There are two common complaints I hear of Jim Starlin's version of his character Thanos:
1) "He's just fan fiction: he's always made more powerful or smarter than everyone he ever meets."
2) "Starlin just retcons everything he doesn't like."
I'm here to do what I can to poke and prod at these ideas as best I'm able.
There’s actually a third complaint, but it’s so completely in defiance of how Starlin writes the character that I don’t think it’s worth categorizing the same way. This is essentially that common description of Thanos as “Death-worshiping nice guy who can’t take a hint and wants to destroy the universe”.
Let’s start with that, as it forms the basis of everything wrong with the other comments.
Thanos is (or was, pre-MCU) most known for one story, really: The Infinity Gauntlet. Everyone remembers how it was a story of Thanos trying to impress Death like a loser and then losing the ultimate power. Some get hazy and think the heroes stopped him (they didn’t--all of them who went up against him, because he was powered as a god, died--with a handful of exceptions, those exceptions gaining no more ground). Some have even said Nebula joined the heroes to stop him (!!).
What seems to almost inevitably escape every synopsis I ever read is that incredibly crucial page that Ron Lim drew with such fantastic expressions of shock and denial on the Mad Titan’s face: the one where Warlock tells him he knows his soul better than he himself does. This is often re-written as “an excuse”, and becomes the kernel mis-attributing all of this to “Starlin won’t ever let Thanos be beaten”. In truth: the point of this is character development. Is there evidence of this? Obviously. Look at every single story Starlin wrote about him after this.
This is the fulcrum; this is the point where Starlin drops Thanos as “universe-ending mega-threat”, but that everyone--including seemingly every other writer, contemporaneously or since--forgets. He doesn’t become an outright hero (though he proceeds to act to save all of existence repeatedly, also mystifyingly forgotten), and his personality does not perform a 180, but he is no longer invested in ultimate power--he actually takes Adam’s words to heart.
In the midst of Infinity War, there’s an episode that he may or may not have imagined: Death comes to speak to him, to encourage him to take out Warlock for her (seeding his existence as the increasingly “formal” champion of Life to Thanos’s “champion of Death”). He chooses, even after she has spoken to him--though he, too, is not entirely convinced this actually occurs--to defy her. This is quite thoroughly the end of the immaturity of this obsession. In the main story, he’s speaking of her somewhat coldly, distantly (bringing the Infinity Watch to her palace--maybe with a little too much “I don’t care!” to be believed) and otherwise not at all. This is no longer his drive.
It's laid out bare at the end of that series, as he faces his scarecrow self, with no witnesses:
"And what now are you, Lord Thanos? Hero? Villain? Neither? Maybe just wiser.
"The Magus would have held firm to ultimate power had he gained a solid grip on it. He would not have subconsciously surrendered it like I...in days past. Now? Who knows.
"Gamora was correct--changes are taking place within me. Even old dogs can learn new tricks. With insight one's horizons widen. As I always said, knowledge is power.
"Lessons learned: the one true victory. Perhaps now Thanos could retain ultimate power were he to gain it again. But do I still crave such an exotic dish? I suspect future event will answer that rhetorical query."
I want to be clear here: this is 1992. There’s approximately one other story about Thanos someone else has written at this point, and that’s “The Final Flower”, the back-up story from Logan’s Run #6. Yes, Ron Marz has taken over Silver Surfer at this point, and quite honestly his Thanos is not quite keeping up with the developments in The Infinity Gauntlet or War, but otherwise Starlin has kept his hold on the character almost entirely up to this point. He’s established that Thanos has deviated from his previous pursuit of power. He’s established an end to his obsession with Death, whether it be the Mistress Herself, or the idea of killing everyone.
And so our divergence comes. We’ve got Joe Kelly in Deadpool. Mark Waid (partly unintentionally due to some background shenanigans) in Kazar. Ron Marz still a touch in Cosmic Powers. Dan Jurgens in Thor. Englehart in The Celestial Quest.
Every one of these stories comes after Thanos’s signature story and its follow-ups (including The Infinity Crusade, and his interactions in Warlock and the Infinity Watch) that make clear that this character has changed. And they all ignore them. Every single one reverts him to the one-note, one-motivation “He wants to kill everyone and be powerful” mentality.
And now we really get to those complaints.
