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Thanos' Entire Timeline In The MCU Explained

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a shaky track record when it comes to villains. Some are downright forgettable, completely failing to pose an interesting threat to their more heroic counterparts (Malekith, Yellowjacket, Ivan Vanko). Others showed initial promise, but were killed too early to develop them further (Iron Monger, Ego the Living Planet, Alexander Pierce). Loki has made a great villain at times, but he's also been on the side of the good with increasing frequency, and at this point his status as a true villain is questionable at best.

However, when it comes to the big bad of the Infinity Saga itself, the MCU knocked it out of the park with Thanos, who is one of the best villains — if not the best villain — in the ever-expanding superhero franchise. Originally a mysterious and shadowy figure, Thanos is eventually given the time and space to grow and evolve into a complex, layered, and extremely dangerous antagonist. His plan of wiping out half of all living beings in the universe is, in his mind, the perfect solution to ensure that the surviving beings would be able to survive and flourish. There's obviously no excuse for his genocidal actions, but his motives are at least more interesting than the typical power-hungry madman that shows up too often in comic book fare.

Thanos has the longest history of any true villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that history spans across multiple movies,. We're here to make sense of his intricate timeline.

Adopting Gamora

As part of Thanos' grand plan to bring balance to the universe, he travels to many planets, killing half their populations at random. On one of those planets, Zen-Whoberi, he encounters a young girl named Gamora, who is fighting back against one of Thanos' soldiers. The Mad Titan, impressed by Gamora's bravery while her people are being slaughtered, offers her his help and pulls her away from the genocide taking place. He then pulls out a double-sided knife and rests it on his finger to demonstrate his principle of balance. Thanos gives Gamora the knife and has her try to balance it on her own finger; as she tries to look back at what's being done to her people, Thanos gently yet firmly draws her attention back to the knife and compliments her handling of it.

From that point on, Thanos raises Gamora as his own, training her to become the most dangerous woman in the galaxy. He regularly pits her in battle against Nebula, another one of his assassin "daughters," combats that Gamora invariably wins — every time Nebula loses a fight against her sister, Thanos removes a body part and replaces it with techology to enhance Nebula's combat abilities. Thanos continually favors Gamora over Nebula despite the latter's devotion (which results in Nebula harboring a murderous resentment for Gamora), while Gamora eventually comes to hate him.

Sending Loki to Earth

Details of Thanos' life between his first adopting Gamora and the events of "The Avengers" are scant — we know at some point he decided that instead of halving populations planet by planet, it would be more efficient to acquire the six Infinity Stones and use them to halve the population of the entire universe all at once, and we know that the first one he acquired was the Mind Stone. When the Asgardian Loki accidentally finds himself transported to Thanos' home, Sanctuary, a deal is made: Loki will go to Earth and obtain the Tesseract, which houses the Space Stone, and in exchange, Thanos' Chitauri army will help Loki conquer Earth and become its ruler (if he fails in his mission, of course, he will be hunted down and punished with unimaginable pain). To aid Loki, Thanos gives him a scepter that contains the Mind Stone, which Loki uses to control humans — while this move seems puzzling, it's since been revealed that Thanos was secretly using the Mind Stone to influence Loki.

Loki heads to Earth and gains possession of the Tesseract, using it to create a portal that allows the Chitauri to invade. However, they are ultimately defeated by the Avengers, and both Loki and the Tesseract are taken back to Asgard. Thanos' servant, The Other, informs him of Loki's failure and of the existence of the Avengers, warning him that Earth will not be easy to conquer. Thanos simply turns around and grins.

Working with Ronan the Accuser

Sometime later, Thanos sends the Kree fanatic Ronan the Accuser to fetch him a mysterious Orb that, unbeknownst to Ronan, houses the Power Stone. In exchange, Thanos offers to help Ronan destroy his hated enemies, the Xandarians. However, the Orb falls into the possession of the ex-Ravager known as Star-Lord, who wants to sell it. Thanos' daughters also join the hunt for the Orb, with Nebula working alongside Ronan and Gamora going off on her own.

