Avengers: Endgame’s Thanos is a man freed from his obsessive belief that he’s destined to save the universe through mass genocide because he’s accomplished his goal. It’s a twisted idea that works perfectly for the grand story the MCU’s been building to, but it’s a pale comparison to the villain’s macabre and fascinating motivations in Marvel’s comics.
The anthropomorphic embodiment of Death has been a close companion of Thanos’ since he first appeared in Marvel’s comics back in 1973, and she’s played a pivotal role in more than a few of the Mad Titan’s plans for universal conquest and destruction. Death has been, more often than not, the inspiration for Thanos’ actions because, in most tellings, he loves her and believes her to have the capacity to love him if only he could prove his worthiness to her. But what Thanos has never exactly understood about Death is that, as much time as she spends with him, she’s got a vast and dynamic life of her own.
One of the more clever sleights of hand Marvel Studios pulled off in the long buildup to Avengers: Endgame was tipping its hat to Thanos’ comics-canon obsession with the personification of Death before ultimately pivoting to a story about the Mad Titan’s quest to restore balance to the universe.
In the character’s mid-credit scene from 2012's The Avengers, Thanos’ minion tells him “to challenge [the humans] is to court death” which had many Marvel Comics fans excited at the prospect of the comic story playing out on the big screen.
While the concept of death is very much a part of the MCU and arguably the driving force that sparks Endgame into motion, Marvel Comics’ Lady Death has yet to show her face, and there’s a chance she never will. But as this chapter of the Avengers saga comes to a close, significant, lasting deaths are almost certain to come with it.
Because Death is the cosmic embodiment of death, it’s fair to say that she’s an ever-present entity in every single one of Marvel’s comics where someone dies, but over the years she’s demonstrated a habit of becoming uniquely involved in the lives of certain individuals she finds interesting for one reason or another. The most obvious example, of course, being Thanos, who’s carried a murderous torch for the deadly avatar for thousands of years.
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You could be forgiven for forgetting Death’s first anthropomorphized appearance in Captain Marvel #26 where she accompanies Thanos in his latest attempt to conquer Earth. Here, Death doesn’t really do all that much aside from stand there and exude a creepy vibe. But it’s established that she does have an affinity for him that’s gone on to become an important part of both of their respective mythos.
Death is a woman of few words, and so she’s perfectly fine with letting Thanos do most of the talking. All of his megalomaniacal theatrics, he explains at one point, are his desperate attempt at pleasing Death and, tight-lipped as Death tends to be, all Thanos can really do is keep killing people until his mistress finally deigns to speak to him and let him know that he’s finally pleased her.
Over the years, Thanos’ romantic fixation on Death has become the thing that most defines her in many people’s minds again, because she’s not talkative about what it is she personally wants. In reality though, Death’s bond with Thanos is part of a much larger story about how she’s always served an important universal function and been fascinated by those with the potential to impact the fundamental balance between life and death.
As a lonely obsessive with the skill and capability of murdering people on a massive scale, Thanos is Death’s ideal kind of supplicant because he simply won’t stop killing until something or someone does him in first. As an additional bonus for Death, Thanos is regularly thwarted by the universe’s heroes meaning that Thanos’ campaign, in theory, could be drawn out indefinitely so long as there are those strong enough to fend him off. Because Death’s long game is, by definition, longer than Thanos’, and the universe is an awfully large place with plenty of stuff going on, she’s spent significant chunks of time away from him. It’s in those moments where Death becomes a much more interesting character.
While Death is, technically speaking, responsible for ushering people into the afterlife, her true purpose (like that of all of Marvel’s abstract entities) is to keep the story of the larger universe moving forward. Ironically, that means ensuring death never too gets out of control and that certain important people are brought back from the dead.
In Marvel’s first Contest of Champions, for example, Death agrees to a wager with the Grandmaster involving a majority of Earth’s heroes who find themselves under the cosmic beings’ control. Should the Grandmaster’s team of heroes defeat Death’s in battle, she vows to bring his brother, the Collector, back to the land of the living. Should Death win, however, she promises to extend the lifespan of Earth’s sun.
The entire plot is a rather convoluted soap opera about the Grandmaster and other Elders of the universe attempting to trick Death into granting them immortality and, surprisingly, their plan works to a certain extent. Eventually, a number of the Elders meet their end thanks to intervention by the In-Betweener and Galactus under circumstances that Death is deeply disturbed by, but the important takeaway from the entire ordeal is that, inevitable as death is, Death isn’t entirely infallible in her day to day decisions.
