Monday, March 27, 2017

For Death I Stand!

The Infinity Gauntlet, a six-issue series from mid-1991, was the main event in a crossover of comics titles coordinated to return the evil Thanos of Titan to the land of the living after an absence of over a decade. At first glance, the gauntlet represents another grab at ultimate power by Thanos, who has already failed once in such an attempt and whose follow-up scheme, though less in scope (if you can call committing "stellar genocide" by destroying all the stars in the universe a downgrade), eventually led to his death at the searing hands of Warlock. And by the time this new series reaches its end, it acknowledges and virtually sets in stone the underlying reason for why such power plays fail, in both the past and the future: that Thanos subconsciously supplies the means to his own defeat because he knows that he isn't worthy of such power. While that may be a handy rationale to call on when Thanos's scheme du jour has played itself out and it's time for the hero(es) to triumph, it doesn't really suit this being who has been made to be so ruthless and murderous. One doesn't usually go to such lengths to attain ultimate power, only to toss in the towel after achieving it.

As a result, arguably only two things of significance occur in this series. As far as the primary conflict, Nebula--the granddaughter of Thanos* who's certainly power-hungry in her own right--turns the tables on Thanos and emerges as the main threat. But in addition, Warlock as well is brought back from the dead (but not quite dead), groomed to make the transition to his own series on the heels of this one, a series based on the Infinity Gems. Dealt in as window dressing are not only a host of Marvel characters gathered to lead the charge against Thanos, but also a number of prominent universal abstract entities and cosmic beings that naturally rate an issue of their own to confront and battle the Titan. Present also is the silent but (appropriately) deadly personification of Death, again a fixture in the motivations of Thanos.

*Let's not take the time to examine that family tree for now--but we'll take a crack at it one of these days!

It turns out to be Death itself that, strangely enough, is responsible for returning Thanos to life, with the series essentially breaking down thus:

  • The Silver Surfer warns Dr. Strange of the return of Thanos, due to Death having done a little arithmetic and determining that a cosmic imbalance exists because a greater ratio of people now alive exists over those who have ever died. Thanos immediately comes to mind for Death as a way to correct the imbalance, given his tendency and proficiency to cause mass destruction and (say it with me) death.
  • Death augments Thanos's might and orders him to slaughter half the sentient population of the universe. Thanos agrees to comply, but has no intention of simply being Death's thrall. And so, unknown to Death...
  • Thanos learns of the existence of the Infinity Gems and convinces Death that he cannot accomplish his task without them. Seizing them one by one, he attaches them all to a gauntlet, giving him mastery over... well, they're not called "infinity" gems for nothing. Together, they represent overwhelming might for the one who uses them.

  • In a conflict with the Surfer and Drax the Destroyer, Thanos uses the soul gem to steal their souls and thus banish them to that gem's "world," where Warlock now resides. Warlock is able to eventually return them to their own reality.
  • Mephisto (he does seem to have his hands in everything, doesn't he?) warns the Surfer of Thanos's plans, but also takes a position as Thanos's informal advisor. Meanwhile, the Surfer heads to Earth to alert Dr. Strange to the crisis.
  • Thanos, in his acquisition of the gems, finds that he has alienated Death, since the Infinity gauntlet he insisted on creating to harness the gems' might makes him her superior. On the other hand, he's now motivated to carry out the mass deaths tasked to him as a way to win back her favor.
  • Warlock and his friends, Gamora and Pip the troll, emerge from the soul world by appropriating and adapting human bodies recently involved in a fatal accident.

Once the ball gets rolling by the call to arms by Warlock and everyone getting briefed on Thanos's plans--and with the first salvo being fired by Thanos that fulfills his pact with Death, eliminating half the galaxy's population--the series reaches the point of presenting two battle-packed issues featuring those who would stop him.  The main event for readers of various Marvel titles, however, is probably the story where the super-powered beings that Warlock has called together arrive at the citadel in space that Thanos has created as a shrine to Death, part of a plan that will most likely see them meet their end.

The series is definitely tailor-made for writer Jim Starlin and artists George Pérez and Ron Lim--though Pérez would drop the book with only partial work delivered on this particular issue (#4), reportedly due to stress associated with his DC project, War of the Gods. The IG series remains quite a piece of work as a whole, even if Starlin's magnificent cover to the first issue provides us with only the briefest look at how the entire series might have looked if rendered at his own drawing board. That said, he doubtless can't complain about the talent assigned to the book in his stead.

For the bulk of this fight, Warlock and the Surfer are stationed some distance away from the hostilities, waiting for the proper moment to act as Warlock has planned. But as Warlock realizes, the lives of those who challenge Thanos head-on will almost certainly be forfeit, given the scope of the power that the demon now wields.

