This post will contain spoilers for the Marvel movie Infinity War. Therefore, read it only if you’ve seen the movie or you don’t mind being spoiled.
Probably my greatest surprise (for the good) in the Infinity War movie was in the character of Thanos. I got to the movie expecting nothing besides a goofy or, worse, stupid over the top villain with no motivation except being evil. Or, like in the comics, just a dude who wants to date Death.
However, even considering the horrible history of Marvel’s atrocities with villains (I’m looking at you, Ultron, or whatever that stupid robot was), they actually did a very, very good job this time. Although not flawless (“With the Infinity Gauntlet, I will erase half of the life in the universe to end the problem of scarcity, while I could easily use it to actually double the resources of the universe instead”), the morality and ethics of Thanos are amazing for a ‘dumb’ superheroes movie.
The catch is simple, but elegant – with a greater realization and clarity of mind, Thanos observed that sapient life, in great quantities, resulting in chaos and self-destruction. So, in order to save life, you actually have to destroy part of it. Maybe it is madness, maybe it is actually a greater level of thought beyond human comprehension, but the fact is that Thanos does all he does as an act of good, at least in his eyes.
With that said...how does it translate into the classic alignments of D&D? Being a defender of alignments, I often like to try and catalog characters I see in movies in the classical axis of Chaos/Order and Good/Evil. But Thanos, in this movie, actually poses a hard – if not impossible – task.
Alignments are cosmic tendencies, as I explained here. At least that is how I approach them, and how I’m discussing them in this post. Therefore, your alignment is how your being is geared towards the flux of energies in the multiverse. In D&D, that is especially true because of the many planes. If you are good, your very essence feels the need to help others, to make others feel better, to limit suffering. If you are evil, then it is the opposite – you need to make others suffer.
And then, there is Thanos from Infinity War. Where to begin? Let’s see the axis of Law and Chaos, which might be the simplest one. Thanos believe in order, an absolute law. His army is well structured in a hierarchy, he wants balance for all things – just how he taught Gamora when balancing the blade. So, he is Lawful. Easy, right?
Now, Good/Evil. Here lies the problem. Thanos is compassionate and, in a certain way, altruistic. He sees his work as a burden which only he can endure. He is always collected, somber and, in a way, sad. When asked what he would do after killing half the universe, he said that he would finally be able to rest and see the sunrise. There is no pleasure on what he is doing, there is no joy in the massacres he does. He is doing all that because he knows that, if it is no done, all life shall be extinguished. Nevertheless, he is causing anguish and death to everyone.
So, Good or Evil? For himself, he is Good. In fact, Lawful Good. The mad titan, the maniac spreading death to the whole universe, is lawful good. But alignments are energy, cosmic energy that echoes in each creature. So, wouldn’t he be Evil? Although he thinks that what he does is good, in fact, the suffering caused would weight harder against him? But, if we are talking about balance, isn’t all this talk similar to the balance of nature of the druids? Then, wouldn’t Thanos be Lawful Neutral or, maybe, even True Neutral?
There is no true answer, for this is actually an ethical and moral dilemma. Killing people to save more people, how ethical is that? Or, more even, how can you actually be certain that you are saving more by killing? Wouldn’t this kind of actions gear towards a bizarre universe with societies ruined by a crazy alien entity? Then...isn’t Thanos Chaotic? Maybe even Chaotic Evil?
With all said, there is a little thing I do in my games with characters similar to Thanos. I add the bizarre “Alien” alignment – either as True Alien or Alien + something. This means that the creature is either beyond simple description, or actually falls into a category, but for the wrong reasons (or for unknowable reasons). Thanos, then, could be True Alien – he wants good through evil, order through chaos – or Alien Lawful Good – he thinks and talks as lawful good, but the actions he takes are so bizarre that does not fit in the normal description.
Or, maybe, Thanos is really Lawful Good. An avatar of order that is trying to save the universe from true extinction. A martyr, causing pain and suffering for it, because he is the only one who knows the truth.
Or maybe he is just mad.