Marvel’s villain problem (and why it may not be a problem at all)

It’s hard to complain about Marvel’s cinematic efforts. Since coming out of the gate with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has been firing on all cylinders in a way few studios ever do. Their best films are fantastic (cough Winter Soldier cough), and even their worst still manage to be decent popcorn entertainment. (Seriously, if The Dark World is the worst a studio has to offer, they are doing something right.) After a shaky start even their network TV offering, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has finally come into its own, and their Netflix shows are uniformly superb to the point of making me wet myself with anticipation every time a new one is announced.

Basically, Marvel has been making me feel like a 12-year-old fan again, eager to follow the ups and downs of super folks and drooling with anticipation to find out what they are going to overcome next.

tom-hiddleston-lokiSeriously, I write this a week before Civil War debuts in the United States (it’s obviously being posted afterward), and I am a ridiculous fool for it. First time in my life I ever bought tickets in advance for a movie. I almost never do opening weekends, either, because I can’t stand the froth of human that accumulates — I can think of only two times I did it for big movies — but I was there with frickin’ bells on.

Yet Marvel does have one kind of big problem: their villains are kind of lame.

Think about it. Everyone loves Tom Hiddleston’s amazing take on Loki, a performance so fantastic he managed to make one of Marvel’s lamest villains into a scenery-chewing icon beloved by the public and lusted after by geeky ladies everywhere. That’s a huge triumph.

Otherwise? Vincent D’Onofrio is over in a subscription streaming corner as the best, most compelling, most complex villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, then we’ve got a bunch of They Were Fines who filled the role but who otherwise didn’t leave a big mark.

Darth VaderAnd make no mistake, leaving a mark as a villain is important. It can make a movie. It’s often the stuff of damn legend. We all love heroes, but frequently it’s the villains who captivate us most. From Darth Vader to Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker to Walter White, science says we love super villains, and for good reason. An iconic villain can turn a good story into something great. See also, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

As good as the Marvel cinematic universe has been — and I’d argue that from a geek perspective, it has been AWESOME — who does it have who captures your imagination like Vader of Hannibal Lecter or Blade Runner’s astonishing Roy Batty? Who is the villain who slithers onto the screen and captures your imagination to the point where you almost kinda sort guiltily root for them to do some bad just because you want to see them on the screen some more?

They don’t exist. Oh sure, they’re fine. Most Marvel villains are decent. Some are even very good.

Hard to find greatness, though.

Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is as imperiously awesome as you’d expect from Red Skull, but the writing doesn’t have much (ahem) meat on its bones. Ben Kingsley was brilliant casting for Iron Man 3, and for half that movie he was one of the most compelling Marvel villains to date, but … yeah, you know. I defend that choice and think Iron Man 3 is way underrated! But still. ultronAnd James Spader as Ultron? What an insane, cool choice that was. Too bad he was wasted on a script that failed to fully explore the terrific themes Age of Ultron offered us. And finally, only Mickey Rourke could have made a laughable D-list nobody like Whiplash into someone so damn fantastic, because he should have been crap, yet he and ScarJo are the main reasons to watch the otherwise messy Iron Man 2.

Beyond that, you get a load of Perfectly Adequate and not much more. Jeff Bridges is great in Iron Man, but he’s no franchise character. I’m a big Tim Roth fan — there are few better slimeballs in Hollywood — but his turn in The Incredible Hulk was silly. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is a classic one-and-done. Thor: The Dark World, who can even remember the villain in that, despite being played by the superb Christopher Eccleston? Lee Pace tore it up as Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy, but that’s to his credit, not the writing team’s, because he made good from a pretty thin part. Corey Stoll was perfectly slimy in Ant-Man, but he was no scene-stealer. Winter Solider kicks ass, but he’s not really a villain. And the less said about the TV villains, the better, no matter how much I love the hell out of Powers Boothe. Only the aforementioned D’Onofrio and David Tennant’s slithery, broken Purple Man from Netflix’s Jessica Jones series offer much. Hell, they’re both better than most of Marvel’s silver screen villains!

In Civil War, not much changes. Crossbones has a bit part in the beginning, in the sort of James Bond opening these movies should do more often, but he’s just a cool looking badass who is quickly killed off. Meanwhile, Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo was wonderfully complex in his 38 seconds of screen time, a role I’d argue is underrated in fandom due to its subtlety, but there just isn’t full substance enough to throw him in the top tier.

So where are the great Marvel villains? Shouldn’t this be a bigger focus? Shouldn’t we have bigger, more iconic baddies to root against (and secretly root for)?

Yes. Maybe.

For as good as the Marvel movies have been, they have failed to give us a Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Jack Nicholson as Joker, Alfred Molina as Doc Ock, or Heath Ledger as my wife. heath ledger jokerThere just isn’t that amazing villain we love to hate. Hiddleston is there, and D’Onofrio should be if Marvel would stop with their stupid bias against pulling TV material into the movies due to their own internal Civil War — that’s for another post, but seriously, lots of movie stuff ends of on TV, never in reverse — but otherwise, nada. Nuffin’. Nope!

I’m not the first to observe that Marvel does crappy villains. <—-That link is just one chosen at random, because the topic has been hit on many many times by many many people. Seriously, you can look here and here and here and here and here for just a few other examples of people expressing this sentiment.

Yet here’s the thing: that’s the right strategy.

