‘Avengers’ spoiler special: Mystery villain’s creator speaks out

May 11, 2012 | 6:22 p.m.
Click with caution: 'Avengers' mystery man revealed as...

COSMIC-LEVEL SPOILER ahead, so stop reading if you haven’t seen “The Avengers” — although with $775 million in worldwide box office it’s getting harder to find Marvel fans that haven’t seen director Joss Whedon’s all-star, crowd-pleasing epic.

avengers Avengers spoiler special: Mystery villains creator speaks out

"The Avengers" face the evil Loki, but there's another mystery villain revealed in a mid-credits sequence... (Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios)

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The mystery villain at the end of "The Avengers" is Thanos, a native of Titan who is obsessed with death. (Marvel Comics)

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Jim Starlin's Thanos first appeared in 1973; his 40th anniversary may be celebrated on set of "The Avengers 2." (Marvel)

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Thanos seeks out objects of power to further his plans. One of those objects was the Infinity Gauntlet, which appeared in the film "Thor" and was also created by Jim Starlin. (Marvel)

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Joss Whedon says Thanos is "the most powerful and fascinating Marvel villain." (Marvel Comics)

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The Cosmic Cube in comics (called the Tesseract in the Marvel Studios films) is a prized object that would allow Thanos to destroy life. (Marvel Comics)

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Jim Starlin's stories and art, such as this 1977 issue, built on the "cosmic epic" vibe of Marvel Comics that began in the 1960s with Marvel dreamers such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and John Buscema.

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Jim Starlin says his idea for Thanos came to him while taking a psychology class after coming out of the service.

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Jim Starlin says the Hollywood adventure of his Marvel creations has been a mixed one. He didn't even get a free ticket to see "The Avengers." (Jim Starlin)

As the credits roll on “The Avengers,” moviegoers see a sinister alien revealed — it’s Thanos, a being obsessed with nihilism and death, eventually falling in love with its embodiment, Mistress Death. The Mad Titan first appeared in Iron Man #55 in 1973 and would become a signature figure in the Marvel Universe’s “cosmic level” sagas — the struggles that brought heroes, monsters, aliens, immortals and gods into conflicts that spilled across space, time and other dimensions. The character was created by artist and writer Jim Starlin, who we caught up with to talk about his Mad Titan getting a Hollywood close-up.

HC: When did you find out Thanos was going to be in the film — and was it hard to keep it a secret?

Ultimate Fantastic Four #52

The Cosmic Cube in comics (called the Tesseract in the Marvel Studios films) is a prized object that would allow Thanos to destroy life (Marvel Comics)

JS: I was only alerted by friends to Thanos appearing in the film a few weeks before the opening. They’d come across rumors about it on the Internet. So I had no problem at all about keeping that particular secret.

HC: Thanos has such a memorable visage and powerful aura — even in a Marvel Universe packed with cosmic-level characters. Did the character arrive fully formed in your imagination or did it take awhile to get the character to the now-familiar version?

JS: Thanos came to me while I was taking a psychology class in college after coming out of the service; the ol’ Thanos/Eros concept. I had him sort of roughed out before I ever started working at Marvel. When editor Roy Thomas asked me to do a fill-in Iron Man, I decided to add him to the mix. I showed some character sketches I had of the character to Roy, he asked if I could perhaps bulk up Thanos some and then let me run with it. Mike Friedrich then dialogued the issue. As time went on, Thanos just sort of grew organically on his own. Not sure where his loving Death came from. At the time I was recently out of the service and rather messed up. Hard to remember what was going through my head back then.

HC: On that topic, most villains in comics usually want to conquer or destroy things, but Thanos’ ends are more, well, romantic. Was there any specific inspiration that led to a character that — literally — courts death?

JS: I suppose the Mad Titan’s doing a Pepe Le Pew on Death was an offshoot of the death wish that I was probably entertaining around then. If I hadn’t had the outlet of writing and drawing comics, I guess there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be around today. But I got to vent and am still among the living and breathing.

HC: Through the years, what sort of reactions come back from fans? I can see Thanos setting up some unsettling questions or metaphysical argument, for instance…

Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (1977)

Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 (1977)

JS: The conversations I have had on Thanos with fans over the years have ranged from the bizarre to the intense, as would be expected. The odder reaction to my handling of Thanos and (later) “The Death of Captain Marvel” came from my fellow professionals. I sort of became the go-to guy for killing off characters. At this point I don’t know how many comic-book characters I’ve been asked to assassinate. I eventually did in Robin, Warlock and Captain Marvel but passed on Shang Chi and at least a half-dozen others.

HC: I spoke to Jerry Robinson once and I congratulated him on the billion-dollar success of “The Dark Knight” and he winced like I had poked him in the eye. Of course I instantly realized that watching Alfred, the Joker, Two-Face, etc. fill the coffers of Warner Bros. was like watching a son raised in another house with another family’s name. I don’t know the arrangements on this film, but has this project and its success been a mixed experience in any way?

