At first, the idea of comparing anime villains to comic book villains seemed pretty crazy to me. It wasn’t until I read fellow ComicsVerse writer Ward William’s article — in which he compares the American superhero genre to PARASYTE — that I even saw a connection between the two. With this newfound knowledge, I headed into Marvel’s latest blockbuster AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. I loved the humor and action scenes present in the movie, but Thanos, the central antagonist, is what blew me away.
I walked out of the theaters feeling that Thanos is the most complete villain I’ve seen in awhile. As someone who prefers anime/manga over comics, I was curious to see if anyone from my favored art forms could give Thanos a run for his money. To this end, I stacked some of my favorite anime villains up against Marvel’s mighty Thanos.
Before we continue I want to clear a few things up. Firstly, I will be discussing the Thanos from the INFINITY WAR movie rather than the comics. This is because people are more familiar with the movie than the comics. Secondly, anime specifically has some awesome and badass villains. So, this article isn’t to say that Thanos needs to “save” the art form. Instead, I think he’s perfected a few qualities that many anime villains fall short of. So without further ado, let’s talk about everything that makes Thanos a special villain and how I think anime villains can learn from him.
Spoilers ahead for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, MONSTER, DRAGON BALL Z, NARUTO SHIPPUDEN, and ERASED
Thanos the Titan
Writer and artist Jim Starlin came up with the idea of Thanos all the way back in the early 1970s. Unsure of how long his career in comics would last, Starlin eagerly presented his idea to editor Roy Thomas. Roy green-lighted the idea of publishing Thanos in edition number 55 of IRON MAN. Before Starlin knew it, Thanos made cameos all over the Marvel universe. He appeared in big titles like SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, THOR, and THE HULK before receiving his own line of comics. Suffice to say Thanos became a megastar in comics, but how did he transition so well into the movie?
For starters, Thanos wields the infinity gauntlet. This powerful glove runs on things called “infinity stones,” which make him grow stronger. For example, Thanos gains the ability to control time when he places the time stone into the infinity gauntlet. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR describes the long and difficult path Thanos walks to collect all the stones. For a little while, Thanos seemed to be a one-dimensional character who only wants to destroy the universe. The longer Thanos trekked on, however, the more this sentiment changed. By the end of the movie, he is a very relatable and three-dimensional villain.
This was by no means an accident, either. At his core, Thanos has elements that make him a great character. He has a deep but very simple story. His opinions are controversial, but his motivations resonate with the audience. Furthermore, he’s completely adamant about carrying out his ideologies, which is something anime fans know doesn’t always happen. These three attributes, in my opinion, make a fantastic blueprint for anime villains to learn from.
Keep it Simple!
One of my college professors gave me the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard. She told me about the acronym K.I.S.S, which means keep it simple stupid! Great writing doesn’t always have to be complex; sometimes it adds intricacies that fall on deaf ears. Let’s take Thanos as an example here, who benefits from a short and sweet backstory. Thanos grew up on an overpopulated planet ravaged by crime and poverty. He believed if there were fewer people on his planet, then there would be less crime and more resources to allocate. So as an adult, Thanos forced this solution on nearby planets and saw great results.
Now let’s compare Thanos to my personal favorite anime villain, Johan Liebert from MONSTER. Johan is essentially a perfect human. He’s absolutely brilliant and accomplishes everything he sets his mind to. Watching MONSTER is such a sensational experience because it peels back Johan’s many layers. We learn what makes him tick, his own personal goals/ambitions, and the childhood that developed this titular monster. In the heat of things, it’s easy to appreciate Johan. However, I noticed something bizarre when I tried reflecting on his character months after watching MONSTER.
So much time and effort was spent developing Johan’s story that I can hardly remember anything about it. I legitimately have to pull up his Wikipedia page to account for all his complexities (and believe me, there are a lot). It’s complete overkill, and Johan’s actions seem arbitrary when you can’t even remember his motivations.
When it comes to villains, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. Thanos’s story might seem basic but it’s deep, interesting, and memorable, which is something every great villain needs.
