Instinct War:

Sigmund Freud, Thanos, and the Theory of Drives in Infinity Gauntlet

The Infinity Gauntlet
Writer: Jim Starlin
Art: George Pérez, Ron Lim
Marvel Comics
July – December 1991

There were perks to my literature studies at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies (the acclaimed “graduate school for undergrads”). One was being able to check out books from the library for an incredible (almost indefinite) length of time. Another were free Q&A sessions with visiting authors—a reading series called ‘the Symposium’ (although with very little drinking involved). When I found I had a free pass to an afternoon with Neil Gaiman, I was ecstatic—and my friend, Stuart Warren, devastated. He would have to go through the usual channels to see Neil—that is, pay through the usual channels.

So I snuck him in.

The Old Little Theater was (and still is) an intimate setting—a cluster of auditorium seats before a stage the size of a walk-in closet. My fellow creative writing majors clumped together, armed with moleskins and G2 pens, and fawned over Gaiman—emaciated, wild-haired, ravenesque, wisdom incarnated into an older, rougher Bernard Black. The Q&A was less interesting. My peers asked about his writing process, influence, about the source of his ideas. They proved their professions, so to speak. Gaiman was courteous and responsive and somewhat bored until Warren asked which DC or Marvel villain interested him the most.

There was an uncomfortable hush among the coats and scarves, spectacles and sideburns. Some shifting around. I quickly realized none of my contemporaries knew Gaiman beyond his books—beyond American Gods, Stardust, and Coraline. To them, this question was outlandish, almost embarrassing. But Gaiman sat up. “Darkseid,” he said almost immediately. “Darkseid is Hitler with nobility. He plays by the rules, but rules of his own making.”

Indeed, Darkseid is a compelling villain in the DC Universe—iconic, monstrous, suave. A craggy, gray-skinned New God, Darkseid has been described as “one of the most renowned villains in the entire DC Multiverse,” “DC’s ultimate expression of evil,” and the “ultimate bad guy … the literal God of Evil” (Casey, Marston, Mitchell). Jason Serafino of Complex writes that “if there was a face of evil in the DC Universe, it would be Darkseid.” Chris Arrant, an editor for Newsarama, calls him “the most enduring and epic contribution to the DC Universe.”

Thanos, meanwhile, is often described as a derivative, second-rate proxy meant to cash-in on the new cool.

As Chris Sims puts it: “One’s a gigantic evil godlike being with distinctly rough facial features who lives in space with other ‘gods’ and seeks to dominate the universe in pursuit of the opposite of life, and the other’s… well, you get the idea.”

Jordan Minor, Senior Editor for Geek, declares Thanos a “knockoff” and goes on to state that there are “very objective, factual reasons why Darkseid is better” such as his ability to shoot “homing lasers… out of his dang eyes” and his obsession “with something called the ‘Anti-Life Equation,’ which might be one of the coolest series of words.”

Stuart Warren, too, takes a shot:

“I have this beef with Thanos, that cheap-ass imitation-Darkseid that Marvel created to counteract the popularity of Kirby’s New Gods universe. Leave it to a man [i.e. Jack Kirby], jaded by Marvel, to take his A-game back to his old competitor and give them some gold. Leave it to Marvel to come up with Thanos, who completely misses the mark…”

These nerds of comic lore get their history right. Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos, admits there was a Kirby influence. Early designs for Thanos were closer to Metron, another Kirby character from Fourth World, until Marvel editor Roy Thomas suggested that Starlin “beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one” (Cronin).

But Thanos has a bit to offer that’s uniquely his—specifically, a purview into the work of Sigmund Freud and his theories about instincts and drives. Thanos’s name derives from “Thanatos,” the Greek word for ‘death,’ associated today with Freud’s conception of the death drive. Eros, the villain’s brother, corresponds with Freud’s life instinct—also Eros (Rasmussen). These similarities aren’t coincidence. Starlin recalls that “Thanos came to me while I was taking a psychology class in college…  I had him sort of roughed out before I ever started working at Marvel” (Boucher).

I too prefer Darkseid’s ruined face over Thanos’s chin gills. However, as an educator, I encourage popular media that brings consumer attention back to literature, philosophy, and science. Sims, Minor, Warren, and the many others who have found Darkseid more compelling are not wrong. Darkseid is more compelling. But I am more tolerant of this theft only because Thanos and his many storylines are a layman’s panopy of Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Drives.

For brevity’s sake, I will focus this paper only on Starlin’s The Infinity Gauntlet (1991). The limited six-issue series was not only a crossover of various Marvel properties but an intersection of Freudian psychology and costumed heroes punching each other. I will also not spend much time discussing the id, ego, and superego—instead, I will drive straight toward the most relevant Freudian theory.

by Liviu Mihai

The Life Instinct, or Eros

In 1895, Sigmund Freud described the brain as a “self-regulating system whose purpose was the pleasurable discharge of energy.” The fundamental source of this psychic energy was an unconscious drive to preserve, promote, and propagate life (Turnbull). This source he called the life instinct, or Eros, and its careful mediator the Ego. For a while, Freud wondered if this was the only instinct inherent to mankind:

“…perhaps we have no other instincts at all than libidinous ones. There are at least no others apparent. In that event we must admit the critics to be in the right who from the first have suspected that psycho-analysis makes sexuality the explanation of everything…” (Beyond).