Mephisto having the ear of Thanos is an interesting choice by Starlin, since the demon is ill-suited as a suppliant--that is, unless he knows full well that the one he advises has power enough to dispose of a thousand Mephistos. In any event, as the captive Eros notes, Mephisto's "advice" results in this battle and the lives of those involved not being ended by Thanos in an instant, while also shockingly giving the assembled heroes an actual chance of prevailing. A slim chance at best, but one these men and women will surely try to make the most of.

(Get a good look at the Hulk, leaping out of harm's way--because you've seen his one and only fight scene.  Starlin and his art team leave him completely out of the rest of this story.)

"The plan," as Captain America refers to it, appears to amount to no more than battering Thanos with one assault after another, giving him no opportunity to regain the momentum and focus his efforts on picking them off. Unfortunately, picking them off is exactly what he seems to be doing after each assault, if not yet fatally. Other than the impression Starlin gives us that Cap is sending small, specific groups of combatants against Thanos in waves, there appears to be no tactic to the assaults beyond power vs. power. That strategy would make a great deal of sense, if Cap's intention was to achieve the one goal that would both end this fight and minimize casualties: capturing the Infinity gauntlet. Then it only becomes a matter of taking on Thanos--admittedly no small task, considering the power that Death has infused him with, but with better chances for survival than going up against the power of the gems, as well. Yet, with all the distractions that Thanos is forced to deal with by everyone coming at him--and all the powerful heavy hitters grappling with him--not one of these heroes thinks to lay hands on the gauntlet and swiftly yank it off, even given every opportunity to do so. Instead, we see a flurry of punches and pounding accomplishing nothing. Even the Vision resorts to force. And why doesn't he leave the flames to Firelord, and instead make use of his disruption ability directly on Thanos?

For all the good that would do, it seems. While Thanos now fights this battle on the heroes' terms, he still retains limitless power, as he mentions--and so his opponents' best efforts do little more than occupy him. What happens when he decides to begin ridding himself of his attackers by killing them? The Sub-Mariner and the She-Hulk, however "merciless" their assault, discover the answer all too quickly.

And then, an interesting development to what has now formally become a life-or-death situation--Dr. Doom literally makes a grab for power by seizing an opportunity to wrest the Infinity gauntlet for himself. (Finally, someone with his eye on the ball, if only in self-interest.) In the build-up to this point, it hasn't exactly been a secret to readers that Doom covets the power of the gems, though in many ways he and Thanos are two sides of the same coin in that Doom also never seems to be able to hold onto ultimate power. Doom will eventually reach a point where he ceases to conduct outright power plays in favor of more subtle (and of course devious) ways of furthering his agenda--but for now, he remains a man who desires power for power's sake, and he naturally feels the power Thanos holds is too great to be in anyone's hands but his own.

With the possible exception of the Hulk (wherever he is), everyone on the playing field acknowledges that Thor is the heroes' biggest gun here--and indeed, Eric Masterson, who wields the power of the Thunder God due to the circumstances of the real Thor's banishment, makes for a capable fighter on the battlefield. The case against Eric "filling in" for Thor perhaps boils down to the fact that Eric, as a mortal new to being a super-hero and with a mortal's disposition, has no special sense of character to bring to the table that makes him different from any of the other human heroes here, which makes it difficult to pick him out in this crowd if it weren't for his costume and hammer. The good news is that the fighting spirit and noble bearing of the real Thor would likely be used in only a token sense by Starlin or any other writer in this situation, with Thor's fighting skill allowed to make no more headway than Eric's. And so, all things considered, Eric makes for a capable stand-in--but when he's dealt with as easily as any of the others, the tone of how this fight might go for the rest of the heroes becomes crystal clear.

Given that Firelord's bark has always proven worse than his bite whenever he's clashed with Thor, it isn't surprising to see how ineffectual his "power" continues to be against Thanos once Thor is cast aside.

After Firelord is dispatched, Starlin deals in the mutant contingent of the heroes, with a nice bit of strategy on Cyclops' part in order to set up Thanos for Iron Man's strike. It's at this point, when the slaughtering by Thanos escalates, when we realize that these people are doomed--as the combatants against the Titan are taken down without mercy and slain before our eyes.

With nearly twenty pages to go in this story, Starlin avoids having this conflict amount to one big killing field all at once when Cloak's gambit changes the pace and allows the forces against Thanos to rally. (Though you'll also notice Lim's oversized panels, while nice in a visual sense, also become a boon where extending the page count is concerned.) The tone shifts more palpably to that of a last stand, and a feeling of hope that ignites in the story as a result; and while the body count continues to rise, with Iron Man's grisly end a harbinger of the end that awaits those who continue to attack, a final wave of resistance valiantly assaults Thanos and Terraxia to the last man.

