Thanos might be the biggest, most powerful, and most brutally effective bad guy to ever hit the MCU, working from behind the scenes and into the spotlight to devastate the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and more. In the comics, though, he’s been a major player since he made his first appearance in 1973, and villains don’t stick around that long without taking their share of defeats. If they didn’t, after all, there wouldn’t be much of a Marvel Universe left to tell stories about.
But while Thanos has done better than most would-be world-beaters over the past 40 years, experiencing more temporary setbacks than truly taking the L in his quest for the Infinity Stones, there are still plenty of characters who haven’t just beaten Thanos, they’ve brutally destroyed him in one way or another. From the cosmic-powered heavy hitters to the most unexpected fighters of all, here are the heroes and villains who have handed Thanos his most crushing defeats.
The Mighty Thor
Since he’s arguably the single most powerful member of the Avengers, you’d probably expect that Thor would have the best chance of surviving a one-on-one conflict with Thanos. In 2000’s Thor #25, though, Thor doesn’t just survive. He beats Thanos with a hammer until the Mad Titan can’t stand up.
It’s the culmination of a story where Thanos briefly gave up on the Infinity Stones and set his sights on a trio of cosmically powerful artifacts with equally ominous names: the Chalice of Ruin, the Map of All-Ending, and the Illumination Stone. After a quest that involved both the villainous monster Mangog and Firelord, a former herald of Galactus, Thanos not only had the items, but had Thor defeated and completely at his mercy … for a few minutes at least. It turned out that was just Round 1, a distraction to give Thor’s dad the time to invest a few more magic items with the full force of the Odinpower, ramping up Thor’s already considerable strength to a truly world-shattering level.
On the one hand, there’s an element of this story that basically just comes down to characters matching up increasingly overpowered trinkets, like a game of Yu-Gi-Oh that determines the fate of the universe. On the other hand, after three solid decades of Thanos reigning as one of the most threatening villains in the entire Marvel Universe, it is incredibly satisfying to watch Thor strap on a bunch of magic power-ups and then deliver what might be the single most savage beating in his own long history. Considering Thor once hit an enemy so hard that he broke every bone in his own body, that’s saying something.
Most of the original Infinity Gauntlet story is devoted to Thanos completely wrecking Marvel’s greatest heroes, so it’s easy to forget that in the story’s last issue, he’s not the character everyone else is worried about. He even teams up with the heroes to stop someone else who gets her hands on the Infinity Gauntlet and becomes an even scarier threat than he was: Nebula.
Needless to say, this is entirely his own fault. In an act of unparalleled cruelty, Thanos used the power of the Infinity Gauntlet to not only kill Nebula, but reanimate her rotting corpse, keeping her balanced at the very edge of death with "limbs twisted, flesh charred and cracked, and nearly mindless." Unfortunately for him, the key word there is "nearly," and there was more than enough consciousness left in Nebula to hold a pretty serious grudge. When Thanos embraced his omnipotence and projected his mind into absolute control over the universe, the mind she had left was more than enough to realize that while Thanos was beyond his physical body, the object that was letting him do all this was very physical, and sitting right there on his unattended left hand.
With that, Nebula grabbed the Infinity Gauntlet, and while she did take her turn at dominating the universe and fighting all the good guys, her first action was to send Thanos into the depths of space to drift, endlessly ruminating on his failures.
The Infinity War comic from 1992 is very different from the 2018 film of the same name. For starters, the villain isn’t Thanos, it’s the Magus — an evil alternate future version of Adam Warlock who wants to dominate the cosmos with the help of the Infinity Stones. Since Thanos is the universe’s foremost expert on the Stones, the Magus recruits a duplicate of the Mad Titan to be his henchman and unleashes evil Halloween monster duplicates of all the other Marvel heroes while he’s at it. In other words, it’s a story where Adam Warlock and Thanos have to team up to stop Adam Warlock and Thanos while the Avengers fight the Avengers.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is, and nobody embodies that more than the Magus himself. Not only can we tell that he’s evil because he wants to kill the entire universe and not just half, there are several scenes where he establishes himself as a massive threat by brutally dominating his hench-Thanos, cowing him into servitude.
Sure, it’s not quite the genuine article, but only a year after Thanos was the big villain of Infinity Gauntlet, it’s close enough to make the Magus and his army of demonic superheroes seem like a pretty big deal.
The original Infinity War comic was the story that dared to ask the question of what was scarier than one Thanos, and it came up with the pretty obvious answer: two Thanoses. Thanii? Whatever. While one served as a henchman for the Magus, the other — the real one — found himself having to team up with his former enemies in order to stop someone else from doing exactly what he’d tried to do a year earlier. That meant joining up with Adam Warlock’s team, the Infinity Watch. That was a problem, though, since that team included Drax and Gamora, both of whom wanted Thanos dead.
