Monday, January 6, 2014

Why Thanos is cooler than Darkseid

Both Thanos and Darkseid are craggy faced, megalomaniac outer space bad guys who are intergalactic menaces. The two characters are compared often, and to me, it's not even a contest: Thanos, the "Mad God," is the more frightening, the more intimidating, the more fearsome, the more complex, the more intriguing, and is featured in way better stories. And it doesn't surprise me in the least Thanos would make it to the big screen ahead of Darkseid.

Sure, Darkseid came first (but not by much), but as with everything in life, it's not who does it first, but who does it right.

Thanos has a more interesting motivation and origin.

Thanos is a nihilist in love with Death herself, who wants to give her the universe. Darkseid, on the other hand, wants to solve a math problem.

Beyond that, Thanos has a far more interesting psychology at work. He's terrifying for a reason Darkseid isn't. Darkseid is an authoritarian dictator who wants control. Thanos, on the other hand, has a cold, crystalline commitment to nihilism and death terrifying to any rational being. He commits genocide because he is philosophically opposed to life: he views it as a disease in a dead universe. He kills because death is beautiful, and life isn't worth living. Thanos tears out grass because its life is hideous to him; the ground would be more beautiful dead and cold. He wants to destroy life on Earth and other planets because our world is far worse off than quiet, crystalline, barren worlds like Mars, Mercury, and the Moon. Thanos proved his commitment to this idea in a cold, personal way: he killed his own mother.

In short, Thanos is terrifying because of the way he thinks, not just because he can shoot scary eye lasers.

Thanos's origin is eerie and poetic: Death appeared to Thanos as a young man, a woman so beautiful she made other women look like horrible hags. To win her over, Thanos wants to present the Universe as a gift to her. It's like something out of Herman Hesse or Ingmar Bergmann, magical realism you're not sure if it really happened or if what we just saw was a metaphor.

There's also an element of pathos in Thanos's motivation, too: no matter what he does to honor Death, she doesn't give him the time of day. Thus far, Death has never even spoken to him. No matter how many successes he has or how many triumphs he has. Even when Thanos tried to get over Death and form his own evil Pantheon of Gods in Avengers: Celestial Quest, you could tell he hadn't gotten over her and his behavior was upping the ante overcompensation.

Thanos has a sense of humor and dry wit. 

Voltaire said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." Thanos is very much the same way: one of the most amusing things about the character is how his dry humor is wasted on people terrified of him.

For instance, remember in the Avengers movie when, after being told the Avengers "court death," he gave a wry, dark smile? Is it even conceivable for Darkseid to appreciate wit or wordplay like that?

Or, remember this interaction in Dan Slott's She-Hulk?

"You're the Mad Titan. You bring death, pain, and destruction wherever you go." 
"I see my reputation precedes me."

Thanos even got off a bit of sly mockery there due to his respect for his enemy, Captain Marvel.

Oh, that reminds me of the next point:

Thanos had respect for his greatest enemies. 

Even Doctor Doom, for all his nobility, thinks of Reed Richards as a less talented clown.

Thanos, on the other hand, appeared to Captain Marvel as he was dying from cancer to actually HELP him accept the inevitable, feel no fear, and pass into another world. He even showed up in Captain Marvel's mind to fight him, simply because he felt someone like Captain Marvel, dying of cancer, deserved to go down fighting. This wasn't some evil plan of his; Thanos showed up to ease Mar-Vell into dying at peace because he wanted to help.

So great was Thanos's respect for Captain Marvel, he was horrified to see Quasar become Mar-Vell's replacement and pretender, and beat him pretty brutally for it.

Likewise, Thanos helped his other great enemy, Adam Warlock in the Infinity Watch against the power of the Magus.

Thanos actually came much closer to winning. 

Thanos is a much more effective villain because he not only obtained infinite power once, but several times. In the first Thanos War, he obtained the Cosmic Cube, and all of reality was his plaything. Not only that, but in the Infinity Gauntlet, he obtained the Infinity Gems. Among other things, he killed one out of every four life forms everywhere in the entire universe just to make a point (someone wished them back later, but what a gesture).

All this was not only in-continuity, but in some of Marvel's most important stories.

Darkseid on the other hand, only got his precious fucking math problem solved in alternate universes and possible futures. Remember Rock of Ages?

Thanos is more terrifying and intimidating.

Perhaps because Thanos has a way higher success rate (and again, an origin that doesn't involve solving an evil math problem), Marvel treats Thanos the way Doctor Who treats the Daleks: they only come out when they aren't messing around. Thanos is never used gratuitously, and certainly isn't overused, something that can be said about Darkseid.

