Honestly, there are a couple of issues that I get real tired of hearing. One of those is the “comic book fatigue” that all of the online movie “experts” want to claim is happening. I am so tired of this. Where is your evidence of this? Black Panther is preparing to blow away all expectations at the box office as did Thor:Ragnarok before it. The evidence shows that if you make a good/great comic book movie, the audience will come see it. No fatigue there.
But, that deserves its own column at another time. This column is about the other easy slight that people lay at the feet of Marvel Studios which is “Marvel does not have any great villains.” Again, I call BS.
First of all, if we want to be divisive about it, how many great DC villains have we had? Outside of the Joker in Dark Knight and Zod in Man of Steel, who are they? Jared Leto’s Joker? He was completely wasted. Batman v. Superman’s Lex Luthor? He was one of the most hated aspects of that film. Suicide Squad’s Enchantress or her CGI brother? Horrible. Justice League’s Steppenwolf? Come on. Even Wonder Woman’s Ares was probably the weakest part of that great film.
But I do not want to engage in the DC vs. Marvel argument because it is counterproductive. Instead, I want to focus in on the Marvel villains that have appeared in their 18 movies during the age of the MCU. Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige had said the following:
“Well, I mean, it always varies, but it always starts with what serves the story the most and what serves the hero the most. We’ve been criticized, if a big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true.”
Now, looking that that quote, Feige is saying that there is only so much time available in a movie and that they are looking to focus on the hero. We have all seen movies that spend too much time on the villains where it feels like the hero is not even in the movie (Batman Returns?). Feige understands that you look to your hero and the story first, and then you develop the villain. Feige has also stated that the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War will be Thanos’s movie, so that might change.
This focus is also the reason why Netflix’s Marvel villains such as Wilson Fisk, Copperhead, Jigsaw and Killgrave were such amazing villains. The time allotted to their development is greater since the time available is more. You can do more in 13 hour TV seasons than you can in 120-130 minute movies.
Even with this, I would argue there have been very few weak Marvel villains. The first one everyone brings up is Malekith from Thor: Dark World. This, I would agree, is the worst of the Marvel villains because of how much of a waste the character was. In the comics, Malekith is one of Thor’s most vicious villains, manipulative and monstrous. The film failed to portray him in such a way and the movie counterpart has become completely forgettable.
Whiplash from Iron Man 2 was also a step down for Marvel. Like much of Iron Man 2, the villain was lost among set up for future movies. There was an adequate performance from Mickey Rourke in the film, but it felt too rushed. As if the movie was hurried into production after a huge success of the original. I believe that Marvel Studios learned from their mistakes in Iron Man 2 because most of these errors have not been done at this level again. Even with the errors, Whiplash was not terrible, and Iron Man 2 brought us Justin Hammer.
Hammer fits into a category of Marvel villains that would be non-powered villains who manipulate for their own advantage. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) from Iron Man was a great villain that showed the opposite of Tony Stark. Stane was a power hungry man who was willing to have his friend killed in order to take over his friend’s company. Robert Redford became a leader of Hydra in Captain America: Winter Soldier and was tremendous in the role. Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo is much maligned from Captain America: Civil War, but I contend that he is one of the best villains Marvel has had. He has realistic motivations that you can relate to and he basically wins at the end of Civil War. An argument could be made that the villain of Civil War is actually Tony Stark, but Zemo does not get the credit he deserves. Civil War felt like an origin story for the Baron Zemo from the comics and I expect to see more of him in the future of the MCU.
Of course, you can’t talk about the MCU villains without talking about the one that practically everyone agrees is the standard bearer. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has sat on top of the mountain since he slithered his way onto our screens in Thor. However, as of today, some people might claim that Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger from Black Panther has replaced the “puny god” at the top. Both of these villains are amazing and the performances from these charismatic actors are a big reason. Loki has benefited from appearing in three Thor movies as well as the Avengers, giving more time to develop him as a character. Killmonger’s motivation is just so relatable to the movie going audience that you can’t help but root for him. Despite the terrible acts he perpetrates, Killmonger is someone we like seeing on our screen.