This impulse is represented in the Marvel Universe by Eros, or Starfox. Eros is the son of two Eternals, members of an ancient race of humans from Titan, one of Saturns’ moons.

Eros, like many Marvel characters, corresponds to (or updates) Greco-Roman archetypes. But Eros also corresponds with Freud’s notion of the life instinct, especially its libido. He is characterized as a “fun-loving, carefree womanizer” easily intoxicated by “idle pleasures.” Although super-powered, he barely understands his own cosmic powers. It takes “centuries of intensive and disciplined training to manipulate these energies”—a diligence antithetical to Eros’s whimsy. Most telling is the one psionic power which Eros has some degree of control—his ability to stimulate pleasure. Eros emanates an aura of contentment and good will, and by concentrating he can “magnify these emanations, provoking such extreme pleasurable sensations that a person becomes highly aroused, euphoric, or totally sedated” (“Eros”).

But Freud realized the life instinct could not account for all operations. How could the “life-sustaining Eros” create a “sadistic impulse… which aims at the injury of the object?” (Beyond). How could it explain the Great War with its trench lines, mustard gas, machine guns, tanks, and war planes? Or serial killers or suicides?

The Death Drive, or Thanatos

After World War I, Freud came to believe the unconscious wasn’t only motivated by pleasure. Man pursued his own destruction (Turnbull). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud presented a new duality, not between Eros and Ego, but between Eros and Thanatos—the life instinct and the death drive.*

The death drive was an “external, disturbing and distracting influence,” an “ancient starting point,” a desire to “dissolve” and return to a “primaeval, inorganic state” (Beyond, Civilization). In other words, an urge to return to the bliss of non-existence.

Thanos is Marvel’s avatar for this death drive. Unlike his cosmic kin, Thanos is the Other, born “monstrous” and “misshapen” with colossal musculature and purple, leathery skin. So hideous was his appearance at birth that his mother, Sui-San, was driven insane and tried to kill him. After a childhood of intellectualism and introversion, a series of traumatic events turned Thanos into a “melancholy, brooding individual, consumed with the concept of death” and “personal power” (“Thanos”). His morbid curiosity was exacerbated by society—the civilization on Titan had suppressed death completely, altering it from daily reality to unseen perversion.

In these tales of adolescent and adult development are many crossroads and intersections with Freudian theory that cannot be fully explicated here. These encounters include an early romance with a girlish Death, a cave-in leading to the death of Thanos’s friends by man-eating lizards, the murder and dissection of fellow Eternals, the murder and dissection of Sui-San…

Many, many trails.

In the ‘present,’ Thanos is a more complete personification of Thanatos. He is a mad titan infatuated with an avatar of Death (she appears as a serious, dark-haired woman in reaper’s robes). His primary ambition is to extinguish vast quantities of life in tribute to her (“Thanos”). To do this, he must remain alive and seek immense power and control over nature—an impulse of the life instinct. This is why Thanos seeks godhood, and when he is killed, seeks resurrection. He lives so others will die.

In Civilization, Freud writes of the death drive “pressed into service of Eros:”

“The instinct of destruction, moderated and tamed… when it is directed towards [external] objects… provide[s] the ego with the satisfaction of its vital needs and with control over nature.”

Eros, desiring preservation, production, and power over nature, attempts to direct death away from the self. This leads the individual to redirect aggression and destructiveness toward the external world. The result is satisfaction. Eros’s goals are met; its power meted.

I can find no better explanation of Thanos’s goals than the inverse. In Thanos, the instinct of life is in the service of death. His aggression and violence toward the external world satisfies his vital needs, which are Death’s vital needs. His desire to control nature is temporary; he will destroy nature once he’s in control of it. And he is never satisfied. Death is distant, disdainful, or directing him to greater, impossible gestures.

Thanos is a personification of Thanatos, but he is not a perfect personification. He is a flawed individual with a confused psychological struggle. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos comes the closest he ever will to annihilating the universe. Having collected the six Infinity Gems, each ingot in control of some aspect of reality, Thanos can alter existence in any way he wishes. In fact, with a snap of his fingers, he extinguishes half of the universe’s populace. Gone are Black Panther, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, the Fantastic Four, half the organic layer of Earth, half the Kree, half the Skrull.

It is telling that not long after this incredible feat, Eros, Thanos’s brother, is silenced—his mouth erased.

