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Is Thanos the victim of his own success?
When the first Avengers: Infinity War trailer dropped in November, the major social media takeaways were surprisingly consistent across the board: Captain America’s (Chris Evans) beard is truly majestic and Thanos looks … a little underwhelming. Now that the film is out, Josh Brolin is earning praise for his surprisingly sensitive performance as the Mad Titan, a villain determined to become the most powerful being in the universe. But there’s also a feeling among some that Thanos isn’t as terrifying as he should be.
Ironically, Thanos’ problem may be that he looks too faithful to his comic book appearance. Critics often judge the quality of adaptation in terms of sheer faithfulness to a source, but Thanos’ Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance shines a light on the shortcomings of this approach. What works for Thanos in the pages of a comic translates onscreen to looking rather like a generic purple cave troll.
When trying to explain why Thanos looks the way he does, it’s easy to point to the comics. His MCU appearance sticks relatively true to his illustrated appearance, as created in 1973 by Jim Starlin. But film is a far cry from still line drawings. In order to best translate the spirit of a comic book character, adapting one to a new medium often requires a degree of interpretation.
Sometimes, truly honoring the spirit of an adapted character requires embracing aesthetic modifications to best suit the different strengths, weaknesses and capabilities of the new medium. The ultimate appeal of CGI is that it opens up a world of possibilities where the only limits are the reach of one’s imagination — and budget, of course. And with these limitless possibilities available, Infinity War chose to make Thanos look basically human — a slightly overlarge, purple-skinned human with a somewhat line-marked face.
Upon closer inspection, there is actually a decided irony here, because when trying to understand why Marvel would choose such a truly unremarkable look for a villain the MCU has been hyping for a decade, we have to take a look at the typical attitudes taken toward CGI. While the fundamental appeal of CGI is the freedom to create, when we discuss what films actually do with CGI, the thing that most coverage highlights, first and foremost, is verisimilitude — how it succeeds or fails at looking “real.” Thanos is the dark side of our obsession with CGI realism — because, objectively, he looks fairly realistic.
To explain why, we need to move from talking about bad examples of CGI evildoers to what is arguably the best one of all: Gollum (Andy Serkis) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gollum debuted onscreen in 2002, and while CGI has taken huge strides sense then, few would go back and watch the film and say, “Wow, Gollum’s CGI totally ruins it for me.” One of the key reasons why the character has aged remarkably well, beyond Serkis’ brilliant performance, is that his appearance fundamentally leans into the “limitations” of CGI where many others try to run away.
The Uncanny Valley, a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, but now more frequently discussed in reference to computer animation, refers to the way observers tend to find robots and other, specifically animated, human representations disturbing once they hit a certain level of realism. The only way to get around the Uncanny Valley while still pursuing realism is to reach a level of verisimilitude such that the viewer is genuinely fooled.
The term pulls from the Freudian notion of the “uncanny,” a specific breed of horror involving a particular push-pull of repulsion and attraction — the sort of terrifying strangeness where said strangeness is fundamentally linked to an eerie familiarity.
Gollum is the sort of creature that thrives in his place on the edge of the Uncanny Valley. With his unsettlingly large eyes, corpse-like pallor, and hunched, emaciated form, the ways in which he looks “not right” — because he is a computer animated creature in a live-action movie — play off of and feed into the unsettling nature of his character. And the most impressive and memorable CGI villains and monsters consistently display this quality.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation might not have had an MCU-sized budget, and as such, in terms of sheer photo-realism, the mysterious beings in The Shimmer can’t compete. But Annihilation wholeheartedly embraced the uncanniness of CGI, and the result is a particularly unsettling, yet hypnotically engaging, visual experience.
Great villains are uncanny. While evildoers are repulsive for their deeds, the best of them simultaneously maintain some allure — perhaps because they are weirdly charming, admirably clever or sympathetically pitiable.
CGI is fundamentally uncanny, and conventional wisdom thus far has been to try to escape and avoid this uncanniness in the never-ending quest for perfect “realism.” Perhaps a change in mind-set, especially when it comes to the crafting of villains, is in order. This is not to say that achieving some degree of verisimilitude to allow for the suspension of disbelief should not remain important, rather, the Uncanny Valley ought to be viewed a double-edged sword instead of merely an obstacle to be overcome.
What if Thanos’ eyes had an oscillating glow to them? What if they were unnaturally far apart or looked more reptilian? What if his teeth weren’t perfectly straight and even, and looked slightly more carnivorous? (Seriously, Thanos has the teeth of an herbivore; no one is scared of herbivores.) What if his skeletal structure and musculature were just a little bit different, considering he’s an alien? Ironically, the members of the Black Order, the Mad Titan’s henchmen, look far more formidable than their boss — and aesthetically, decidedly less human. The eerily gaunt, nose-less Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) stands out as particularly unsettling, and this is not a coincidence.
Let’s be honest here, people aren’t going to Infinity War for Thanos. Audiences are showing up first and foremost for the witty banter and battles of wills among the MCU’s various heroes, and Thanos is the excuse for getting the whole team together. He ends up proving to be more formidable an opponent than his design suggests, but the aesthetic problem remains: In the MCU, Thanos has Earth’s mightiest heroes quaking in their boots, but in reality, the internet has literally been laughing at his face for the past six months, and that’s a pretty jarring contrast. Audiences might not be laughing anymore, now that they’ve actually seen Thanos in action, but the dissonance between his appearance and the nature of his character ultimately still undermines his status as a formidable foe.
When it comes to crafting truly formidable CGI villains, maybe it’s time to start seeing the uncanny nature of CGI as something that can be potentially utilized to a character’s advantage, as opposed to just being avoided at all costs.
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