So with the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ‘Doctor Strange’ hitting theatres across the world right now I felt as if this would be an ample opportunity to reflect upon something that I have been considering for a while. One consistent (and relevant) criticism that has been levelled against the MCU by both its harshest detractors and biggest admirers is the quality of their villains.
Many have said that a story is only as good as its villain, and while not all stories require an antagonist your standard blockbuster morality plays (so basically all superhero movies) often epitomise the conceit of what opposes the right path (our hero) with someone who follows a different path (our villain). In many ways the lack of substantial antagonists within the MCU has often been credited to Marvel having a fondness of their heroes, which is admirable, after all when it comes to some of the other high points of the superhero genre like ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Superman 2’ is that their villains are given so much attention that they almost eclipse the titular hero.
Furthermore you can also point to the fact that many of Marvel Comics most interesting and iconic villains don’t actually belong to the MCU, with the likes of Magneto and Doctor Doom still being in Fox’s possession. However a fondness for your heroes and a few copyright issues still aren’t enough to explain the lack of quality regarding their villains. Before I go any further I should still clarify that I enjoy the MCU a lot and if anything I like to think of this as more of a reflection than an outright critique of their movies.
There is no set formula for how to craft a good villain. An antagonist can be memorable for the pureness of their evil just as much as they can be for their complexity, the same goes for their likability or how reprehensible they are, how sympathetic or how utterly inhuman they can be. From Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Anton Chigurgh (No Country for Old Men) to Hans Gruber (Die Hard), at the end of the day if it works it works. So why do Marvel seem to struggle making their villains as iconic as their heroes? Well there is one commonality shared by many great villains, and it actually has a lot to do with the hero in question. The quality of a villain can depend greatly on how much they have to teach the hero.
This becomes more obvious when you analyse some of cinema’s greatest villains. Again this isn’t a paint by the numbers rule that guarantees results but by thinning the line between the hero and villain, ensuring that there is some kind of link between them that forces the protagonist to learn from the villain is what makes an antagonist intimidating on an existential level. The shrinking differences between the hero and villain mean that the differences between the audience and the villain have shrunken. So when the hero ends up learning from the villain through an unspoken connection we not only feel more compelled towards that villain, but more insecure about our own morality, thus provoking a real sense of fear concerning the antagonist as well as ourselves.
As I stated in my review of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ one of the aspects that makes Hannibal Lector so frightening, more than the stillness, calmness and face eating is the thin line between the ruthless cannibal and the determined FBI agent Clarice Starling. They are united in a common goal that serves their individual interests but the way they exploit one another to fulfil those purposes and their own intellectual connection. Through Lector’s therapy session Clarice not only comes to understand a dark side of humanity, but also a dark side of herself. Another example is David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’. At the start of the film Jeffrey Beaumont is fascinated by the criminal underworld and is only too happy to pry into it as an amateur detective, only to face pure and unspeakable evil when that world is epitomised in the form of Frank Booth. His own curiosity has suddenly been turned against him to become the ultimate nightmare. But if this is all too art house for you then look at arguably the most iconic villain of them all, Darth Vader. By establishing the parental link between them George Lucas used their similarities as a recurring motif throughout his original trilogy and worked into a fantastic payoff in ‘Return of the Jedi’.
There are also all of the villains I listed earlier, with Powell’s pure evil contrasting fiercely with the innocence of the children at the heart of the story, Chigurgh’s complete lack of morality serving as a harsh reminder to the Sheriff of the nihilistic violence that permeates the modern world and Gruber’s ruthlessly efficient decisions that contrasts John McClain’s morally driven reckless decisions.
So by that logic, which MCU villains have exhibited this quality that sets them apart as more than your typical bad guy? Starting with the most popular one can point to none other than Loki. While the God of Mischief has all the charisma and sly intimidation in the world thanks to Tom Hiddlestone’s terrific performance I believe his real staying power lies in his relation to the heroes. In both ‘Thor’ and ‘Avengers Assemble’ Loki serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of an ego driven personality with an obsession for power and competition, something that his brother Thor possesses in his own movie, and then carries over when the Avengers themselves struggle to work together due to their own competing personalities. Loki is not only the epitome of that self-destructive ego, but the way he relishes in it makes it all the more satisfying when he is finally vanquished.
