*WARNING! SPOILERS FOR PRETTY MUCH ALL MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE FILMS. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! I MEAN, YOU SHOULD REALLY READ IT ANYWAY THOUGH…*
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is great. There’s no denying that. It’s fun, it can be emotional, it’s colourful, it’s exciting and above all it is very enjoyable to watch. That being said, a lot of the films in the universe do tend to follow a bit of a formula, especially the origin films. And with that formula comes one problem: the villains. Obviously the heroes get more screen time than the villains, that is always the way it works. But the villains are generally so lacking in substance that they are mostly forgettable. And that is a problem.
Ask someone to name a Marvel film villain and I would say the most likely first answer would be Loki. He’s had more screen time, more back story and more character moments than any of the other villains. That’s why he’s more likable and why people remember him the most. They might also mention Thanos, but with barely 5 minutes screentime Thanos making the big bad list is purely anticipation for ‘Avengers: Infinity War‘. Most people could probably rattle off a few more, but really, are any of them memorable? And if you do remember them, do you even care about them?
Let’s start from the start. The villain of ‘Iron Man‘ was Obadiah Stane, who becomes the Iron Monger. He seems like a good guy at first, but then turns of Tony to sell weapons to terrorists and create his own massive version of the Iron Man armour. He’s normal, then suddenly he is crazy for no reason. And then he dies. This is the exact same story as ‘Ant-Man‘ villain Darren Cross, who becomes the Yellowjacket. An evil, better version of Ant-Man. They at least try to explain his sudden madness as expose to Pym particles, but still, crazy for no reason and then he dies.
If people aren’t going crazy for no reason, then they’re literally an evil version of the hero. Doctor Strange fights evil sorcerer Kaecilius, Iron Man fights evil Iron Men made by whip-wielding-Iron Man Whiplash, Hulk fights Hulk-with-bones Abomination and Captain America fights red-faced-supersoldier Red Skull. Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige has stated that is mostly because origin movies are about the hero learning their powers and so giving them something entirely different to contend with would not allow them to explore that. Which I understand. But it can’t go on forever. It would be infinitely more interesting to see Iron Man go up against someone with magic powers or Hulk to go against someone who uses intelligence instead of brute strength.
Other forgettable villains are ones who have very little character development, poor motivation or are just plain boring or interchangeable. ‘Thor: The Dark World’ had Malekith, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘ had Ronan the Accuser, ‘Iron Man 3‘ had Aldrich Killian and ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron‘ had Ultron. All of these villains could swap places with each other and swap their bland and faceless armies and could easily be in the other films by changing very little plot. That’s not good. We need villains with personalities and clear, relatable motives that actually make us feel for them.
That’s why some of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe do work. Loki, for instance, is probably the best example. He has tons of personality and is actually kind of likable. He’s basically an adopted son of Odin who was always the second favourite. He just wanted to be liked. And that turned to jealousy and that jealousy turned to rage and turned him into a villain.He’s relatable and a joy to watch. Similarly, ‘Captain America: Civil War‘ has Zemo, a man who has lost his family due to the actions of the Avengers and wants some revenge. To be fair though, that film also hugely benefits from having Captain America go against Iron Man due to their differing opinions which is also hugely more interesting. The villain of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger‘, the Red Skull, was also in my mind a good villain. He may not have had the back story that made you relate to him, but he was menacing enough and even kind of scary so that you really felt he was a villain to contend with. Thunderbolt Ross and Alexander Pierce are fairly decent as human villains that pull the strings behind organisations and other villains, but on their own they couldn’t carry a film. The Winter Soldier was also a great villain as he had the backstory of a previous movie on his side. Captain America’s former best friend who had been brainwashed and turned into a super assassin proved a very formidable foe and made for a very memorable villain in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Nebula is also fairly interesting as she has a sister bond with Gamora and yet their sibling rivalry comes between them and adds an extra layer to their confrontations.
The Marvel Netflix shows benefit from an extra 11 hours of time with which to develop their villains, but they do so to great effect. ‘Daredevil‘ Season 1 had Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, as the big bad. He was humanised and given a tragic past and a love interest of his own to really ground him as a real person. On top of that he was very menacing and violent when the time came which also made him a real threat. ‘Jessica Jones‘ had David Tennant as the Purple Man, whose power gives him the ability to tell people what to do and they have to do it. That’s a pretty crazy power! On top of that, he had motives that specifically involved hero Jessica Jones and so he was pretty compelling as a villain. ‘Daredevil‘ Season 2 began with an interesting villain, in that he wasn’t really a villain. This season introduced the Punisher to the MCU as the criminal killing anti-hero from the comics. His methods directly contrasted those of Daredevil and so the two came to blows more than once. Their contradictory views on crime and how to deal with it made for some really great conversations and really made you think. That’s what makes a great villain.