You see--Starlin’s retcons? Where he said Jurgens’s story was a "Thanosi", and Waid’s? Well, those two writers (and the rest) already retconned Starlin’s own character development. He wrote Thanos--while no one else, with the exception of Marz was writing him--out of the personalities all those writers stuffed right back into him with no explanation. He took the time to reference those stories, and explain why they still happened but didn’t fit. Because they truly didn’t fit--while none of the rest of them justified why he was back to the old personality. The Thanos who stepped away from his obsession with Death and power wouldn’t fit in those stories, but that’s the Thanos that those writers had been left with.
So in all of this, we’ve got the idea that Starlin is trying to make his baby (and let’s not pretend Thanos isn’t his baby--he absolutely is, and he’s clearly protective) “the bestest” and “the strongest” and the whatever else--I’ve read this complaint for years. Was he trying to prevent Thor from beating Thanos--or was he trying to keep his character moving along the path he'd created for him that everyone was ignoring?
What all those complaints seem to fail to recognize is that the points on his strength aren’t to make him “the bestest”, they’re to develop his character and place in the universe. They aren’t about “he can beat 12 Celestials with his hand tied behind his back”, and the infinity gauntlet wasn’t created to be an artifact to be stronger than everybody else--those were all built in to look at characters (Thanos and Warlock) who exist on another plane of power but who still have human traits. What does a petulant, flawed being look like and do when given ultimate power? What does fighting a god-like being mean for the regular heroes of the Marvel universe--or even the cosmic ones? What is it like to have someone so powerful driven by nihilistic madness, or really questionable "love" of an abstract, destructive force? What does this "Thanos" do with ultimate power?
You can have a Galactus miniseries (we’ve had them!) but unless you go back to Galan, he’s still an alien, cosmic force, distant from humanity as we understand it. Thanos and Warlock are the grand operatic forces that exist away from the regular Marvel heroes, not to exist in a “who could beat who” scale, but to make them grander scale stories. It’s the reason you don’t have Spider-Man regularly tangle with Terrax or Annihilus (or Thor regularly fighting Wilson Fisk). Starlin had long since established he existed at a power level Marvel’s regular heroes could not contend with--there’s no real exception to this in any story until other writers took on the character, 25 years after his creation. In the Cosmic Cube event, it’s akin to Spider-Man facing Juggernaut when Mar-Vell pulls off that win--and that’s a character Jim had nurtured into the “cosmically aware”, vaguely psychedelic version that he made famous. When Warlock turns Thanos to stone in the first infinity (née soul) gem affair, it’s after all the other heroes have failed utterly, and Warlock himself is dead. Is it pulling out the rug to make those hair’s-breadth defeats a product of Thanos’s self-sabotage?
Only if you’re obsessed with “who can beat who.” If you come at it from that perspective, this is the only conclusion to draw: "Starlin must be upset by the idea that anyone can beat his creation, so he pretended no one did." But he wrote every single one of those stories himself, using characters he’d raised into their most famous and lasting impressions. “Counter Earth Jesus” is a nostalgic, of-an-era take on Adam Warlock. “Soap opera co-star with Medic Una” is a Captain Marvel I’m not sure I’ve heard much of anyone talk about. So what if this isn’t about “who can beat who”, but about establishing the fact that Thanos just isn’t an “Avengers villain”? What if he’s not “a mega-villain” at all? What if he’s some sort of unusual in-between--neither at the level of any of the “regular” heroes and villains, nor fully progressed to an abstract force of the universe? Not an Elder, existing in an archetypal state of aloof distance and power concentrated into a single, mystical, cosmic level--but the kind of being who can operate near those folks and works in the universe at a similar level of power, while being more “human”? In this sense--rather like the Silver Surfer with his conscience returned.
It's probably worth pointing out that The Thanos Quest may well be the finest crystallization of Thanos as opponent: he has immense power, but it's not his power that defeats the elders. It's cunning and planning and scheming that get him past everyone. And as seen in other stories like "Yule Memory" and his exchanges with Gamora in Warlock and the Infinity Watch, there's a lot more going on behind him than just "Megalomaniacal life-hater" (including a metric shit tonne of denial of his own emotions). Indeed, The Infnity Abyss has the line that encapsulates this most perfectly, I've always felt:
"But fortunately, Thanos's most dangerous weapon is his mind. It is entirely in the planning. All battles are won or lost before ever the first blow is struck. Execution is mere formality."
I’m not saying this is an impenetrable, guaranteed argument that “he doesn’t want anyone to beat his character” is “factually incorrect”, but rather that perspective matters in looking at these things. If you come away still convinced that’s the only reason for the stories--well, have at you, then!