While for the most part this life-and-death struggle has been well-coordinated and is quite a page-turner, we've had to take a few things for granted in order to deal in everyone and quickly segue from scene to scene. For instance, it's difficult to believe that Wolverine would put all of his eggs in one basket, freezing in place and expecting a killing strike to the chest will drop this foe. He's usually far more animated in a fight, more of a berserker, in the same way he was when he engaged the Hulk or the Wendigo. With Thanos, an enemy who's proven how dangerous he is, Wolverine could have--would have--tried a number of attacks using his claws, such as, oh, let's say decapitation; or here's a thought, how about severing the arm that has the gauntlet on it? It's also curious that Thanos would think to send Firelord and Drax to Earth's past--why would prehistoric Earth spring to mind in getting rid of these two aliens, when he has any planet in the cosmos to choose from? And what is it about Quasar that had him apparently being held in reserve? The fact that he was now the de facto Captain Marvel? As for the M.I.A. Hulk, his absence is conspicuous in the extreme. Seriously, you sideline one of your most powerful people, just when the battle is becoming desperate and he's most needed?

As for Captain America, let's for the sake of argument presume that he's inserted himself when and where needed, while coordinating everyone to follow a well-executed plan of attack that might reveal a weakness in Thanos that could be exploited. It's very plausible; but whatever the reason we haven't seen that much of him, it sets up a scene that not only spotlights Cap's courage and fortitude as the only survivor left on the field of battle, but also appears to have him working in concert with Warlock's plan. And with the stage set, at last that plan reaches fruition.

Well, better late than never for these heroes to make a move for the gauntlet--though maybe a plan better executed when all your main players were already grappling on the field with Thanos and the odds were 17-1 against him.

Having narrowly avoided total defeat, Thanos wipes the area clear of those who had banded together against him in order to prepare for the second wave of attack that Warlock signals to begin.

It's quite a display of universal entities** that confront Thanos--but as powerful as they are, will they fare any better than Earth's heroes? Once again, Starlin and Lim would put on quite a show for our $2.50--but there are twists yet to come in The Infinity Gauntlet before the dust settles.

**Name them all and you get a free comic book! (Not really!)

What th...? Nebula triumphant??


George Chambers said...

Starlin had worn out Thanos' welcome with me well before this. He (Starlin, not Thanos) always reminded me of a kid in the playground where Thanos was concerned.

"Nope! Thanos can beat anyone! Infinity +1! Nyeah, nyeah!"

The trouble with this is that it devalues many superior characters, for example, by making them fight like chumps, as Comicsfan has so clearly exposed here.

Kid said...

I bought the first two issues at the time, but never saw the remaining four in the series. Recently, however, I picked up the softcover collected edition and generally enjoyed it, despite its flaws. Mainly 'though, it was finally good to finish what I'd started over 25 years before.

Jonathan Hendry said...

"Nope! Thanos can beat anyone! Infinity +1! Nyeah, nyeah!"

Yep, any Thanos "event" boils down to "Thanos wins, then somehow everything gets reset to the status quo ante."

Comicsfan said...

Kid, I imagine someday there will be a Thanos omnibus book available, if there isn't already--there's certainly enough material to more than justify one, or even two.

Anonymous said...

I'd certainly agree that this arc makes Thanos a less interesting character, to me at least, than in the past when he was more of a schemer, planner, and a loner.
Even though he had been operating on a personal power level somewhere near Thor's, and had an intellect and resources the made him possibly a galactic threat, he was much more compelling as a character who's dreams and ambitions far exceeded his grasp. A tragic figure, really.
Here he just seems like a cosmic goon.


Comicsfan said...

You make some fair points, M.P., in that Thanos did quite well in making do with the resources he would amass in order to become a force to be reckoned with, without taking the shortcut here of becoming a wielder of the forces of the universe. For what it's worth, Starlin would do quite a turnabout with him when the series reaches its conclusion, seemingly taking him off the playing field for good. (Though we know how well that usually works out, eh?)

Warren JB said...

I've hugely enjoyed this look at the Infinity Gauntlet event and it's follow ups. Looking forward to the next part.

I can agree that from the perspective of a PPOC reader (heard of the IG, of course, but never read it 'in person') it looks like Thanos merely swatting aside bigger and bigger attacks - my eyebrows really shot up when he put the conceptual personifications on a leash - but up to a point, isn't that what you might expect from someone, as C.F. says, who wields the forces of the universe? If anything, some of his retaliations seem too conventional (beatings, shatterings, beheadings, and why earth's prehistory, indeed?) but my own thinking is too conventional to suggest much else. Namor and She-Hulk's fate gives me the heebie-jeebies, though.

And yes, the Hulk was robbed.