There are villains that some say are underused, and they may be. Ronin from Guardians of the Galaxy may have been little more than a plot point, he was a very effective plot point. He brought an intimidating presence to the film and served as a perfect foil to the dance off at the end. Lee Pace does everything that is needed of him to make the Guardians of the Galaxy such an epic trip. Kurt Russell’s Ego the Living Planet from Guardians Vol 2. was another great villain with a wonderful performance. He brought the story of Peter Quill’s parentage to a close and was able to bring to the screen a Marvel villain that you never thought would be there. Plus, it is Kurt f’n Russell.
I’m not sure how, but we have gone this long into the column without mentioning Hela, played by the exquisite Cate Blanchett. Hela was also well developed, considering all she wanted was her birthright as the Queen of Asgard. She had been cast out into the Underworld by her father Odin because he feared who she was, despite riding into violent battle at her side. Odin struck her from the history of Asgard, completely covering up the record of her existence, even from her brothers Thor and Loki. I’d be a little unhappy as well.
Who am I leaving out here? Red Skull? A great villain in Captain America First Avenger and I think we will see Red Skull again one day. Hugo Weaving was perfect as the Red Skull. The biggest issue with Red Skull is that Weaving was not a fan of the role. Dormammu from Dr. Strange. The film’s main villain was really Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) and was also spent setting up Baron Mordo as a future villain for Stephen Strange. However, Dormammu is involved in one of the most original super hero endings in the entire MCU with the “I’ve come to bargain” tactic. Abomination? The Incredible Hulk is a very good movie that does not get much recognition and the Abomination is great. Tim Roth certainly provides us with a strong character prior to his transformation into the raging giant green creature. Yellowjacket? I found Darren Cross to be the perfect foil for the first Ant Man film and I really liked the look of the character. His defeat at the end of that film was a great one. Michael Keaton was amazing in Spider-man: Homecoming as the Vulture. One of the most compelling and frightening scenes with him was out of costume, as he talked to Peter Parker in the back of his car.
There have been a couple of Marvel villains so good that they wind up becoming heroes. Loki has fought with the heroes before, though usually because of his own selfish motives. Nebula is the daughter of Thanos and had a grudge with her sister Gamora. Still, the Guardians films have shown how she took the pain of her childhood and misdirected it so much that she was seen as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Yondu is another example of this as the former Ravager head become a father figure to Star Lord and his death at the end of Vol. 2 was one of the best, most emotional moments in any MCU film. The Winter Soldier is the main villain of Captain America 2, but his reveal as Bucky Barnes showed that this villain would one day become a hero. It looks like Bucky is just about there after his appearance in Civil War and his appearance in (SPOILERS) the post credit scene of Black Panther. (END OF SPOILERS).
How about Ultron? Some people did not enjoy the presentation of Ultron in Avenergs: Age of Ultron, but I was not on of them. I found the character to be outstanding, especially with the voice work of James Spader. Perhaps the final fight with Ultron was not at a level it should have been, but the film Age of Ultron was a victim of its own expectations more than anything else.
Mandarin from Iron Man 3 is one of the most divisive characters of all time. Marvel simply could not provide the world with a Mandarin as he is in the comics. The Mandarin is a walking racial stereotype and would have been rejected. Instead, they pulled off one of the best twist surprises ever, revealing that Trevor was not the Mandarin, but in actuality an actor who was hired to be the face of the role. I think Marvel understood that making Guy Pearce the Mandarin at the end was an error and they retconned that out with one of their short films. That does not mean that Marvel did not show tremendous guts in pulling off the twist. I am sure they expected a backlash, but they did it anyway and created a moment for all MCU.
Before you immediately dismiss the MCU villains, think about what they are meant to be, what they have accomplished, and the amazing group of actors that have taken these mantels up and understand that, for what they have been given, they have exceeded expectations.