In Warlock and the Infinity Watch #8, a quiet moment during the big crossover led Thanos and Gamora to decide that they should probably blow off some steam by attempting to murder each other. What followed was half sparring match, half all-out life-or-death brawl, with all pretense of testing each other’s skills thrown out the window when the Deadliest Woman in the Galaxy started beating her adoptive father bloody. While Thanos was more powerful, Gamora was faster, and put a quick and brutal end to the fight with a bone-shattering nerve strike directly to his throat, leaving Thanos paralyzed.
Of course, that "paralysis" was merely a feint to lure her in — Gamora said herself that if she’d gotten within reach to finish the job, he would’ve used his superior power to end the fight. At the same time, she was the one who realized it was a trick, and while he was stronger, her speed meant that he never touched her while she landed blows that would’ve killed a lesser foe. The fight ended with the two characters gaining a little more respect for each other, and Thanos knowing full well that Gamora was more than his equal in combat.
Imagine you’re in love with the very concept of death, to the point where you’re willing to kill half the universe on the off chance that she doesn’t already have enough dead people to deal with from, you know, the entirety of history. Now imagine that when you die and are finally united with Death, a group of outer-space cultists bring you back to life, pulling you away from the skeletal arms of your beloved. If your first thought was "I would probably be pretty angry about that," then you’re starting to get a good idea of how pissed off Thanos was when that exact thing happened to him back in 2010. And once he was through with the cultists, the Guardians of the Galaxy were his next targets.
While Drax and Gamora found themselves unable to take out the Extremely Mad Titan — even with Gamora’s sword, the appropriately named Godslayer — the team had a secret weapon: a reality-altering, all-powerful Cosmic Cube. Unfortunately, the one that Peter Quill had his hands on was cracked, and was limited to one final use before it crumbled to dust. To make matters worse, he’d already used that last shot in a battle against the Magus. Comics being comics, though, Star-Lord eventually realized that previous fight was actually an illusion, meaning he still had that final cosmic bullet after all.
Here’s the weird part, though: Since he was resurrected from the dead and immediately went on a rampage, the hulked-out Thanos spent the entirety of his fight with the Guardians completely naked. When Thanos got blasted, it was on a page that was drawn to look like Star-Lord was unleashing the full force of the Cosmic Cube directly at his powerfully purple junk. No wonder that dude came back wanting to murder the entire universe.
In pro wrestling terms, the Shi’ar Imperial Guard are what you’d call "enhancement talent." They look tough, they have cool powers, and there are a bunch of them — pretty fitting, since they were originally a take on DC’s nearly endless Legion of Super-Heroes — but for the most part, they exist to be just enough of a threat that we can all be impressed when they’re beaten. Whether it’s the good guys just barely getting the win or a villain beating them up to show that they’re the real threat, they have a job to do, and they do it well. There are, however, rare occasions when they do get a win, and none of them have been as brutally decisive as this one.
To be fair, the fight happened during a time when Thanos was dying thanks to a flaw in his otherwise impervious physiology. When he heads to a world within the Shi’ar Empire to murder his own father, the Imperial Guard decides it’s time to take advantage and bring him down once and for all. For a while, the lesser members of the Guard — characters like Smasher, Oracle, and Fang — are able to hold their own, until Thanos gets tired of dealing with them and starts fighting back, hard. But then, the Guard calls in the big gun: Gladiator.
If you’re not familiar with him, Gladiator is the Guard’s answer to Superman, with the interesting twist that instead of Kryptonite, his greatest weakness is self-doubt. He can do anything he believes that he can do, and in 2016’s Thanos #2, he clearly believes that he can take Thanos down with one single, world-shattering punch.
If Thanos gets his hands on a Cosmic Cube, one of the unfathomable artifacts floating around the Marvel Universe that gives its bearer the ability reshape reality to their every whim, that’s bad. If he becomes one with the Cube, transforming himself into a being of pure omnipotence, that’s worse. If he then uses that power to send a combined roster of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy into the alternate dimension known as the Cancerverse, where Lovecraftian horrors have created a corrupted version of life that can never truly die? That’s about as bad as it gets. But as usual, "about as bad as it gets" is right when the heroes start to turn everything around, which is what happens in Avengers Assemble #8.