Other films and franchises seem to do this quite well. Perhaps the best and most obvious answer would be the Joker from ‘The Dark Knight‘. He is the opposite of Batman and really challenges his rules and principles. He forces Batman to have to be a better hero and make some realisations about his crusade. That’s what a villain needs to do. Challenge the hero at their core and force them to become a better hero and a better person. Who remembers what Malekith wanted or how Thor had to become a better hero to beat him? Nobody? Didn’t think so. Even General Zod in ‘Man of Steel‘ was a good villain with clear motives, menacing powers and attitudes and some good action scenes.
The henchmen or second villains are generally lacking also within the MCU. Granted, henchmen are generally just put into films to give the hero or their help some muscle to get through before they reach the main villain, but you still expect them to be memorable and somewhat menacing. Crossbones, Kurse, Korath. All just boring henchmen that don’t really get any standout moments and are usually dispatched easily and without too much trouble. Arnim Zola almost breaks this mould, being a scientist instead means he doesn’t put up much of a fight to anyone, he just does evil science stuff. Justin Hammer is pretty useless, the evil ninja gang the Hand from ‘Daredevil‘ are pretty interchangeable and who even remembers Laufey as an antagonist from ‘Thor‘? And then you get Ben Kingsley as the ‘Mandarin’ in ‘Iron Man 3‘. Possibly Iron Man’s greatest foe of all time, with 10 magical rings of power all granting different abilities. Pretty awesome right?! How will Iron Man fight this great foe… oh wait he’s actually just an English actor pretending to be a terrorist. Great. Brilliant twist….
What some of the films do well though is plant seeds for future villains. The most prominent one being the mad titan Thanos. First popping up in the post credits scene of ‘The Avengers‘, then having a 5 minute speaking part in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and then having another credits scene after ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron‘. Whilst we haven’t seen him do much except sit on a floating chair, smile, and wear an empty infinity gauntlet, the prospect of having him assemble all the infinity stones and fight ALL of the superheroes at once is a real exciting one. I just hope he lives up to the hype and really delivers a threatening performance. ‘Doctor Strange‘ introduced us to Dormammu, ruler of the dark dimension and one of Strange’s greatest foes. Whilst his role was small, hopefully he will return in the future in his true comic book form to really menace Strange and our dimension. The film also planted the seeds for Mordo to become a great foe. Having him begin as a friend and ally of Strange and seeing him become disenchanted and feel betrayed by the sorcerers that he trusted was kind of heartbreaking and gives weight to his motives to rid the world of sorcerers. Hopefully he will continue to grow and become a really interesting, despite the fact he would be another villain with the same power set. Marvel On Shot ‘All Hail the King‘ showed Ben Kingsley’s fake Mandarin adjusting to life in prison, but also hinted at the presence of a REAL Mandarin out there in the world somewhere, leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organisation. Now this may just have been to backtrack on some of the criticism ‘Iron Man 3’ faced, hopefully it also means that the real Mandarin may show up sometime to menace Iron Man. ‘The Incredible Hulk‘ also set up the appearance of the Leader, something which I am not all that excited about, and something that we probably won’t ever see, but is an intriguing prospect nonetheless.
The near future also looks promising, with Thanos, the Vultrue, Ayesha, Hela and Killmonger all set to menace in ‘Avengers: Infinity War‘, ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming‘, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘. ‘Thor: Ragnarok‘ and ‘Black Panther‘. Hopefully all these villains live up to their potential and Marvel’s villain problem will gradually fade away.
Marvel do have some great villains to pick and choose from in their comic book back catalogue. They just need to give them more personality, more to do, better motives and make them really contradict the hero. We should even feel for them and understand what they want and why. Even make us kind of want them to succeed because we get where they’re coming from. A great villain is one that is the opposite of the hero and reveals flaws in the way they fight crime. They make the hero question themselves and make them strive to be better. Because they need to become a better hero to defeat that villain. That’s what villains are for. Villains make better heroes. And better villains and heroes make for better films.