The Marvel Cinematic Villains: What Makes a Memorable Antagonist?
(There will be spoilers for some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Marvel’s Netflix series, so read with caution)
Marvel Comics has given readers many memorable villains that fans still cherish today. Red Skull, Green Goblin, Venom, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Kingpin, Loki, and Thanos are just a few of Marvel’s iconic villains. While a couple villains have translated well to the big screen like Magneto in the X-Men franchise and Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, other villains have not faired as well. For example, most comic book readers would agree that no Fantastic Four film has ever accurately captured the complexity or the intensity of Doctor Doom. True, a comic book film does not need to be 100% accurate to its source material, but it should at least capture the essence of what made an antagonist memorable.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been praised for many aspects, but sadly the villainy in most of their films in not one of them. Many film-related Youtube channels like Chris Stuckmann and Collider Video have commented on this ongoing pattern in the MCU. The villains are not awfully written, it is more that they are often disappointing and one-note. A hero is only as engaging as his villain, so why is it that critics and audiences love the heroes, but not the villains? Loki is unanimously agreed to be the exception to this rule, so much so that he practically steals the show in the Thor movies. Why is Loki beloved by fans, and the other villains are not? It may be because what people view as threatening has changed in the last couple of years.
A Villain Needs Presence
Not all villainous characters need to follow a similar structure, but the one thing that they absolutely need is presence, as well as intimidation. For example: Darth Vader from the Star Wars trilogy is one of the most recognizable antagonists of all time because he carries himself with a coldhearted presence and his lack of tolerance for incompetence makes him that much more unpredictable. To be fair, not all the villains in the MCU fail in this aspect. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from Guardians of the Galaxy had a commanding presence. This was helped by how most of the characters saw him as an opposing force. He is a warmonger who is living in the past when it comes to the war between his race, the Kree, and the Xandarians. He is unable to accept the peace treaty established between the two races. Ronan can be paralleled with individuals in reality who let their prejudice of other people and races overshadow the importance of peace.
Then there are villains like Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) from Captain America: The First Avenger, who was not a lousy villain, but did not quite live up to fans’ expectations. Red Skull in the comics was Captain America’s polar opposite; a Nazi/Hydra officer determined on conquering the world. An antagonist needs a complicated and symbolic rivalry with the protagonist just as much as they need presence. Even though Red Skull was played by the great Hugo Weaving, the problem was that Captain America and Red Skull’s relationship was a by the numbers storyline where the hero must stop the villain. That may be well-suited for the comics, but a film villain needs to be more dynamic. A similar problem can be seen with the character Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) from Thor: The Dark World. Not only does the villain lack a personality of any sort, but he also speaks a different language from Thor, meaning there is no way for them to work off each other. The only motivation for Thor to stop Malekith is when he kills Thor’s mother, and even then there is no chemistry between the two.
There is also the problem of repetition for the MCU villains. Many of the same villain archetypes repeat themselves in each MCU entry. For example: the use of the evil businessman trope has been done to death in the MCU, and comic book movies in general. Ant-Man and the Iron Man trilogy are the most predominate examples of this trope. Many of the motivations for the villains are to take over the world, and that really doe not cut it anymore, and there is a specific reason why.
The Greatest Villains are Often Relatable
Relatable characteristics can make a villain much more realistically scary. The real world is certainly filled with immoral creeps, but it is also filled with individuals who commit crimes because they are left with no other options. To add to this, memorable villains often have a political subtext to them, whether it be from the past, present, or foreseeable future. Simply look at the complexity of Magneto from the X-Men franchise. Not only was he inspired by human rights activist Malcolm X, but he was also given a backstory with him being a victim of the Holocaust. By being mistreated most of his life, he basically sees no difference between the Nazis who imprisoned him, and the people who discriminate against him for being a mutant. Read this article to learn more about the immoral history of the Holocaust through the character of Magneto.
The MCU has infused political commentary into the character Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the film, Pierce is the commander of Shield and authorizes the use of flying war ships to patrol the skies, taking out anyone that could be considered a threat. The problem is that Pierce is secretly a member of Hydra, meaning the weapons meant to wipe out Shields enemies was really controlled by their enemies all along. Obviously, having weapons of mass destruction hovering in the sky is unconstitutional for many reasons. Yet at the same time, taking out terrorists with a push of a button is somewhat intriguing, although it still breaks the rights of citizens around the world. This commentates heavily on the use of drones and technical privacy, which is still being debated to this day.
Besides that, most of the other villains in the MCU lack relatable motivations or political subtext for audiences to gravitate to. In The Incredible Hulk, what is relatable about having Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) be turned into the Abomination, just to fight the Hulk? In Thor: The Dark World, what motivation does Malekith have to take over the Nine Realms besides just to be evil? Having a villain carry out deviant acts because they are “evil” is boring, and it hinders them from any further character development. Being “evil” is not a compelling motivation.
The other reason audiences might not gravitate towards a particular villain is because they are almost always killed off by the end of the film. It has become a repeating patter in the MCU, and the audience might not care about a villain they know is disposable. The big question hovering over the Marvel Studios is will Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin) be received well? After all, Thanos is the biggest and baddest villain to come out of the Marvel Comics, but at the same time, he might easily stroll down the same path as the other one-note villains. Are his post credit scenes and cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy enough to make audiences excited, or is Marvel Studios just setting themselves up for disappointing results? We will just have to wait for Avengers: Infinity Wars part 1 and 2 to find out.