Perhaps because Thanos has a much more lively psychology than Darkseid, it's interesting to note it's implied part of the reason Thanos lost was because of his own inner doubt; he's uncomfortable with totally winning. In short, nobody really beats Thanos except Thanos.

Thanos is always drawn dynamically. Darkseid is always sitting in a chair. 

There's a tumblr that's nothing but images of Darkseid chillaxing on a couch.

Why is that even a thing at all? I'm going to get into trouble for saying this, but it's absolutely true: Jack Kirby's art got lazier the instant he stopped working with a plotter. If you don't believe me, count the panels for yourself: the average issue of Fantastic Four had 33% more panels than the average Fourth World comic. Kirby's splash pages went from pop out action sequences, like in Fantastic Four: scenes of people just chilling in rooms.

Thanos's poses, on the other hand, suggested confidence, megalomania, and arrogance. And Thanos certainly never stands around with his hands behind his back looking bored.

In the end, this crucial difference seems to summarize the distinction between the two characters. Thanos is a dynamic character with a vivid inner life and Darkseid does the same thing over and over. As a result of lessons he learned in battle with Akhenaten in Marvel's The End, Thanos found conquest and destruction inherently futile, a realization that's been with the character ever since, for example.

When asked who is more interesting, it's no contest.


David Morefield said...

I'm with you on this one. I remember the summer of those fantastic Starlin annuals for Avengers and Marvel Two-In-One (1977, maybe?) and how they both just blew me away. Then there was the "Death of Captain Marvel" GN. I don't know from gauntlets and such as I bailed long before that, but what I did see of Thanos was awesome. In comparison, I can't think of any cool story with Darkseid, other than maybe the "Great Darkness Saga" and even then, the "cool" part was the reveal ("What the...? Darkseid?!?! Never saw THAT coming!"). But after that "Hey look, it's me" moment, there wasn't much to get excited about (and now even that is ruined in collected editions, where they put him on the cover!).

I've heard suggestions that the "Anti-Life Equation" isn't an actual math formula but something else entirely, though I can't remember what. The problem with Kirby is that he came up with all kinds of nonsense phrases and gibberish and sometimes he was the only one who knew what he was talking about.

This leads to another factor in Darkseid's inferiority, and that is the tendency for creators to keep retooling him and the other New Gods again and again in their conviction that "there's something great there, I just need to fit the pieces together right." For my money, no one's ever made New Gods work, including Kirby, and by now the concepts are so over-exposed and convluted it'd be impossible. Plus it couldn't have helped that Darkseid showed up in the Super-Friends and its related toy line relatively early on, which took away from whatever "imposing" status he may have had.

Ultimately I think any argument rating Darkseid higher than Thanos boils down to "Kirby is a bigger deal than Starlin," which may or may not be true but is really irrelevant.

Julian Perez said...

I don't want to be a hater on Darkseid. The surest way to explain why Thanos is cooler is to just talk about Thanos, explain who he is, which is what I did in the article. That said...

Thanos stories are always distinctly Thanosian (based on around chilling, pointless genocide due to a hatred of life, Death not giving Thanos the time of day, and Thanos's own inner self-destructiveness poisoning him in the end), whereas Great Darkness could have been about any really powerful, scary DC baddie.

There was a George Perez DC crossover from 1989 (thereabouts) called War of the Gods. In addition to surreal scenes like Superman punching the giant snake god Kukulkan in the face over Mexico, you were led to believe the baddie was Darkseid, and it turned out, in a reverse setup, to be Wonder Woman's enemy, Aries. I was shocked at how easily you COULD swap out Darkseid for Aries.

(The first arc of Geoff Johns's JSA was the JSA vs. Mordru. I always thought of that one as a reverse-Great Darkness. This time, it's a 30th Century bad guy in modern DC who is big, scary and unknowable because he's in a different time, facing people who aren't his usual enemies.)

I've heard suggestions that the "Anti-Life Equation" isn't an actual math formula but something else entirely, though I can't remember what.

I know the story you mean, this was in Cosmic Odyssey. You will not believe who wrote that. It was done by (...wait for it...) Jim Starlin. I think Starlin was in a better position to understand the problems with Darkseid more than anybody else.

Cosmic Odyssey always felt like a DC version of one of the Jim Starlin Marvel cosmic romps with Adam Warlock, Captain Marvel, Gammora, Silver Surfer, Starfox, and so on like the Thanos War or Adam Warlock vs the Magus (which will be coming soon to screen in Guardians of the Galaxy, which I can't wait to see). The Mike Mignola art didn't exactly hurt.

The problem with Kirby is that he came up with all kinds of nonsense phrases and gibberish and sometimes he was the only one who knew what he was talking about.