JS: Very mixed. It’s nice to see my work recognized as being worth something beyond the printed page, and it was very cool seeing Thanos up on the big screen. Joss Whedon and his crew did an excellent job on “The Avengers” movie and I look forward to the sequel, for obvious reasons. But this is the second film that had something I created for Marvel in it — the Infinity Gauntlet in “Thor” being the other — and both films I had to pay for my own ticket to see them. Financial compensation to the creators of these characters doesn’t appear to be part of the equation. Hopefully Thanos’ walk-on in “The Avengers” will give a boost to a number of my own properties that are in various stages of development for film: “Dreadstar,” “Breed” and the novel “Thinning the Predators.”

Jim Starlin

Jim Starlin (Courtesy of Jim Starlin)

HC: Where did you see the film and what was it like for you?

JS: I saw the film at a midnight showing at a local theater. Of course the audience was packed with comic-book crazies. It was like going to a comics convention. I had two heavy-duty geeks sitting behind me, narrating and commenting on the film throughout. I thought about asking them to pipe down but then realized they were actually adding to the experience for me and let it ride. My only surprise when I saw Thanos up on the screen was how violet he was. I always saw his exposed hide as being more grayish violet. I’ve only seen the film once and the Mad Titan appears quite briefly, but I had the impression he could perhaps use a bit more chin, but I could be wrong about that. I liked the voice.

— Geoff Boucher


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19 Responses to ‘Avengers’ spoiler special: Mystery villain’s creator speaks out

  1. TravMoody says:

    Great chat. And, hell, I didn't even pay for a ticket for this. What this world's coming to…

  2. horaceaustin says:

    Nice interview with Starlin, Geoff.

  3. horaceaustin says:

    Nice to hear from Starlin about the film. Thanks, Geoff.

    • Dave says:

      yes–and to recognize a great creator of popular culture–Starlin's work for Marvel in the 70's is considered some of the very finest work of the entire Marvel history–and the effect is still felt and deeply appreciated–

  4. davidkscholes says:

    Great interview!

    Thanos is definitely one of the more formidable (and scary) villains from the Marvel Universe. I'm pleased to see that he will be surfacing in upcoming Marvel movies.

    The Avengers was a great action packed movie and it was interesting to see the interaction between these diverse Marvel icons. The Thor/Hulk clash was a ripper.

    As an Aussie sci-fi writer: http://www.amazon.com/David-Scholes/e/B002D657LQ
    I’ve written a solid collection of Marvel (espec Thor) fan fiction, why not check it out? http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1276881/David_Scholes

  5. Dave says:

    to Jim Starlin–a lifetime fan thanks you will all my heart–the Avengers story that takes place in real time with Warlock (over 6 months was it?) ending with Avengers annual (7?–just remembering the numbers off the top of my head) was perhaps the greatest story of the silver age–you saved more than yourself

    • Dave says:

      always loved it, btw, when it was your pencils with a quality inker, such as in the issue shown here–your work at Marvel is DEEPLY remembered, appreciated and loved

    • Johnny 5 says:

      Absolutely. The first comic I ever bought was Infinity Gauntlet #1 from a drugstore newsstand. I was hooked. Starlin's stories have such grandeur and epic scope. One of the all-time greats.

  6. Nick Henderson says:

    One of my all time favorite Starlin stories was when Adam Warlock and Thanos had to team up – utter craziness. Jim Starlin is one of the greatest comics creators ever, and a truly original voice. I'm glad Thanos is showing up, if only to put a spotlight on his work.

  7. Johnathan says:

    Kind of bummed that this article wasn’t behind a cut. I’m seeing this movie today and this was just ruined for me. Buy my ticket?

  8. I loved Dreadstar, but even more, I really like Shang-Chi. Haven't read comics in the last ten years, but would be interested in a spy and espionage series with Shang-Chi.

  9. Phil says:

    I have that Issue of Marvel Two in One. Did you notice the similarity with Darkseid? Was Thanos Marvel's Darkseid or was it just coincidence? Captain Mar-Vell was a space soaring adventurer so it was a natural for him to have a cosmic opponent.

    • EricH says:

      The fact that Jim Starlin states in the interview that Thanos was an idea of his before joining Marvel seems to suggest the similarity to Darkseid is a coincidence. But the fact Darkseid debuted a few years before Thanos makes me wonder if the appearance of Thanos was meant as a shoutout to Darkseid.

  10. Brett says:

    Thanos wasn't Marvel's Darkseid, but Mongul was definitely DC's Thanos.

  11. roy says:

    who ever is listening marvel should contact dc and do a JLA vs THE AVENGERS movie it would be awsome if they all come together at the end to fight together

  12. Mark B. says:

    Are they going to introduce The Vision? Fighting Thanos would be an excellent stage for him to enter… I can see some X-Men joining the A team ! EXCELSIOR!

  13. Roy says:

    Are there going to be any other individual avenger movies other than ironman and Thor

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