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Thanos and other Marvel characters on the Cover of Infinity Gauntlet #1, Marvel Comics, 1991. George Pérez/Marvel Comics

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The creator of Thanos reflects on Avengers: Endgame and his Phase 4 creations

Jim Starlin reflects on Thanos and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

As Avengers: Endgame broke nearly every box office record this weekend, Marvel Studios’ success stands on the work of decades and decades of comics creators. And for the ultimate villain of the saga, Thanos, the company owes one guy: writer-artist Jim Starlin.

Polygon sat down with Starlin, who also created Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, after he’d had a chance to catch Endgame at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. Marvel’s latest blockbuster may have put a cap on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga,” but the story moves on with Phase 4, which is expected to introduce even more of Starlin characters, like the martial artist Shang-Chi, and perhaps even the god-like Adam Warlock.

Starlin offered a window on the history of the Marvel Comics universe — and also a window into the Marvel Studios adaptation process, which he brushed against during the turbulent pre-production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. He even explained why Thanos didn’t just double all the resources in the universe. It’s not a plot hole if Jim Starlin has an answer.

[Ed. note: This interview will contain spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.]

Polygon: How do you feel about Thanos in the movies? Was there anything left out that you would have liked to see? Or vice versa, was there anything the Russos did with Thanos that you wish you’d done first?

Jim Starlin: I’ve worked with movie scripts before and I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who thinks they’re going to get a carbon copy of what they put down on paper is just being foolish. These movie production companies are spending millions and millions of dollars and they’re going to work it around to their universe, which is different than the comic book universe. So overall, no, I was very happy with what they’d done with Thanos.

Actually, there were a couple of things that they did that I thought were a really great ideas that I wish I had done in the comics, such as him taking off the armor when he gets a couple of the Gems —Stones, they call it — and doesn’t need the armor anymore. It just never struck me as an idea at the time, and I thought, Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense. I know a lot of people were upset by that, but he shows up in the armor again in [Avengers: Endgame]. So it all balanced out nicely.

My one gripe, and it’s a minor gripe, is I miss his yellow eyes that turned red when he got angry, but I see why they did it; it gives [Thanos’ actor Josh] Brolin a better chance to emote with the pupils and all that. The blue I think probably works better on film than the yellow eyes and the red flair would have been too contrasty.

Thanos’ eye flaring red with anger at Mistress Death, in Infinity Gauntlet #2, Marvel Comics (1991).
Thanos’ eye flaring red with anger at Mistress Death, in Infinity Gauntlet #2.
Jim Starlin, George Pérez/Marvel Comics

But you know, I think they really stayed with the spirit of the character if not the exact letter of it. And I think Josh Brolin, [writers Stephen McFeely, Christopher Marcus,] and the Russos did a great job on putting his little story together. I think of it as like, “How would Arthur Conan Doyle feel if he saw all the different movie versions of Sherlock Holmes?” He wouldn’t recognize it at certain points. You have to come into the game realizing that there are going to be changes.

One of those the things people wrestled with after Infinity War is also one of the biggest changes: His motivation is different. He’s not in love with Mistress Death, which has left him open to questions like “Why didn’t he use the Infinity Stones to make twice as many resources instead killing half of all life?” As both the guy who created the character and as someone who understands that things change in adaptation, do you have your own solution to that new question of Thanos’ motivations?

Starlin: Well, the reason they eliminated Mistress Death from the storyline is that Marvel Studios feels that it’s a little bit too early to be adding these abstract entities into the mix. Which is, I think, something they’re going to change once they’ve got a couple of Doctor Strange movies more out of the way.

Through a proxy, Mistress Death orders Thanos to “balance” the universe in Silver Surfer #34, Marvel Comics (1990).
Mistress Death orders Thanos to “balance” the universe in Silver Surfer #34.
Jim Starlin, Ron Lim/Marvel Comics

His movie motivation is actually right out of the comics, in issue 34 of Silver Surfer; that was going to be my route that I was going to take with him in Infinity Gauntlet, but I quickly realized that I was going to be working myself into a corner, and I wanted to bring Mistress Death into it because she’d been an aspect of the character before. So I switched that around and made it so it was just a scam. So, [his MCU motivation is] true to the spirit of the character and the storyline, if not exactly right on the mark. Things change and you go with the flow and enjoy the ride while you can.

A couple members of the the Guardians of the Galaxy that you created, Gamora and Drax, have some soul searching to do now that a big focus of their lives, Thanos, has been definitively killed. As someone who’s very intimately familiar with them, where do you think they’re going next?

Starlin: Well, these multiple timelines that they created within Endgame by the time they were done, [they] lead you to a point where you have to start putting together a flowchart to be able to figure out where everybody is heading and where they were starting. I’ve been able to rationalize my own head where Gamora is going to be in the next movie, because she is back again. She’s not in that final scene in the spaceship with the rest of the guys, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not going to be connected up with them.

Thor is not necessarily a Guardian now, either. I mean, he ran off with them [...] but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be in the next Guardians movie. He wasn’t in the situation when James Gunn wrote his script for that particular movie. So we’ll have to see.

One of the biggest Infinity Gauntlet characters who isn’t in the movie, is one of yours, Adam Warlock. He was teased at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 seems to have undergone a lot of upheaval. If Warlock does show up in the next Guardians or a later Marvel movie, what do you want to see out of that character in the movies?

Starlin: Well, the scuttlebut is that he’s going to start off as a villain like he did in the comic books when he was Him. Probably going after the Guardians, as they hint about at the end of [Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2]. What happens to him after that is anyone’s guess.

Marvel plays these things very close to the vest and they have announced some other movies that are coming up in the next Phase, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more coming. So, I have high hopes that we’ll see Warlock again after the next Guardians movie, if he appears in it. And I hope that he encounters a fellow named Pip the Troll along the way, he’s the one I really want to see come into a movie.

Adam Warlock and Pip the Troll in Infinity Gauntlet #2, Marvel Comics (1991).
Adam Warlock and Pip the Troll in Infinity Gauntlet #2.
Jim Starlin, George Pérez/Marvel Comics

What about Pip makes you want to see him in a movie?

Starlin: [He’s a] perfect foil. If you’ve got a character like Warlock, you need a somebody for him to play a straight man to. And Pip would be perfect for it. He’s just one of my favorite characters out of all of the guys I have created. I think it’s Pip, Dreadstar, and Thanos who are my favorites.

You were also involved in creating Shang-Chi at Marvel Comics, an adaptation of which seems to be on the way from Marvel Studios.

Starlin: Steven Engleheart and I created him together, and I only did about four issues because I wanted to get back to Captain Marvel and Thanos, which I was doing at the same time. And so I had a short run on Shang-Chi, and I’m really curious to see the film, because that’s a tricky one.

I can’t wait to see how they do it so it doesn’t come off as just another kung fu movie, which we’ve got hundreds of those things to start off with. But I have faith that those guys up at Marvel will come up with a hook that will make it different.