The thing that makes Thanos such an interesting character is that he has a massive flaw: his own self-destructive nature. Consciously or not, he doubts himself and his worthiness, and sets himself up for failure. And that’s exactly the kind of flaw that Darkseid is made to exploit.
The idea is right there in the name: Darkseid is less about being a physically powerful craggy rock monster from space, and much more about preying on and nurturing the dark side of our own selves. Thanos is no exception to that — he might even be especially vulnerable to it, given that his defining moments are all about being driven by his own all-consuming obsession with death. It’s doubt, fear, and hate that sit at the core of his personality, the hatred of himself for failing to achieve his goals, and the doubt that he can ever actually be worthy of accomplishing them in the first place. Like another great supervillain, Dr. Doom, he’s very rarely defeated purely by being outmatched, but because those flaws lead him to set himself up for the inevitability of his defeat.
That makes him uniquely easy for Darkseid to manipulate, and really, that’s all it would take. I mean, there’s a lot more to winning a battle than just coming out ahead in a fistfight, but it’s easy to argue that Thanos loses the second he decides to fight Darkseid at all. The only way to truly win is to reject that part of himself and move past his desire to conflict — and even that means accepting the loss.
And that’s what’s beautiful about those two characters. The way that they’ve influenced each other over the years has meant that when you think about the way they interact, there’s a reflection and a response there that goes well beyond the usual bullet points that you get with other “who could win in a fight” arguments. With Darkseid and Thanos, it’s all about character work. It’s one of those rare matchups that makes them both more interesting when you think about them, and shows just how rewarding characters can be when these ideas weave their way through great creators and great stories.
Oh, and also Darkseid can shoot beams out of his eyes that follow you around corners and can vaporize you or send you back to cowboy times, and Thanos can’t. I mean, that seems like the dealbreaker, right?
Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what’s up with that? If you’d like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “That’s What’s Up.”