Other good additions to the MCU’s villainous line up have also done a decent job of portraying this. Obadiah Stane is one, because while his transition from jealous to outright insane was rushed, it was necessary to offer a contrast to the man Tony Stark had become. Instead of being a competitive, corporate driven and ethically loose businessman who revelled in his dealings of death and destruction Stark’s redemption had to be made complete by defeating the man he once was. In many ways Stane himself summarises this sentiment when he yells “How ironic Tony, when you tried to rid the world of weapons you gave it its best one ever”. As opposed to being in Stane’s sense of mind where he would look at the Iron Man suit and see only profit and power, Stark ends the film as a man who wants to help people in the name of what is right.
In regards to its villains, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ in my opinion has more going on than many people give it credit for. One emotional crux of the movie is the conflict between Steve Roger’s old fashioned, morally driven sensibilities and Nick Fury’s more efficient and shady methods. What the two men have in common is that over the events of the film they find themselves forced against their former friends now enemies, in Steve’s case it is Bucky Barnes and for Fury it is Alexander Payne. Putting aside the fact that Steve’s ideologies of identity and free will are excellently underpinned by observing how his friend has become a monstrous killing machine when robbed of his own identity and free will, Steve and the audience ultimately end up learning a lesson when the Steve/Bucky dynamic is compared to the Fury/Payne dynamic. The fact that Steve is able to save his friend as opposed to Fury killing his indicates that there may actually be some hope for Cap to maintain his own sensibilities even when faced with the modern world, and while Fury seems to be beyond saving in this regard even he acknowledges Steve’s own independence from the ruthless world he inhabits.
The next ‘Captain America’ film also seems sure of the relation between its villains and heroes. ‘Civil War’ hinges on the desire for personal revenge and obsession when Helmut Zemo is revealed to be motivated to destroy the Avengers due to outrage over his own personal tragedy. This is reflected within the films three most valuable and emotionally developed characters, those being Captain America, Iron Man and Black Panther. In fact the script even goes as far to have Black Panther summarise their dynamic during the film’s final conflict when he says “vengeance has consumed you, it’s consuming them, I’m done letting it consume me”. While Zemo has turned Cap and Iron Man into reflections of himself, engulfed by revenge in the face of rationality until all that is left is a desire to fight (Iron Man motivated by the loss of his parents and Cap by the notion of losing Bucky again), Black Panther is able to put aside his own personal loss and allow justice to be served.
So we know when this system does work for the MCU, and we could also point to a few villains that came close to achieving this but fell short. Look at Ultron, whose egomaniacal eccentricity could work well considering he embodies the worst attributes of his creator Tony Stark, a machine that embodies everything Tony hates about himself. But their dynamic lacks any confrontation or acknowledgement of this notion, so it lacks substance despite being interesting. There may be something to say about the fact that in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ Abomination is a negative connotation of our hero’s immense strength as well as the fact that his origin stems from the Hulk’s own collateral damage, the film never explores it. One could argue that the grounded morality of Captain America is nicely contrasted by the pure evil of Red Skull but again there’s too much simplicity for it to leave a lasting impact. Then you also have Ronan the Accuser, whose single minded line of thinking could contrast the diversity of the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ but again it is never addressed in enough detail. That being said in a film that made us fall so utterly in love with its wisecracking heroes a melodramatic, super-serious villain was gratifying so I’m willing to be more lenient there.
Of course others just fail spectacularly, such as Sam Rockwell (I can’t remember his character name so I’m just calling him Sam Rockwell) and Whiplash from Iron Man 2, as well as both forms of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, none of whom have any interesting dynamic with Tony and if they did it was merely re-treading the first. You also have Maleketh, who is so utterly forgettable that I only remember his name and being annoyed that Chris Ecclestone wasn’t give more of a chance to display his talent. As for the villain of ‘Ant-Man’, I honestly can’t remember who that was or what he was doing.
So after that long rant what have we learned? Nothing much but at the very least we can hopefully come to a better conclusion as to why certain villains work and others don’t. As I said at the start the MCU remains a franchise that I enjoy very much, and if anything their ratio suggests they are still capable of creating an excellent villain, let’s just hope they come to the same realisation we have here.