just how much damage he does in the second half. This team of explorers, scientists, and reality-punchers seem capable of solving anything until Thanos enters their midst.
The chaos he creates and forces he unleashes in Ultimates are tremendous. Unlike most villains, he is not even fully contained by the story’s end either. Nowhere has it been more clear that Thanos is a cosmic force, capable of acting far above his level and damaging things that ought never to be damaged. Both in anticipation of the new Thanos series and Ultimates 2, this one is worth picking up as soon as possible.
Have you already read any of these Thanos stories? Are there any others you would be sure to recommend? Let us know what you think in the comments below.