It’s a generally understood truism of storytelling that every villain is a hero of their own tale. Marvel’s films have certainly benefited from this lesson; characters like The Avengers’ Loki and Black Panther’s Killmonger have both thrived mightily from the sympathy with which their characters’ agendas are treated in their respective films. (Meanwhile, does anybody remember what the hell the bad guy in Ant Man was doing, or why he did it?) That sympathy is slightly harder to extend to, say, wiping out half the population of the universe, but damn if actor Josh Brolin isn’t trying to get us to grant his would-be galactic conqueror Thanos the benefit of the doubt.
Brolin talked about the background of his Avengers: Infinity War baddie in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, explaining that at least part of the Mad Titan’s interest in genocide stems from his shitty childhood, and a legitimate belief that he’s doing the right thing with all this indiscriminate killing. “He’s different from his family,” Brolin explained. “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, 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.”
In the comic books, Thanos famously does most of his more evil actions because of his romantic infatuation with the Marvel Universe’s physical embodiment of Death, wiping out vast swathes of the universal population as a sort of elaborate, bloody courtship ritual. Brolin—who openly admits he has no interest or knowledge in his character’s comic-book counterpart—didn’t touch on that particular relationship, but did say that he felt driven to imbue the character with certain more sympathetic traits. “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,’” the actor admitted. “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.” Aw, big sweet murder-god just needs a widdle hug.