But this is so fundamental to all of these stories--even in Iron Man #55, Drax is the real contender for Thanos himself, not Tony--that it seems strange to me to insist that he must operate at the same level as every “other villain”. Indeed, I would argue his role simply isn’t that of “villain for Marvel heroes” and almost every problem stemming from the character originates in the insistence that he be exactly that--a villain--anyway. He's supporting antihero or direct protagonist in most stories from The Thanos Quest onward, unless someone else is writing.
And it seems stranger yet that stories which flatten a character who was progressing and developing are often less harshly dealt with as "retcons" than the complaints lobbed at a writer who’s been nurturing a character for decades into something that allows for stories that function in the same universe without having to be directly interactive with the expected characters. When he picks up Earthbound heroes in The Infinity Abyss, it’s with that grudging respect of others from his home star system. The same in Infinity War and Crusade (where he treats them as so much cannon fodder, because of course he does).
In closing, perhaps the most maddening to me is that The End was rendered non-canon, despite being integral to what comes after it (the half-Starlin, half-Giffen Thanos “maxi-series”, which leads directly into Drax the Destroyer which leads directly into Annihilation). It's the realization of all of the personality exploration that Thanos was going through: the final answer to that question he asked himself--a maturation of Thanos as a being into one who finally understands the responsibility of ultimate power, an acceleration not to raise the stakes yet again and make him even more the "bestest", but to try to enact (rather futilely) a lasting change, in stopping the "revolving door" of death in the Marvel universe. A noble sacrifice to maintain consistency--where once he would save the universe out of a sense of self-interest ("I merely wish to safeguard the sanctity of my own reality."), he now sacrifices even himself in the interest of that reality--and for this is given his first boon of Mistress Death (much more in keeping with her established personality than Kelly's intercession...)
I’ve seen people say Thanos is boring and always after the same thing, or that Giffen changed things by making him seek redemption (I love Giffen and think that, especially, his 6 issues in that series really lived up to where Starlin had been taking the character)--when Jim did it at the end of the fucking Infinity Gauntlet back in 1991. Nevermind that he started Thanos on the path in #1-6 of the same series before Giffen took it over. But everyone just forgot or ignored it, and then complained when he tried to keep this character on a consistent path instead of continually being reduced to "angry, Death-obsessed thug" (still the most common encapsulation of the character).
It wasn't even obscured--alongside the other quotations above, there's this exchange with Magus in Infinity War (#1):
Magus: "You now protect what you once sought to decimate? What does reality mean to one such as you?"
Thanos: "Much in recent months."
Magus: "This does not sound like the Thanos I knew of old."
Thanos: "He has been replaced by a creature with different priorities."
Magus: "A revelation?"
Thanos: "Of sorts. As you do now, I once strove for ultimate power."
Magus: "Why do you think that my goal?"
Thanos: "You already possess vast energies, yet I still see hunger in your eyes."
Magus: "You speak as a kindred soul and an anxious competitor?"
Thanos: "I've already had my taste of omnipotence. I found it impossible to keep down. Ultimate might was not meant for beings such as ourselves."
This is my greatest personal torture in the realms of interaction over fiction I hold dear. I don’t ask that anyone come away only with my interpretation and understanding, or genuflect to Starlin as the ultimate Thanos writer (given that I think no one else has bothered with the actual character--excepting Giffen and then Peter David in some Captain Marvel issues, and some valiant attempts from Marz--this is more "default" truth than emphatically earned. When someone else writes the character with these kinds of changes and dimensions in mind, let's talk then), nor to hold this character as dearly as I, but merely that folks consider that “who can beat who” and “what’s the greatest level of power” aren’t the only ways of looking at these stories, nor this character. I'd argue, in fact, they are the wrong ways to look at these stories and this character, given how the stories are written, really not even about fights and "who can win"/"who is stronger", but the ubiquitous metaphysical and psychological ruminations of Starlin that naturally stem from an idle thought of personifying the eros and the thanatos in the first place. Not to suggest it's incredibly deep, magical insight--but that madness and how people think and feel and work and how that relates to the cosmos is the core of his writing and the characters he comes up with.
For me: Thanos is interesting because he changes and progresses--at least when he’s left in the hands of his creator. And as a side note, I think placing him in a different "plane" from Marvel's other heroes and villains is necessary for this to work. Stuffing him back in as a villain almost requires stripping away the rest of that entirely.
(And yes: this means I've been ignoring Thanos stories for the last ten years as hard as I can. The "he's a ruthless ultra-powerful thug" thing doesn't interest me at all--especially because it's in defiance of what made him interesting to me in the first place, and hammers down all that development until it's just the same, bland, one-note boring "character" forever. Endless missed opportunities.)