Thanos creator Jim Starlin discusses his Avengers: Endgame cameo and the journey from page to screen
Jim Starlin is feeling good. The writer-artist has had his disagreements with Marvel over the years, but more than four decades after he first created the cosmic supervillain Thanos, the character is enjoying global popularity thanks to the one-two punch of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War and this month’s Avengers: Endgame. In fact, given Endgame’s record-shattering opening box office numbers, it’s probably not a stretch to call Thanos the most famous supervillain in the world right now.
Starlin is enjoying the moment. Eagle-eyed viewers may even have noticed that he pops up during Endgame itself, with a cameo during the group therapy scene where Captain America (Chris Evans) is trying to help people move on from losing loved ones to Thanos’ snap.
“I came down to the set, and figured I was gonna be sitting around some table in the background with my wife twiddling our thumbs, and everybody would be busy,” Starlin tells EW. “But when we got down there, [directors Joe and Anthony Russo] immediately hauled us over to a corner and started telling us everything. They were very open and generous. So I knew quite a bit about the two films, mostly the Thanos stuff, so there were plenty of surprises still for me as a viewer going into the theater. That was the biggest surprise and the thing I enjoyed most, was the friendliness of being on the set. Having worked in other enterprises, like publishing, where there was a lot of back-biting, all I heard when I was down there was how everybody was working together to make the best movie they could.”
Most of Thanos’ early appearances came during Starlin’s runs on outside-the-box comics like Captain Marvel and Warlock, before his starring role in the 1991 event series The Infinity Gauntlet catapulted him into the upper echelons of Marvel’s legendary villains. But funnily enough, Thanos’ actual debut came in the pages of an Iron Man comic: 1972’s Invincible Iron Man #55, to be exact. This lends extra resonance to the way the big-screen Thanos (Josh Brolin) ended up being the primary villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and thus the archenemy of the franchise’s original hero… Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s been quite a journey from an inauspicious beginning that did not exactly please Marvel mastermind Stan Lee at the time.
“It’s more of a full circle than you realize,” Starlin says. “I got the assignment to draw Invincible Iron Man #55-56 because the regular penciller on it, George Tuska, had to go in for some elective surgery. So I did the first issue, which I plotted out with Mike Friedrich, and then the second one I worked with this writer Steve Gerber. We did a funny Iron Man issue, and Stan Lee hated it so much he fired both of us.”
Starlin continues, “So, fortunately, Roy Thomas came along and gave me Captain Marvel to do, and Steve got Howard the Duck. But out of this strange beginning we both ended up contributing to the MCU. Who would’ve thought? Fate has this strange way of arranging things that you just don’t see at the moment. I never thought Thanos was ever gonna get into something like this, I just always thought he was too dark and esoteric. I never imagined him being up on the big screen.”
Thanos has changed a bit in the journey from page to screen. In Starlin’s comics, Thanos was an interstellar conqueror who invoked the Freud’s concept of Thanatos, a.k.a. humanity’s death drive, by literally trying to woo the female personification of Death. The original Infinity Gauntlet story line came about when Mistress Death ordered Thanos to kill half the population in the universe, to adjust the cosmic balance more to her liking. In the film version, Mistress Death is nowhere to be found. Instead, Thanos himself is obsessed with cosmic balance, and is willing to kill as many beings as necessary in order to achieve it.
Nevertheless, Starlin says he’s satisfied with the version of the character put on screen by Brolin and the Russos.
“I came into this not expecting a carbon copy of what I had put onto the page,” Starlin says. “Any author who does is obviously being foolish. These are multi-million dollar productions, so they’re gonna make changes and you gotta go with the flow because it’s two different things, the book and the movie. But I gotta say, the Russo brothers might not have followed the letter of the books, but they certainly had the spirit of the character in the story. They were working to make a conclusion to 20-odd movies, so plenty of adjustments had to be made. Half the characters from the Thanos comics are not in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was coming in there feeling like, as long as they don’t screw up the character, I’ll be happy. They took him from being a nice little cult character into a pop icon, so I can’t complain. I’m a happy camper.”
Aside from Thanos’ literal obsession with Death, another aspect of Starlin’s original comics that’s been lost a bit in adaptation is the Soul Stone (or the Soul Gem, if you prefer the original nomenclature). Of the six Infinity Stones in the MCU, the Soul Stone is the only one that isn’t seen acting independently; in fact, it didn’t even make an appearance until Infinity War.
When it was wielded by Adam Warlock in the pages of Starlin’s Warlock comics, the Soul Stone had the power to suck people’s souls out of their bodies, sending them to a dimension within itself called Soul World. Soul World did make a brief appearance in Infinity War (it’s that orange-colored dream-space where Thanos talks to a vision of young Gamora immediately after snapping his fingers), but other than that the big-screen Soul Stone has been more important for the human sacrifice needed to acquire it than for its actual powers. So, EW asked Starlin to explain his vision for the original Infinity Gem.
“I would go back to the beginning of everything and say that whatever supreme being or supreme event got this universe happening left behind an aspect of itself. This aspect, over the eons, broke down and congealed into these six gems,” Starlin says. “The reason it’s difficult to do a visual on the Soul Gem is because the soul is an ephemeral entity that may or may not exist. I tend to go towards ‘does exist,’ but it’s not a visual object. Its effects can be visual, like how they have Soul World in the movies and comics. Basically, the stones are the six aspects of life as I broke it down. Like all of them, the soul is key to existence, and it’s there, but it’s like reality in that it’s very hard to point at what it should look like, but you know it when you see it.”
For those interested in a taste of Starlin’s Thanos comics, he personally recommends the two-issue Thanos Quest miniseries that preceded The Infinity Gauntlet, and is included in most collections of that story (or available independently on services like Marvel Unlimited and Comixology Unlimited). It’s the story of how Thanos went about acquiring the six Infinity Gems from their previous owners, the Elders of the Universe. As Starlin describes it, “Thanos is never more nefarious than he is in that particular story. We had a lot of fun with that.”
He’s also currently in the process of wrapping up a trilogy of Thanos graphic novels that will constitute his last work with Marvel Comics. Thanos: The Infinity Ending, the sequel to Thanos: The Infinity Siblings and Thanos: The Infinity Conflict, will hit stands later this year. Having spoken before about his disappointment with the way Marvel handled these graphic novels alongside its ongoing Thanos comic, Starlin confirms The Infinity Ending will be his last ride with the character.
“I was pretty much the only person who was writing any of the Thanos stories for a long time,” Starlin says. “Dan Jurgens came along and did one short stint in Thor with him, and there was Larry Lieber’s famous Spidery Super Stories with the Thanos helicopter, but other than that he was pretty much my baby, and folks left me alone with him. The books were selling okay, so I got to come along and do pretty much whatever I wanted with him for the longest time. Only recently, since the Avengers movie, has he exploded into super-stardom. My ability to use him got limited, and I’m out of the Thanos business entirely at this point. I finished off the last Thanos story, Thanos: The Infinity Ending, about a year and a half ago. Alan Davis has finished penciling it, so it’ll be out sometime this year I understand. That’s it for me and Thanos.”
Now Starlin can take time to sit back and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe of nerds.