While Gamora gets to Star-Lord and the Orb first, she betrays Thanos and joins the Guardians of the Galaxy in bringing the Orb to the Collector on Knowhere. Ronan meets with Thanos in person to give him the news of Gamora's betrayal and deliver a stern warning to take the matter more seriously. The Other berates Ronan for his lack of respect to Thanos, but Ronan simply kills him. Thanos, however, is unmoved by Ronan's grievances and the Other's murder alike, and sends Ronan back to his mission.

Ronan and Nebula manage to retrieve the Orb from the Guardians, but when Ronan discovers that it holds the Power Stone, he forsakes his agreement with Thanos and uses the Power Stone to enhance himself. Nebula, filled with hatred towards her father just like Gamora, joins Ronan and promises to help him kill Thanos. On Xandar, however, Ronan dies in combat with the Guardians, who retrieve the Power Stone and give it to the Xandarian Nova Corps for safekeeping.

Deciding to get the Stones himself

Years after the Battle of New York, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner accidentally create a malevolent artificial intelligence called Ultron, which discovers the Mind Stone inside Loki's confiscated scepter and begins making plans to use it to create a superior version of itself. Those plans are spoiled by the Avengers, however, who fuse the planned final version of Ultron with Stark's personal AI, JARVIS, using the Mind Stone to awaken and power the synthezoid known as Vision, who proves his worth by picking up Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. However, Thor points out this is the fourth Infinity Stone to surface in recent years (the Reality Stone played a key role in "Thor: The Dark World") and after having a prophetic vision of a malevolent force bringing the Stones together, he leaves Earth to investigate.

It is soon revealed that Thanos is the one searching for the Infinity Stones, and after Loki and Ronan failed to bring him his bounty, he declares that he will do the job himself, putting on an empty Infinity Gauntlet (presumably not the one he forces the dwarf Eitri to build for him on Nidavellir, because Nidavellir was under Asgard's protection and wouldn't have been vulnerable until after Odin's death and Asgard's destruction in "Thor: Ragnarok," but Infinity Gauntlet continuity is a subject best avoided). The first Stone Thanos obtains is the Power Stone, which he acquires by defeating the Nova Corps and decimating Xandar.

Attacking the Asgardian refugees

After Asgard's destruction, Thor commands a ship full of refugees (including Loki) as their new king, but the Asgardians run straight into Thanos and his Black Order, who overtake the ship, kill half of Thor's remaining subjects, and torture Thor himself. While Loki initially states that he doesn't care whether his brother lives or dies, seeing Thor in such pain convinces him to relinquish the Tesseract, which he had stolen from Asgard before its demise.

Thanos is then attacked by Hulk, who had fought alongside Thor and Loki on Asgard, but Thanos proves to be stronger than even the green behemoth and easily defeats him. Thor tries to take on Thanos despite his injuries, but is quickly beaten down and restrained. With his last ounce of strength, Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall manages to transport Hulk to Earth, but is then killed by Thanos.

Thanos takes the Tesseract and crushes it to reveal the shining blue Space Stone, which he then places into his Infinity Gauntlet alongside the purple Power Stone. Now equipped with two Infinity Stones, Thanos orders his Black Order to go to Earth to retrieve two more — the Time and Mind Stones. Loki duplicitously offers his assistance, trying to get close enough to kill Thanos, but Thanos sees through his ruse and kills Loki before Thor's eyes. Thanos then uses the Stones in his possession to destroy the ship and teleport away.

Obtaining the Reality Stone and locating the Soul Stone

Floating in space and left for dead, Thor is discovered by the Guardians of the Galaxy and fills them in on Thanos' plan. Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and Mantis head to Knowhere to retrieve the Reality Stone, which the Asgardians had left with the Collector following the events of "Thor: The Dark World." However, when they arrive at the Collector's base, they discover that Thanos has already destroyed it and taken the Reality Stone. He incapacitates Mantis and Drax and restrains Gamora as she pleads with Star-Lord to kill her — she secretly knows where the Soul Stone is and doesn't want Thanos to find out. Star-Lord reluctantly pulls the trigger, but his weapon is rendered harmless by the Reality Stone, and Thanos teleports away with Gamora.