In this case, the good news is that Thanos’ version isn’t a true Cosmic Cube, and instead is a synthetic version created by the United States government, which we can all agree is maybe not the best use of taxpayer money. The heroes are rescued by the Elders of the Universe, who still hate Thanos thanks to that time he killed them all back in 1991, who also arm them with weapons that can separate Thanos from the synthetic Cube.
Thanos is powerful, but as we’ve already seen, when he doesn’t have grandiose accessories like the Infinity Gauntlet, a single opponent can occasionally take him down. Here, when he’s suddenly depowered and faced with every member of the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Fantastic Four, two Hulks, and Captain Britain for some reason? He gets such a bone-crushing beatdown that you actually start to feel bad for the guy.
This one’s more of a moral victory, but bear with us for a second. In Infinity Gauntlet #4, Thanos absolutely demolishes the Marvel superheroes. Spider-Man’s head is bashed in with a rock, Thor is turned to glass and shattered, Cyclops suffocates with an airtight crystal box around his head, Wolverine’s adamantium bones are turned to rubber, Quasar’s hands get blown off in an explosion, and Iron Man gets decapitated by Terraxia, a sexy lady version of the Mad Titan that Thanos made himself, because what else are you going to do when you can suddenly create whatever you want?
At the end of it, the only one left is Captain America, who calmly walks up to Thanos, looks him straight in the eyes, and tells him that while Thanos might kill his enemies, he’s never going to truly win — "as long as one man stands against you, Thanos, you’ll never be able to claim victory." It’s a great moment, and it’s only made better when Cap says he’s willing to die for those sentiments, which unfortunately happens about two and a half pages later.
Here’s the thing, though: At the end of the story, Adam Warlock and Thanos have a conversation about how, since he was truly all-powerful when he had the Gauntlet, Thanos could only truly be defeated by his own knowledge that he was never truly worthy to wield that power. In other words, Captain America was right and Thanos knew it, and that was what led to his downfall.
You know how Thanos is in love with Death, but she always spurns his advances? Well, part of the reason for that is she’s got a little thing going on with a Canadian side piece: Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool. See, while Deadpool’s healing factor repairs his body every time, his tendency to get shot in the face means he actually dies, and his brief trips to the afterlife have gotten him into a long-distance relationship with Death.
Needless to say, Thanos does not enjoy being in the Friend Who Sometimes Murders Half The Universe Zone. When Death was kidnapped, preventing anyone in the universe from actually dying, Deadpool and Thanos were forced to team up, with Thanos reluctantly agreeing that Deadpool was the only one she was willing to communicate with. In the end, though, it was all a plot to let the whole universe be destroyed, leading to a once-and-for-all breakup between Death and ‘Pool when he turned on Thanos to prevent it.
Deadpool was, obviously, pretty outmatched, but as usual, an obscure piece of the Marvel Universe came to his aid: the Uni-Power, a sort of cosmic self-preservation reflex the universe employs when it’s threatened that can turn anyone into a superhero called Captain Universe. As "Captain Uni-Pool," he was able to make short work of Thanos, literally disintegrating him in the space between dimensions … for a while, anyway.
Some random kid from the ’70s
Spidey Super Stories was a collaboration between Marvel and The Electric Company, a 1970s educational show for kids — and folks, it got weird. In their efforts to make goofy, cartoonish Spider-Man stories for kids, Marvel published stuff like "Star Jaws," in which Dr. Doom built a space station big enough to swallow the Earth and then fought Spider-Man and Moondragon with a lightsaber. It’s great.
The issue with Thanos might be the most bizarre of the bunch. If you’ve ever seen that panel of Thanos flying around in a helicopter with his own name written on the side, that’s where it comes from: Spidey Super Stories #39. For most of the story, Spider-Man and the Cat — Patsy Walker’s codename in this issue because apparently you couldn’t call someone "Hellcat" in a comic for babies — are trying to keep Thanos from getting his hands on a Cosmic Cube. They fail pretty miserably, mostly because Thanos uses the all-powerful cube to … uh … summon a dog? Like, a normal dog. Maybe slightly larger than average. They’re not exactly great superheroes, but to be fair, he’s also not a great villain here either.
In fact, he’s so bad that when he creates an earthquake to deal with the heroes, he winds up falling over himself. He drops the Cube, and it’s picked up not by Spidey not by Heck-cat, but by a young skateboard enthusiast named Speedy who commands the grass to tie Thanos up while they wait for the cops. With that, the Mad Titan, the Ultimate Nihilist, the man who only worships Death itself, is handcuffed and taken to jail. Thanos has had some brutal losses in the past, but getting perp-walked because of a 7-year-old is the kind of brutal own that you just don’t come back from.