The latest big bad on the big screen has to be Thanos, the purple giant of the MCU playing havoc with Earth’s mightiest heroes in this week’s Avengers: Infinity War. The character comes directly from the comic books where he has been a villain for most of Marvel’s cadre of heroes since his inception in February 1973 in Iron Man #55. Thanos’ biography in the comics is varied and random, owing to the fact that he has been written by several writers over the years; each adding to the back story as needed by the story they were writing at the time. Invariably, he is depicted as having little regard for any life other than his own and willing to kill anyone or anything to achieve his goals. This attitude is most commonly characterized as pathologically evil—a label not entirely unearned, but actually not as accurate as one might think. When looking at the MCU version of Thanos within the scope of RPG morality, many would assign the chaotic evil alignment to him, but actually, Thanos falls more accurately in the alignment of extreme Chaotic Good.
In role playing games, there are nine alignments; three variations of each of the two principle categories of good and evil and a neutral alignment smack-dab in the middle. The sub categories are lawful, neutral and chaotic, making the alignments chaotic good, neutral good, lawful good, lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic neutral and true neutral. Lawful characters act within the confines of established law and societal morality. They do good or evil according the laws under which they operate. Chaotic characters have no regard for the laws of civilization, nor any societal morals or imperatives. Chaotic evil is characterized by a complete disregard for any life and a willingness to kill anyone who would get in the way of whatever goal the character has set. They are only concerned with achieving the goals. While this description fits the Thanos of the comics, the version brought to the big screen differs in one key aspect. For chaotic evil to apply, the goals must be evil or entirely selfish in nature. The big difference between Chaotic Evil and Chaotic good is the motive for the goals. Both alignments have no compunction about killing or destroying, rather they differ on the reason why.
In the film Infinity War, the character is portrayed by actor Josh Brolin, albeit with a CGI facelift and body shape. Through a very nuanced performance, Brolin brings a deeper thread to the Titan’s back story and actually creates a sympathy for his situation. The writers gave Thanos a motive for his nefarious goal of instantaneously wiping out half of the universe’s population with a snap of his infinity-gauntleted fingers. Thanos was raised on Titan, a paradise of peace and prosperity for generations until greed and excess threatened to destroy the planet if things didn’t change. Thanos warned his people that overpopulation and over consumption would destroy them if they didn’t reduce their population by half. They ignored him and continued until his predictions came true. Driven by this tragedy, Thanos then went out with his forces and began culling the population of the universe whether or not they wanted or needed his help. Of course, he met much resistance to his efforts and that is when he realized he needed the infinity gauntlet to achieve his goals of mercifully putting the races out of their misery. His underlings, on the other hand, are more in line with lawful evil as they act out his orders for their own selfish reasons, while spouting Thanos’ desire for mercy.
That need for mercy is how Thanos falls into the alignment of chaotic good. He thinks he is performing an act of mercy for the greater good as he sees it. No one ever said “good” was a universal concept, especially when considering a chaotic alignment. In his perception, he is saving the universe from itself and anything he does to that end is justified, including sending mercenaries to take the stones and kill anyone who would stop them. It is for this reason that he is chaotic good and not chaotic evil.