On Thanos' ship, Gamora declares her hatred of him, but Thanos is unmoved, asserting that he saved her from a pitiful life on her homeworld, whose halved population is thriving. Revealing that he knows Gamora knows the location of the Soul Stone, he takes her to Nebula, who has been imprisoned after attempting to kill him, and begins to pull on Nebula's cybernetic parts with the Power Stone, causing her considerable pain. Gamora, unable to watch Nebula in such agony (the sisters reconciled in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2") confesses that the Soul Stone is on the planet Vormir. Thanos ends his torture of Nebula, then takes Gamora with him to retrieve the Soul Stone.

Sacrificing Gamora for the Soul Stone

Thanos and Gamora arrive on the desolate landscape of Vormir, eventually coming to a cliffside where they are met by the Red Skull, the Nazi commander of HYDRA who had been teleported away by the Tesseract in his fight with Captain America during World War II. The Red Skull agrees to take them to the Soul Stone, but tells Thanos that acquiring it requires one to make a great sacrifice. As the Red Skull leads Thanos and Gamora to the Soul Stone, he shares his previous quest for the Infinity Stones and how the Tesseract doomed him to spend the rest of his life guarding the Soul Stone.

Thanos and Gamora are soon taken to a massive precipice, and the Red Skull explains that to acquire the Soul Stone one must sacrifice someone they truly love. This causes Gamora to taunt Thanos, as she claims that he has never loved anything in his life. However, her confidence turns to horror when she sees Thanos crying, realizing that he really does love her — or at the very least, he believes he loves her, which is apparently good enough. Thanos, weeping, grabs Gamora and throws her off the side of the cliff. Upon her death, a blinding light envelopes Thanos, and he wakes up in a body of water in a mysterious location, now in possession of the Soul Stone.

Acquiring the Time Stone

After sacrificing Gamora, Thanos returns to Titan, his homeworld, to meet with the Black Order, but instead finds Doctor Strange, Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, who possesses the Time Stone. During their tense conversation, Thanos explains how he was dismissed and labeled mad for proposing mass genocide as the solution to Titan's coming downfall. Once he acquires all six Infinity Stones, he says, he will obliterate half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers, and then "watch the sun rise on a grateful universe."

Thanos is then ambushed by Iron Man, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, and Mantis, who have joined forces on Titan. The heroes engage in battle with Thanos, and just when it seems that he's about to win, Nebula arrives on the scene and crashes her ship into him. With their combined might, the heroes managed to restrain him and begin to remove the Infinity Gauntlet from his hand. However, when Star-Lord learns that Thanos killed Gamora, he lashes out in grief and anger, allowing Thanos to regain the advantage.

An even bigger brawl breaks out, culminating in Thanos wounding Iron Man. Doctor Strange, having witnessed a multitude of future outcomes to the conflict, gives Thanos the Time Stone in exchange for Iron Man's life. Thanos puts the Stone into his Infinity Gauntlet, making it the fifth in his collection, and teleports to Earth, leaving the bruised and bloodied heroes on Titan to accept their loss.

Snapping his fingers

While Thanos has been questing for the Reality, Soul, and Time Stones, the Black Order and the rest of his army have been attempting to reach Vision, who is being sheltered in the advanced nation of Wakanda. When Thanos arrives on the scene, he's greeted not only by the various Wakandan armies, but by the other members of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

However, armed with five of the six Infinity Stones, Thanos has nearly godlike powers at this point and fends off all attackers — Bruce Banner, manning Tony Stark's Hulkbuster armor, is encased in stone; Black Panther is sent flying back; the Falcon is blown out of the air; and even Captain America, who, to Thanos' shock, briefly holds back the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, is ultimately defeated. Thanos' victories eventually force Wanda Maximoff to destroy the Mind Stone, killing her lover, Vision, but Thanos simply uses the Time Stone to go back in time a few seconds and takes the Mind Stone for himself, killing Vision (again) in front of Wanda and uniting all six Stones.