But What About Loki?
There are three factors to why Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is often omitted from the MCU villain curse. Sure, Loki has a bad boy persona and has become an attractive figure in many fan communities, but there is more to him than just being a sex symbol. First, Loki is the only MCU villain to have a dominate role in more than one movie. The first Thor film basically sets up his motivation for despising Thor. In the film, Loki was originally born a Frost Giant, until the day Lord Odin, the sworn enemy of the Frost Giants, took in Loki as a baby and raised him like a son. As an adult, Loki not only becomes jealous of Thor being the next in line for the throne, but he also starts wondering whose side he should really be on; the Asgardians or the Frost Giants. While he may be a subservient villain in Thor, his popularity exploded after The Avengers, mostly because of the second reason he is immensely popular: his personality.
Loki is simply fun to watch, which can be attributed to the dialogue written by the immensely beloved Joss Whedon. He also engages with each member of the Avengers in some way or another, which makes him more integral to the plot. Last but not least, what makes Loki resinate with fans is his humanity. He may have a bad boy persona, but deep down he is basically a whinny child, only carrying out his acts to prove that he is better than his brother. With that said, he still has a soft spot for his parents. While wanting the throne for himself, Loki would never want to kill his father to get it; if anything, all he really wants it for is his father’s recognition. As for his mother, she is the only person Loki felt loved him, so the last thing he would want would for her to be in harms way.
Since Loki gained immense popularity, the creators of Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to ingrain Loki’s wittiness into their new villain, to mixed results. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) certainly got a couple funny lines, but his humor upstaged his intimidation. Also, unlike Loki, Ultron was a one-and-done MCU villain, and his desire to destroy the world was typical “evil robot” storyline. Ultron is by no means a terribly-written villain, but he and the other villains demonstrate why Loki is the quintessential MCU villain.
The Small Screen Villains
With the release of Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it is apparent that the tone of these shows is much grimmer than that of the MCU, and mainly focuses on street level crimes. Being streamable series, they not only have plenty of time to flesh out the heroes, but also the villains. These antagonists are not villainous because they are superhuman and threaten to take over the world. Instead, these villains are more menacing psychologically than physically. Every aspect that makes a villain strong is brilliantly demonstrated by the villains of each of these series.
For Daredevil, viewers received a complex character development with the criminal mastermind, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Fisk is brilliant in planning his rise to power in the crime organization, but at the same time he is extremely childish, always letting his anger get the better of him. He dresses himself in fine suits to mask the fact he is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. However, he shows compassion for his lover Vanessa Marianna, to the point that he would kill anyone that gets between them. Vanessa in return finds his dealings in crime attractive, as opposed to appalling. Together, they present Fisk to the media as the white knight of Hell’s Kitchen, when really he has the city under his thumb. Because he watches the city from his high tower, he only sees the citizens at the bottom as vermin. It is understandable when considering he lived in Hell’s Kitchen in his childhood, and the way his abusive father treated him and his mother shows why Fisk became a coldblooded murderer.
Jessica Jones gave Netflix viewers another psychopathic villain dressed in a clean suit with Kilgrave (David Tennant). Thanks to him being experimented on as a child, Kilgrave has the terrifying ability to give anyone an order, and that person has to carry out the command no mater how cruel or inhumane . He uses his powers to cover up his tracks by using other victims to carry out his dirty work, and Jessica Jones was one of those said victims. Jessica Jones simply wants Kilgrave behind bars after turning her into a puppet, but by the mid-point of the first season, she starts to wonder if his powers could be used for good, instead of selfish needs. The problem with this is that Kilgrave cannot grasp the concept of right and wrong, but at the same time how could he? He has little control over his powers, meaning he could never know if someone is legitimately befriending him or if they are under his control. Be that as it may, it does not excuse his perversion over other women, and his lack of empathy for any living being.
There is a lot to say about how Marvel’s track record for movie villains has more misses than hits, but its television villains have been considered some of Marvel’s best. It is not just because Fisk and Kilgrave have more breathability than any villain in a single movie. It is also because they reflect contemporary societal mindsets. With many politicians and celebrities being revealed as frauds, Fisk represents that just because the media sees someone as a good person does not mean they necessarily are one. Kilgrave represents how, in this day and age, it becomes harder and harder to trust strangers without worrying about being taken advantaged of. With this in mind, the reason most of the MCU villains do not work is because they are outdated in the public eye. The age of the mustache-twirling villain is dead, but if that means getting complex villains like Loki, Wilson Fisk, and Kilgrave, that might not be a bad thing.
Goldberg, Matt. “Marvel Needs to Defeat Its Villain Problem.” Marvel Movie Villains Are Weak and Need Serious Fixing | Collider. Collider, 5 May 2015. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.
Kuchera, Ben, and Susana Polo. “How Daredevil Created a Terrifying, Captivating Villain in Wilson Fisk.” How Daredevil Created a Terrifying, Captivating Villain in Wilson Fisk. Polygon, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 Jan. 2016.
Mandracchia, Christen. “Using X-Men: Magneto Testament to Teach the Holocaust.” Using X-Men: Magneto Testament to Teach the Holocaust. The Artifice, 2 Dec. 2015. Web. 2 Jan. 2016.
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