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He’s a powerful being from an extinct alien world that ended up destroying itself. Venturing through deep space, he arrives wielding unfathomable cosmic powers on an idealistic quest to save the galaxy.
In another universe, that might describe a beloved superhero. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he is one of the darkest villains imaginable — Thanos, the “Mad Titan,” who believes the only way to save half of all existence is by exterminating the other half.
We first glimpsed this violet-skinned monstrosity at the end of 2012’s The Avengers, which set him up as the Final Boss of these interlocked movies. Since then, the character has turned up in the form of Josh Brolin as the post-credit kicker of Avengers: Age of Ultron and lording over his asteroid-field sanctuary in Guardians of the Galaxy.
In Avengers: Infinity War, he becomes the central focus, and we’ll see his younger years on Titan, witnessing the forces that destroyed his home world and sent him on a mission to “save” the universe through mass extermination.
That’s a big job, so throughout these Marvel films he has been trying to acquire the Infinity Stones that, when combined in one all-powerful gauntlet, will allow him to bend time, space, and all reality to his will.
EW spoke with Brolin about bringing to life Marvel’s “biggest bad” yet and whether there is something human in someone so determined to annihilate.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re playing a towering, purple space tyrant, but does Thanos have a correlation to a type of person who exists in the real world?
JOSH BROLIN: That’s an interesting question because I’m the least educated person you’ll ever meet when it comes to this stuff. I knew nothing about Thanos. Nothing. And it was great. I got to start from scratch. I bring that up because you go, who is he? Kind of an amalgamation of people, to me. And who specifically? You want to really go out on a limb? Because it’s not okay to actually parallel with people. But he doesn’t divert from his intention at all. Who could be like that? [Laughs]
I understand. I do.
But at the same time you feel for him. You want to write him off as insane, and yet what he’s doing makes sense, if you break it down.
He’s bringing order, right?
You think of overpopulation and killing half the universe in order to save the other half and all this kind of stuff. You have this struggle watching him. It’s this love-hate thing, you know? So I don’t know … Who in our society do we love and hate?
He looks like a Neanderthal. He has that swagger of someone who uses his strength to intimidate.
And that’s great. And that’s your perception of it. You see this lughead and this guy who you pigeonhole right from the first cosmetic reaction to him. And what I see is this in this guy’s eyes. This super, super, super intelligence. There’s this constant contrasting thing about this Neanderthalic lughead who’s way more intelligent than anybody else in the movie, by far.
Is he also the abusive father? We know from the Guardians films he kidnapped Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) and trained them to be child soldiers.
They’re tools to him.
Is he cold the whole way through, or does he feel any affection for them?
Yeah. I do think he does. When you see the relationship with Gamora and you see that evolves, God I wish I could tell you. I can’t! When [directors Joe and Anthony Russo] came up to me after we had done maybe three quarters of the film, they said, “It wasn’t necessarily intended that you feel for this guy as much as you do.” Obviously he has a grand plan, like somebody who’s pulling in kids for their own selfish bloodshed. But he has a capacity to love very much and very deeply.
You need that for a character like this because if he’s just a cackling madman bent on destroying everything, it’s less interesting.
It’s like Dan White, man. [That’s the true-life politician-turned-murderer Brolin played in 2009’s Milk.] If he just had somebody to listen to him or he just had [help]… You kind of get that with Thanos a little bit.
What is it that damaged Thanos? Where does this pain and anger come from?
He’s different from his family. They’re all Titans and they all look similar, but he was born deformed. You see how he grew up, you see he was like the Quasimodo of this time, or if you’ve ever read Perfume [Patrick Süskind ‘s 1985 novel about a serial killer who craves beautiful scenes but is disgusted by the smell of humanity], it’s a great parallel to Thanos. He stuck out. He was an anomaly. He was a freak. And that lent to this apparent insanity.
You’re playing Cable in Deadpool 2, as well. It’s an interesting coincidence that you’re playing these two Marvel Comics characters. Deadpool is so self-referential, I wondered if they ended up slipping any Thanos jokes into your dialogue.
I can’t imagine there’s not going to be any. [Laughs] I’ll put it that way. I’m up here right now in snowy Vancouver doing reshoots for Deadpool. Given that it’s a satire of all superhero movies, especially Marvel movies, how can you not?