At that moment, the axe Stormbreaker, which Thor had forged at Nidavellir, flies into Thanos' chest. Unfortunately, Thor's strike doesn't immediately kill Thanos, who tells Thor that he should've gone for the head before snapping his fingers, disintegrating half of all life in the universe. Thanos then teleports away. He's later seen residing in a rustic hovel on a distant planet, smiling at his victory.

Killed by the Avengers

Sometime after "the Snap," the Avengers detect a major energy spike that they believe is proof Thanos used the Infinity Stones again. With some insight from Nebula on where her father might be, along with help from the newly-arrived Captain Marvel, the combined force of the surviving Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy set out to confront Thanos and find the Infinity Stones.

Thanos has apparently been living a bucolic, solitary life on a distant planet. He's in the middle of preparing a meal for himself when he's ambushed and restrained by Captain Marvel, War Machine, and Bruce Banner in the Hulkbuster armor. Thor bursts into Thanos' hovel and uses Stormbreaker to chop off the hand encased in the Infinity Gauntlet. Captain America, Black Widow, and Rocket Raccoon enter, only to discover that the Infinity Stones no longer reside in the Gauntlet. They demand Thanos tell them where the stones are; he tells them that he used their own power to destroy them. While the heroes initially believe Thanos to be lying, Nebula declares that her father is not a liar, and the team begins to realize that their plan was in vain.

Surprisingly, Thanos displays admiration for his daughter, and even some regret for his brutal treatment of her. However, he is suddenly decapitated by Thor, who explains himself by saying "I went for the head."

Discovering the Avengers' plans

Five years after Thanos' death, the remaining Avengers concoct a scheme to restore the universe to its proper population by going back in time and gathering the Infinity Stones before Thanos can. Nebula is sent with War Machine back to 2014, where they beat a pre-Guardians Star-Lord to the Power Stone. However, Nebula unintentionally links with the 2014 version of herself via their cybernetic implants, with her memories being broadcast to her past self — who is still in Thanos' service. 2014-Nebula displays a recording from her future self of the Avengers confronting and killing Thanos after the Snap, making 2014-Thanos realize that he is ultimately successful in his plan to collect the Infinity Stones, and that the Avengers are trying to undo his future victory. 2023-Nebula notices the connection with her past self, but before can go back to her original time, she is beamed onto Thanos' ship.

The two Nebulas confront one another, the one from the present warning the one from the past that it's dangerous to stay by Thanos' side. However, 2014-Nebula beats her future self into submission, stealing her headpiece in order to impersonate her — as well as the Pym particles she used to travel through time.

Playing out the endgame

After the Avengers return to their original timeline with all six Infinity Stones, Hulk puts on a gauntlet forged by Tony Stark and snaps his fingers to bring back everyone who was snapped away. The attempt is successful, but in that moment, the 2014 version of Thanos and his forces arrive in 2023 and destroy the Avengers Compound.

With most of the Avengers and Guardians scattered, Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor engage in a brutal battle with the Mad Titan. Thanos directs his armies to join the fight and appears to be on the verge of victory — until he's suddenly fighting the combined might of the resurrected heroes, including Doctor Strange and his sorcerers, Black Panther and Wakanda's armies, Spider-Man, and more.

Earth's Mightiest Heroes assemble in an epic clash, trying to keep the Infinity Stones away from Thanos and his soldiers, with the Stark-made gauntlet bouncing back and forth between the opposing sides. Captain Marvel joins in the fight and gives the Avengers the upper hand, but Thanos still manages to get hold of the gauntlet, snapping his fingers to once again eliminate his opposition. Much to his surprise, however, nothing happens — Iron Man had covertly swiped the Infinity Stones from the gauntlet and embedded them in his own armor. Iron Man then snaps his own fingers, disintegrating Thanos' armies and finally killing the Mad Titan himself.