(Note: This post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War.”)
It took 10 years and 19 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Thanos to make his play to wreck the universe in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and one big lingering question is, why’d he wait so long?
After all, Thanos (Josh Brolin) is ludicrously powerful. In “Infinity War,” we see him barely break a sweat kicking the Hulk’s ass, fight off the combined might of dozens of heroes more than once, and oh yeah, hold infinity stones in his hands without being vaporized. He’s so powerful that he manages to get his hands on all six Infinity Stones pretty much in a day or so.
But if he could stomp his way through everything Earth’s mightiest heroes could throw at him, why is he just now doing it? Why, prior to “Infinity War,” in “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” did Thanos rely on other villains to get the stones for him?
According to “Infinity War” directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Chris Markus and Steve McFeely in the “Infinity War” commentary track, the answer to those questions begins with Thanos’ two adopted daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). (Here’s everything else we learned from the “Infinity War” director commentary.)
As explained in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Nebula hated Gamora growing up because Thanos would force the two to fight each other. The loser of a fight was punished by having a body part replaced with cybernetics to make her stronger, and Nebula always lost to Gamora. Thanos also routinely humiliated Nebula by comparing her constantly to Gamora in front of everyone else.
This abuse led them to both escape from and oppose Thanos during the events of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and in “Guardians 2,” they finally put aside their differences and become allies. Nebula then vows to try and kill Thanos, and free his other “adopted” children.
During “Infinity War,” we learn she made good on that vow, only to be captured. Thanos then searched around in her robot brain, and as we see during the scene with Thanos, Gamora and Nebula, discovered a memory recording of Gamora telling Nebula that she destroyed the map to the Soul Stone to keep it out of Thanos’ hands.
That, according to McFeely in the commentary, was “the catalyst for the whole movie.” Having “figured out where the Soul Stone was because he captured Nebula on his ship and rooted around in her brain and found out that Gamora knew where the Soul Stone was,” Thanos is inspired to finally make his play for universal domination.
But why? In the commentary, Joe Russo explained further: “The reason why [Thanos] has not gone after the stones before is because the minute he does, the forces of the universe are gonna line up against him. If he doesn’t know where the Soul Stone is, then what is the point.”
In other words, if the people of the universe were tipped off to the fact that the big scary guy with a huge army was seeking godlike power, they could have mobilized to beat him. So, when he acted openly, he needed accomplish his aims as quickly as possible. Thanos might be incredibly powerful after all, but he’s not invincible, and neither are the armies and lieutenants who serve him – the longer it takes him to find all six stones, the more time there is for his enemies to stop him. Which is why he preferred to use proxies before now.
And until he knew the location of the Soul Stone, that necessary quickness wasn’t an option.
It’s ironic that Gamora’s unwillingness to see Nebula tortured inadvertently doomed the universe. But that’s in keeping with the Mad Titan’s M.O. — he always forces his enemies to choose between killing someone they love, or letting him get what he wants, and every time it pays off.
Then again, refusing to accept Thanos’ sadistic choice might end up being the only way the heroes can defeat him in the long term, if Doctor Strange is any guide.