In a certain light, Death’s occasional slip-ups can be seen as a reflection of the comparatively large amount of time she spends getting involved in mortal lives in ways that other conceptual beings - like her brother Eternity - tend not to. Heroes like Deadpool and Ben Reilly who frequently come back from the dead (and in Deadpool’s case, are aware of the fact that he and Death are comic book characters) fascinate Death because they’re the sorts of existential anomalies that come once in a lifetime.
In them, Death has an opportunity to kick around in the mortal sandbox and have the kinds of fun that other abstract concepts can’t really understand because they’ve never allowed themselves to live among mortals quite the way she does.
While Death has never explicitly stated it, the time she’s spent with the living could very well be one of the reasons that, lately, she’s begun attempting to work with other people much in the same way she has with Thanos to usher in new unprecedented eras of death. This is particularly notable because a newer part of Thanos and Death’s canonical comics relationship is that in moments when the pair are together, he’s the only person that can see her.
In Jason Aaron and Simone Bianchi’s Thanos Rising, which is set before the events of Thanos’ first actual comics appearance, it’s explained that Death has been a companion of Thanos’ since his earliest days on Titan, long before he became a force of cosmic destruction. Unlike his fellow Eternals, Thanos naturally gravitated toward violence not out of any inherent evil necessarily, but because he was a brilliant sociopath born into a world that wasn’t equipped to understand and deal with his destructive impulses.
Death plays a large part in encouraging Thanos to embrace his true self during his formative years, and for most of his life, the Titan sees Death as the one person (like an actual flesh and blood person) from his homeworld who always had faith in him. The revelation that no one else can see Death the way he does shakes Thanos to his core, but Thanos Rising establishes that he’s able to power through his doubts and continue on his quest to pursue Death.
In order for Death to accept Thanos as her one true love, the Mad Titan would have to snuff out all life in the universe, a concept that’s explored over the course of Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato Jr.’s recent Thanos series which, unsurprisingly, is...complicated, to put it lightly. After being away from Thanos for some time, Death concocts a scheme to turn his son Thane into the latest Avatar of the Phoenix, making him powerful enough to take his father head-on. Thanos (shocker) wins, and much to Death’s surprise, Thanos rebuffs her advances, but they both understand that after what she’s done, they’re really both in the home stretch towards something that neither of them really want.
After millennia of lusting for Death, present-day Thanos understands that his obsession is, in a way, his greatest weakness and unbefitting of someone who sees themselves as a god the way he does. After being pulled into the distant future by a desperate, older version of himself seeking to finally take her hand in marriage, Thanos vows to erase that potential timeline from ever existing. Death, for her part, is wholly unconcerned with Thanos’ crisis of the soul because, and this can’t be stated enough, she’s got her own shit to do, and everyone knows that Thanos will always be around if she ever gets bored and needs someone to pass the time with.
[Spoilers to follow for this week’s Thanos #1.]
It’s that idea that makes Death’s appearance in this week’s Thanos #1, from Tini Howard and Ariel Olivetti, so intriguing because even though the series is set in Thanos’ past, it reveals that she’s played a significant role in his adoptive daughter Gamora’s life as well. In a flashback to the moment when Thanos first met Gamora, the Titan is stunned to learn that the young girl is able to see Death just as clearly as he does.
Gamora’s seeing Death casts Thanos’ decision to adopt her and eventually favour Gamora over his other children in a fascinating new light because there’s no telling what his specific motivation is. More than that, though, this also raises interesting questions about what, if any, plans Death has for the deadliest woman in the galaxy. Gamora’s the person to most recently kill Thanos, and has since set off on her own quest to gain the Infinity Stones, suggesting that Gamora might have been Death’s endgame failsafe all along.
Regardless of how Gamora’s story plays out, everything leading up to its climax will have been influenced by Death’s presence in her life, which is a testament to the abstract’s influence and the fact that she’s larger than any one specific plot line.
With Thanos’ MCU time likely coming to a close with Endgame, it’s unlikely Marvel Studios will ever choose to bring Death into the film universe, at least not in the form we’re most familiar with. But potentially, if Thanos dies, that could very well be just the thing that brings the Avengers to Death’s attention and maybe, just maybe necessitate her to begin paying closer attention to the role they play in the universe’s future.