Continuing directly from Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos, Jim Starlin and Ron Lim’s Infinity Gauntlet is the last of what I call the “Marvel Epics.” From 1980 to 1993, a string of Marvel stories defined the characters for years to come. Starting with the Dark Phoenix Saga and going through Captain America: The Captain, Armor Wars and Avengers Under Siege (among others), Infinity Gauntlet finishes the chain with the greatest single battle in Marvel history. I say this having read the major Marvel crossovers, and my opinion still stands. The scope of the war in this volume is absolutely astonishing.
Authors have different strategies to convey the threat of a villain. Some use staggering amounts of violence, like Superboy-Prime’s slaughter of the Teen Titans in Infinite Crisis or the Stamford explosion in Civil War. Some use world-shattering disasters, such as Krona’s war on reality in JLA/Avengers or the Sun extinguishing in The Final Night. Some keep ratcheting up the scope of the participants, such as the numerous Supermen in Final Crisis or the Skyfathers in Secret Invasion. Starlin decides to go with all three of these tactics with Thanos -- appropriate, as Thanos is the most powerful being in the universe.
The book starts out with Thanos having aged Nebula, his crazed granddaughter, into a shambling near-corpse (staggering violence). He then commits one of the most infamous acts in the Marvel universe: the death of half of the universe’s population. This is done with a snap of his fingers. It sends every facet of the universe into chaos, represented by brief vignettes from the Avengers, Namor, Asgard, and many others. Starlin jumps from vignette to vignette as a way to keep the scope from overwhelming the story. When Thanos throws a temper tantrum, the Gauntlet creates a wave of destruction which rips through the universe, knocking the Earth out of orbit and destroying Japan and the entire West Coast of the United States (world-shattering disasters).
At this point, Starlin resurrects the character of Adam Warlock, and the recruiting of Marvel’s most powerful players begins (ratcheting scope). Warlock is a “perfected human” who defeated Thanos before; commanding the forces against Thanos, he plays a complex strategy game. Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer are on hand to question him about it, while Doctor Doom injects himself into the proceedings as a way to advance his own agenda. They start small, getting together the remaining superheroes. This is not as big of an army as you might think. The entire Fantastic Four, most of X-Factor and the New Warriors, and many Avengers were taken in the culling of the universe.
From this point on, more and more powerful participants are brought in. The heroes gather the Skyfathers -- the heads of all the pantheons of the Marvel Universe -- which only happens when the situation is truly dire, similar to DC’s Quintessence. Galactus is one of the weaker combatants compared to the embodiments of Chaos, Order, Love and Hate; a pair of life-seeding Celestials; the Living Tribunal, the final arbiter of the universe; and Eternity, the sentience of the universe itself. Their eventual fight with Thanos takes place mostly off-panel, mostly because it would have been nearly impossible to draw. Even the parts we do see are limited by the confines of the written and drawn page, and the combatants eventually destroy many of the universe’s fundamental tenets and scientific laws. Thanos keeps winning ... and it’s all part of Warlock’s plans.
Even with all of these characters in play, Starlin is able to capture their characterization and use it to drive the story. The various cosmic forces are hard to marshal and are driven by their own self-interests and egos. Galactus, for instance, is only involved because the aforementioned Earth-wrecking temper tantrum robbed him of potential planets as food. The humans have their own issues, with very few trusting Warlock, and Doctor Doom being a divisive presence. A key scene features Wolverine and the Hulk (who was sentient at the time) calmly discussing their turbulent past, only for Warlock to explain that they’re part of the mission because they’re willing to kill. Captain America has used Wolverine in this capacity before, and even he knows that sending the Hulk into a situation can result in such damage. It’s a refreshing realization of Marvel’s own issues with vigilantism.
Thanos’ greatest downfall is his own self-loathing and his feelings of unworthiness to hold his power. As Warlock points out, this is the third time Thanos has had omnipotence. It also becomes the third time he lets it slip away due to carelessness and easily-avoidable flaws. Helping the heroes in his own way is Mephisto. While One More Day may have tarnished many characters, Mephisto is one of the few to come out with a good reputation. All he did was manipulate Spider-Man’s emotions, and he does the same here with Thanos, pushing just the right buttons to cause astonishing chaos while keeping him from destroying existence (and Mephisto himself) entirely.
This is why Thanos remains one of Marvel’s best villains. He yearns for greatness and achieves it, but can’t keep it. When the universe has a massive reset near the end of Infinity Gauntlet, it doesn’t feel cheap because the events still remain in Thanos’ mind. The reset isn’t even his fault; it’s part of Nebula’s justified revenge. I normally dislike resets like this—for instance, I thought that Paris’s destruction during Fear Itself should have remained as a way to greatly change the Marvel Universe. But this time, the knowledge that such a reset needed to happen just for publishing purposes is abated by the circumstances.
If you need artists who can draw numerous characters effectively, Ron Lim and George Perez are two of the best, and they collaborate wonderfully. The changeover is nearly impossible to notice until you look at some of the faces. Perez has his trademark “circular face,” while Lim uses a more ovular style. Both draw some of the best star-fields in comics, taking their time to create extensive detail in an age before computer coloring could do it in half the time. The reality-bending Gauntlet’s powers require some extensive art effects, and these sometimes make the story a bit difficult to follow. A few sequences with a white-outline-drawing Doctor Strange on top of yellow energy may not have been the best color combination. The Gauntlet itself is also an excellent and memorable design -- enough so that viewers immediately noticed it when it appeared very briefly in Thor.
In retrospect, Infinity Gauntlet marked the end of the old Marvel. Lee, Liefeld, and the other founders of Image Comics were on the rise, and within a few years, the Heroes Reborn event and its reversal would change it entirely. Like post-Final Crisis DC, post-Gauntlet Marvel may never attain its former glory, but the last Marvel Epic is a testament to what came before. It deserves to be put on film, and it seems that Hollywood has answered the call to do so.