The first age of Thanos could be said to have occurred in the 1970s, in the pages of Jim Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Warlock. Compared to what followed, the grim Titan’s ambitions were rather ‘modest’; grab the Cosmic Cube, become effectively a minor deity, and take control of Earth in the process. In these stories, mood was arguably almost as important as plot, as Starlin used Thanos as the shadowy counterpoint to his colourful heroes on their cosmic, mind-expanding trips. Plots were not always resolved in a logical fashion, but that mattered less than the ruminations on duality and individuality, and as always in the case of Thanos, fawning lover of Mistress Death, an overwhelming yearning for attention.
The second age of Thanos occurred in the early 1990s, with Starlin returning his creation in the pages of Silver Surfer, and carrying him on into Thanos Quest, and the villain’s most famous hour, The Infinity Gauntlet. Now the grim visage was gone, replaced with a toothy, malicious smile. And Thanos’ reach was greater, with the infinity gems in hand, the Titan was now the most powerful being in the universe. The most enduring image of Thanos from this era is him standing in the depths of space, a grin on his face and unlimited power in his hands, imploring Earth’s heroes to come and get him. But the amplification of Thanos as a threat was in service to another development, the rise of the ‘Marvel Event’, of which 1985’s Secret Wars had been the blueprint. A souped-up Thanos became the reason for most of Marvel’s heroes to team up in an attempt to save all there is, with the ripples of the conflict intruding into many of Marvel’s other titles. The commercial strategies of Marvel’s events over the course of the 2000s owe much to Secret Wars and Starlin’s Infinity books.
You will not see much of Thanos in the first issue of Infinity, despite his cover-star status. But he is undoubtedly the focal point of the series, and within this issue you can see elements of both of the aforementioned ages of Thanos, albeit probably more of the second than the first. Thanos is again in the shadows—which admittedly, likely owes as much to the closing credits of the Avengers flick as Starlin’s ‘70s work—and Earth again seems to be the focus of his attention, at least for now. But as trumpeted on the first page, this is very much ‘A Marvel Comics Event’, in the vein of The Infinity Gauntlet. Earth’s heroes have gathered again, and the conflict is set to spill over into Marvel’s other offerings, as shown in the well-designed checklist at the issue’s end. But more than that, this is not a comic for readers to contemplate like those Captain Marvel and Warlock issues; it is a comic of action, of happenings, of events piled up one after another in rapid succession.
Infinity #1 has over a dozen scenes, set on four different planets, with over fifty different character headshots on its cast list. One probably should not expect a series called Infinity to be anything other than large in scale and scope, but this grand canvas does have its strengths and weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses have already become apparent in writer Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers series (of which Infinity is largely a continuation), which often threatens to collapse under its sheer weight of characters and concepts. For one, I have found it hard to feel like I know the characters in Avengers, or that they mean something to me, and like many event-based books, characters here are primarily used to further the action rather than explored in their own right. And with the artists set to change from issue to issue, the series will likely, by contrast to Thanos’ 1970s appearances, seem even less like the work of a singular artistic vision, and more like a utilitarian product. Even past Marvel events such as House of M, and Civil War, for all of their numerous offshoot chapters, had stories with clear, unified themes at their core. If Infinity has a central theme buried underneath its various happenings I am yet to find it.
On the other hand, on the basis of this opening chapter, there look to be aspects to positively distinguish Infinity in comparison to past Marvel events. Its large cast aside, it seems more focused than recent Marvel events, in part through it having less crossover books, but also through it fitting naturally into Hickman’s long-term plans for the Avengers, rather than seeming like the product of the latest Marvel writers’ retreat. And Hickman’s vast tapestry of plots is an intriguing one; as of yet I can’t see how the twin threats of Thanos and the Builders will eventually interconnect, and it will be interesting to see how this occurs.
Where often event-based books are hollow at their core, this one suggests layers. The Infinity Gauntlet in particular often descended into mere sound and fury; I cannot see Infinity falling into the same trap of mistaking pretentiousness for meaning. In part, this is because as I have suggested above, finding meaning is not Infinity’s intent, it cares not a jot whether you are inspired by it, only that you are interested enough to find out what happens next. Those teaser movie credits began the third age of Thanos, and Infinity is the promise of those credits writ large.