By the very definition of the word, heterogeneous means “diverse in character or content.” When I say this, I’m referring to a villain’s personality. A villain who only cares about hurting or killing others simply isn’t engaging. It pains me to say this because DRAGON BALL Z is one of my favorite series, but it also has the worst villains I’ve ever seen. Villains in the DRAGON BALL franchise typically don’t offer much else other than cool character design and crazy strength. There have been some hits among the misses, like Cell bringing out an emotional father-son moment between Gohan and Goku. Besides this though, most DB villains, like Majin Buu, arbitrarily want to blow up the planet.
Like Majin Buu, Thanos also arbitrarily kills people. However, there’s a lot more that goes into this than just mindless destruction. I’ve already mentioned that Thanos grew up on Titan, a planet plagued by many issues. Fueled by these hardships, Thanos decides half of his planet’s population, selected at random, should be killed. For obvious reasons, people ignored Thanos’s idea of genocide. However, Titan never thought of a better solution and nearly went extinct instead. So Thanos doesn’t go around eliminating half of the population because it’s fun. He does it because he genuinely believes it’s the best possible way to protect life in the universe.
Unfortunately, Kid Buu lacks any form of backstory or motivations to add depth to him. In fact, Buu’s backstory is so underwhelming it might as well not exist. The evil wizard Bibidi created Buu to conquer the universe, and that’s about it. I like that his backstory is simple, but a well-developed backstory could have propelled Buu into a more respected category of anime villains.
Imagine the following scenario: Thanos finally gathers all six infinity stones and has the power to make his goals a reality. The Avengers, who disagree with genocide, ask Thanos to change his way of thinking. After some critical analysis, Thanos changes his mind and backs down. That’s a pretty underwhelming scenario, isn’t it? Yet this is a situation that happens more often than not in anime and probably doesn’t seem important until you notice the trend.
I love how refreshingly adamant Thanos is. He kills someone he considers a daughter all for the sake of forwarding his agenda. As an anime fan, this is something I really appreciated for one single reason: he actually stuck to his guns! Anime villains have an annoying habit of changing their convictions at the last minute, and sometimes it feels really unsatisfying. Pain from NARUTO SHIPPUDEN comes to mind when I think about this.
NARUTO built Pain and the rest of the Akatsuki up for years. Each Akatsuki member showcased jaw-dropping strength and awesome abilities, but Pain stood tall above his followers. He impacted the series profoundly by killing major characters like Jiraiya and Kakashi. He also challenged Naruto’s ideologies and beliefs with his own personal tragedies. The two played each other’s foils well, and it felt like they would battle to the death to defend their clashing convictions. However, the bitter enemies talked their differences out at the last minute. Pain then used his powers to revive everyone he killed after entering the Hidden Leaf Village. This essentially undid his entire impact on the series and annoyed a lot of fans.
Although it might seem like a minor thing to point out, having a truly adamant villain makes a world of a difference.
How Anime Villains Can Improve for the Future
Creating a quality villain is a lot easier said than done. Arguably the biggest problem with villains is that they make for dishonest storytelling. When you think about it, a villain never stands a chance at killing the protagonist like they always claim to. If they did, then there wouldn’t be much point to making the series.
As a result, villains create a false narrative by making you believe the false truths they tell. Anime villains are particularly guilty of this. Anime villains Lust and Envy from FULL METAL ALCHEMIST talked a big game but couldn’t live up to their own hype. Same goes for Yashiro from ERASED. He started out strong but Yashiro’s promising character felt underwhelming by the end of the series.
Rest assured though anime fans, because these problems are fixable. Marvel’s Thanos shows us some refreshing ways to solve the false narratives anime villains voice. Start by having villains with simpler goals. Hisoka from HUNTER X HUNTER is a good model because his goal is so simple it’s almost impossible to botch. He just wants to have fun! Couple this with an insatiable appetite for bloodlust and you have a recipe for an intriguing villain. Next is to make sure your villain is heterogeneous. Give me more Itachi from NARUTO SHIPPUDEN and less Kid Buu from DRAGON BALL Z. Lastly, make sure your villain has the guts to carry out their plan. Don’t cop-out at the last minute like Pain. Fully commit to your plan like Light Yagami did in DEATH NOTE. All of these elements working together in harmony can create a brighter future for anime villains.
Featured Image Courtesy of Dragon Ball Wiki