If you listen - really listen - to Star Trek technobabble long enough, you can figure out they've worked out all that nonsense consistently. Polarons do this, tachyons show up here but not here, chronitons show up when time travel is involved, etc. Listen to it long enough, you figure out tachyons are a byproduct of the warp engines, and an EPS conduit is the power transfer system on the ship because the power from engines would melt or blow out wires, etc.

Kirby's Fourth could read it for years and never figure out all the nonsense phrases. "Cosmi-Current." "Vari-Beams." "Astro-Force." Orion wields the Astro-Force sometimes but contacts it other times.

The problem with Kirby's Fourth World, the reason it's so remote, is the exact same reason the Star Wars prequels were so cold and confusing: there was no "regular guy" character who sees the story like the audience does and asks questions when he's confused. There's no Buck Rogers type character for the audience to experience the story with. Everyone in the story is a weirdo spaceman. They're weirdo spacemen fighting other weirdo spacemen.

David Morefield said...

You're right, it was "Cosmic Odyssey." I need to get that out and read it again; I remember liking it.

I had a love-hate relationship with Starlin the way I did with Ditko; sometimes his art thrilled me and other times it put me off, often both on the same page. His writing was the same: it had a high-stakes urgency and import to it, but it was also, it seemed to me, morbidly (and exasperatingly) obsessed with death. Kind of like spending a whole afternoon with a goth girl or about half the nihilist punkers I went to high school with.

I respect the right of fans to like "New Gods" but in my heart of hearts I always suspect they're faking it. It's like modern jazz: I'm convinced some people pretend to enjoy it just so they can lord it over the 99% of us who can only scratch our heads and shrug. In both cases it's apparently enough to just "understand" that it's good, without having to provide any objective justification. ("If you have to ask, you'll never know")

The closest analog to Kirby that I can find for totally WTF comics writing is Bob Haney, but he's typically dismissed as a hack while with Kirby...well, it must be our fault if we don't "get" it.

On the other hand, when you realize how many of us walk around every day with -- and indeed can't leave the house without -- our smart phones that tell us which way to turn and where to get dinner, and answer our every question from a great, networked computer intelligence...and in some cases, even have conversations with us (Siri), a once-"goofy" concept like "Mother Box" makes you think maybe Kirby was more visionary than kook.

Anonymous said...

If you want to argue that Thanos is greater than modern-era Darkseid, as written by Johns and Loeb, et al, you'll get no argument out of me. But you're including pre-Crisis Darkseid in the discussion and Thanos STILL comes out on top?? Who can out-Kirby Kirby? Even Starlin himself would be humble enough to admit he's not as great as the Fourth World cycle.

David Morefield said: "Ultimately I think any argument rating Darkseid higher than Thanos boils down to 'Kirby is a bigger deal than Starlin' which may or may not be true but is really irrelevant."

You can be sure it IS true but it's not irrelevant because a big reason why he's a bigger deal than Starlin is because the Fourth World cycle is the purest representation of mythology, aesthetic, concept and philosophy to ever grace the superhero genre. And Darkseid is a huge part of that, he is existential oblivion made manifest and Thanos is a trumped-up copy with some bells and whistles.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I just re-read the comments and realized I'm in a discussion with people who don't understand or appreciate Kirby (read: don't understand or appreciate comics). Never mind, my bad.

Doc Thompson said...

In work Darkseid is a,to Mark Evanier,nodody care is someone ever uses the name ''Darkseed'' for a villian.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with you here. Thanos is the far more interesting character. Darkseid, if anything else, represents oppression and domination yet doesn't really have any character to him.
Thanos doesn't seem to represent much of anything and is the far more interesting character. Unfortunately, a lot of Thanos stories, due to his popularity in the movies, are lacking his original power level and character. Brian Michel Bendis is one of the worst contenders here. Another Thanos comic is kind of dislike is Thanos Rising. Something about his characterization seemed off the entire comic. There are a couple writers who write Thanos besides Jim Starlin. *I'm thinking Thanos Imperative, Cosmic Powers and Annihilation*.
The best Darkseid story I can think of is The Great Darkness Saga, which as you said, was only really cool because of the reveal at the end. It's interesting that the writer for The Great Darkness Saga was the same one for Annihilation.

Anonymous said...

Forgive some of the grammatical errors in my post above.

"There are a couple writers who write Thanos well besides Jim Starlin. *I'm thinking Thanos Imperative, Cosmic Powers and Annihilation*."

"Unfortunately, a lot of new Thanos stories, due to his popularity in the movies, are lacking his original power level and character. Brian Michel Bendis is one of the worst contenders here. He writes Thanos similar to a purple Hulk. It's rather obnoxious."