But just as the death instinct pushes man to self-destruction, Thanos’s life instinct pushes him toward self-propagation. One instance is the act of creating life. Denied Death’s attention, Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to create Terraxia the Terrible, a replacement lover and female clone of himself whose “touch is warm” and “devotion… total” (Issue #3).

Another act is to become Eternity itself. By doing so, Thanos repudiates his own ability to die—an excellent irony, since his destruction should be the ultimate culmination of his service to Death.

Now Thanos seeks life more than death, pursues Eros over Thanatos. Even the act of eradicating others, such as killing the Avengers and the Primordials, is an act of security, not service. Mistress Death, sensing this paradigm shift, ceases to be interested in courtship. In fact, she becomes hostile. Turning into a god has made Thanos more human than ever.

The death drive isn’t only a weapon used by individuals against their peers. The death drive, if undirected, is a pressure on the individual. This is what makes Thanos’s downfall a rather unique convention. Inevitably, Thanos doesn’t want to succeed. Ominipotence unbalances Thanos’s struggle between Eros and Thanatos toward Eros. And when this happens, Thanos becomes vulnerable to the secret whisper to self-destruct. Aggression, sadism, obliteration, and violence collapses on the self.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. As Vision mentions to She-Hulk, in past fights with Thanos, the Avengers only defeated him with help “from Thanos himself” (Issue #3).

Later, in Issue #5, Thanos supplies the means to his own defeat. When he usurps Eternity, he leaves behind a husk of humanity and an easily-snatched gauntlet.

Adam Warlock makes it clear:

Even in Thanos’s moment of ultimate cosmic victory—becoming God with a capital “G”—he is vulnerable to a self-defeating pressure that corrupts self-belief into insecurity and seeks his defeat. Not only does Thanos want to fail, he ensures his failure.

If I someday squeeze my way into the Old Little Theater and surround myself with the scribbling scratch of pens (I will definitely not be emaciated, and my hair will be less raven and more ravished by a predisposition to bald), if I ever allow myself to be ambushed mid-question by a heavy metal nord with a propensity to use words like “propensity”—if events ever conspire to the point where I must give my opinion on who is the darling monstrosity of the DC and Marvel canon—I will probably echo Gaiman’s sentiments. Darkseid, probably. Black Adam, maybe. Thanos, no.

But I think I’ve found something I can appreciate about Thanos outside the elements that really belong to Darkseid. There is a bit of fun in The Infinity Gauntlet with Sigmund Freud, with the nature of power, and the warring psyche. There’s some good writing, too. If Thanos gets young people interested in the field of psychology, or any academic study, then Starlin has made something valuable. It’s the same hand-wave I give Lion King and its imitation of Kimba, the White Lion for percolating an interest in Hamlet.

As for Freud and comics-in-general, I leave you this last thought from Civilization and Its Discontents:

“And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species… And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to appease with their lullaby about Heaven.”

Works Cited

Arrant, Chris. “Darkseid: Where Do I Start?” iFanboy, 17 Nov. 2011.

Boucher, Geoff. “’Avengers’ spoiler special: Mystery villain’s creator speaks out.” Hero Complex, 11 May 2012.

Cronin, Brian. “Comic Book Legends Revealed #266.” Comic Book Resources, 24 June 2010.

“Eros (Earth-616).” Marvel Wiki. Retrieved on 26 April 2018.

Freud, Sigmund (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. London: International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1942.

Freud, Sigmund (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Haney, Casey. “15 Most Powerful Villains of the DC Universe.” Screen Rant, 7 Nov. 2015.

Marston, George & Staff. “Ranking the 10 Greatest DC Supervillains of All-Time.” Newsarama, 2 Oct. 2017.

Minor, Jordan. “Why DC’s Darkseid is Better Than Marvel’s Thanos.” Geek, 6 December 2017.

Mitchell, Nigel. “The 10 Most Heinous Things Darseid has Done (And the 6 Most Heroic).” Comic Book Resources, 13 June 2017.

Rasmussen, Roy. “The Origin of Thanos: Starlin’s Freudian Slip.” Comic Book Collectors Club, 13 May 2012.

Serafino, Jason. “The 25 Greatest Comic Book Villains of All Time.” Complex, 8 Sept. 2013.

Sims, Chris. “The 5 Greatest Knockoff Characters in Comics.” Comics Alliance, 15 June 2011.

“Thanos.” Marvel Universe Wiki. Retrieved 26 April 2018.

Turnbull, Neil. Get A Grip on Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications, 2013.

Warren, Stuart. “Jack Kirby and His Pal.” Sequart, 26 August 2014.

*Actually, Wilhelm Stekel, a psycho-analyst and student of Freud’s, coined “thanatos.”

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When Desmond White is not blogging out of both ends, he’s stunt doubling for a bear or actually doing his job -- teaching literature at a Texas high school. A loose definition of genius, Desmond’s goals in life include making yerba mate sound appetizing (“It’s grass... that you drink!”) and writing about comics. Check out his blog, which is dedicated to bad writing advice for the aspiring bad writer.

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