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. Ideas are nothing, execution is everything.
A lot of the arguments by people who say Darkseid is more interesting boil it down to “well, Jack Kirby is more influential and a bigger deal than Jim Starlin.” Even if that is true, it says nothing about which of these two characters is more interesting.
Thanos has a more intriguing motivation and origin.
Thanos is a nihilist in love with Death herself, who wants to give his Dark Lady 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
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 barely 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 brings me to my 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.
Thanos is saved for special occasions instead of being an “everyday” baddie.
Marvel treats Thanos the way Doctor Who treats the Daleks: they only
come out when they aren’t messing around, for big, world-shaking stories that are of great importance. Thanos is never used
gratuitously, and certainly isn’t overused, something that can be said
Because he’s (for the most part) saved for special occasions, Thanos is a lot more intimidating and fearsome. His defeats are usually not due to some clever plan, but by heroes exploiting a part of his psychology. Perhaps because Thanos has a much more lively inner life 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.
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.
Thanos stories could only star Thanos. Darkseid stories could be rewritten to star anybody.
Stories about Thanos usually have the following key characteristics:
- Thanos finds some way to obtain infinite power in the depths of space, and he obtains it with help of 1) cultists, 2) a space armada, and 3)
- Thanos achieves his goal, and defeats all the heroes who oppose him including his family members, but some quirk of his psychology, his own self-hatred and refusal to allow total victory, leaves him open to being defeated if a hero figures it out.
- Death still won’t talk to him even after all that.
A Thanos story can only be rewritten to be about Thanos.
Darkseid, on the other hand, with his vague, power-hungry psychology and less complex authoritarian desire for total control, has been the subject of numerous stories where he can be swapped out for another character without a problem. Great Darkness in Legion of Superheroes could have been about (say) Nekron with very little alteration. In fact, one story, War of the Gods, a crossover that memorably featured Superman punching the snake god Kukulkan in the face over Mexico City, ended with a bait and switch where everyone was led to believe Darkseid was at fault, only to reveal it was really Wonder Woman’s enemy, Aries. The shocking thing is how well this worked; you could swap Darkseid out for another bad guy in evil black armor and not change much.
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.