What Marvel has done is to make us care about the heroes first and foremost, and in a way that mirrors franchises like Indiana Jones, James Bond, and others, yet with more depth of character than any of those franchises have managed. Sure, those movies sometimes had cool villains, but first and foremost our focus was on the hero. We cared about them. Star Wars is fantastic, Star Wars is awesome, but is Luke Skywalker particularly compelling without the presence of Darth Vader? I don’t have to type the words “he is not,” because you already know the answer.

And unlike franchises like Bond and Indiana Jones, Marvel is giving us actual character arcs that grow and change from movie to movie. The Tony Stark we met in 2008 is not the Tony Stark we know today. He began as an egotistical anti-hero who did the right thing to be cool into a guy frightened of his own mortality and who acts altruistically not because he’s pure of heart, but because he’s wracked with guilt. Chris Evans’ Cap went from the naive 1940s hero to a guy trying to deal with the political complexities of the modern world. And so on.

As a result, we get two things. We get a series of movies that keep us coming back time and again even after we get a forgettable installment or lousy villain, because we’re locked into seeing what these heroes will do next, but — and this is the long-term, slightly cynical but totally smart thing — we also get franchises that allow Marvel to recast key roles in the way that the James Bond franchise can, because we love the idea of BOND, not Mr. Big.

By the time Chris Evans steps aside as Cap — a tough day, because I’d argue that this is the best superhero casting since Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent — the public will love Cap enough so that more Cap will suffice (provided it’s good), just as they want more Bond, whether he is played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, or Chris Evans Captain Americathat balding blond dude they’ve been throwing at us.

Marvel has already shown no mercy with recasting. Edward Norton is a highly praised actor and creator, but he was ooouutt thanks to creative differences with Marvel. (No surprise there, Norton is notoriously difficult.) Terrence Howard was ousted and replaced with Don Cheadle, because Howard wanted money money MONaaay! And there have been a number of minor recastings, including the Thor guy you never noticed and Howard Stark, who has been portrayed by THREE different actors. Between that and the rapid-fire introduction of new characters like Black Panther, Vision, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man, and that guy who swings from webs, the takeaway is that they are preparing HARD for the day when Robert Downey Jr. is finally too old to panty-drop as Tony Stark, aka the C-list hero who jumped to the A-list based on charisma alone.

That’s smart.

Also smart is making the hero the focus of the story rather than the villain. Yes, a legendary villain can turn a mediocre film into something for the ages, but Marvel aren’t making mediocre films, they’re making the best action adventure flicks of today. They need their villains to be just good enough to provide a fun foil for the hero, which I’d argue they have done. The list above is not awful by any means, it’s just not exceptional. That’s okay, though. Their heroes ARE.

That’s exactly their aim, and if they want to built a franchise that weathers superhero fatigue and the like, that’s the exact right approach. Hardcore fans can tell you who the primary villains are for Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Bob Newhart, but most people? They remember the hero.

And that is where, despite the apparent shortcomings in their villains, Marvel gets it right.

Now if only they’d stop killing them every other movie …

32 Comments

  1. Tom McGrew

    I’d have to mildly disagree with the Chris Evans casting bit as I think Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is the more perfect choice and will be impossible to replace. Although, I do think Evans ranks up there with hard to replace actors. For me, when it comes to superhero casting choices there are 3 roles that have been cast so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role — Reeve as Superman, Jackman as Wolverine, and Downey Jr. as Iron Man.

    Reply
  2. Tom McGrewTom McGrew

    I’d have to mildly disagree with the Chris Evans casting bit as I think Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is the more perfect choice and will be impossible to replace. Although, I do think Evans ranks up there with hard to replace actors. For me, when it comes to superhero casting choices there are 3 roles that have been cast so perfectly that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role — Reeve as Superman, Jackman as Wolverine, and Downey Jr. as Iron Man.

    Reply
    1. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      I think most people would agree with you on RDJ over Evans, and I can’t really argue with that. He redefined the character, is absurdly charismatic, and all but built the MCU. I mentioned Evans instead, though, because 1) I’m a big fan, and 2) Evans more closely captured the comic Cap, while RDJ created a new Tony Stark that the comic has since adopted. But yeah, most people will agree with you, and that’s understandable.

      Reply
    2. Tom McGrewTom McGrew

      Great article, BTW.

      Reply
    3. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      Thank you, sir!

      Reply
    4. Frank SaxonFrank Saxon

      RDJ certainly set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Evan gave it a heart.

      Reply
  3. Wayne Osborne

    Really good article and you share my view that it’s the heroes that should matter the most in these movies. But as much as I love the original Superman, I wouldn’t put Hackman’s Luthor in a list of great villains.

    Reply
    1. Eric San Juan

      Perhaps more fair to say that he was a memorable movie villain, but he was Lex Luthor in name only.

      Reply
  4. Wayne OsborneWayne Osborne

    Really good article and you share my view that it’s the heroes that should matter the most in these movies. But as much as I love the original Superman, I wouldn’t put Hackman’s Luthor in a list of great villains.

    Reply
    1. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      Perhaps more fair to say that he was a memorable movie villain, but he was Lex Luthor in name only.

      Reply
    2. Wayne OsborneWayne Osborne

      If only I could forget both him and Otis…

      Reply
    3. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      Otis, yes. He was … no

      Reply
  5. Eric San Juan

    I think most people would agree with you on RDJ over Evans, and I can’t really argue with that. He redefined the character, is absurdly charismatic, and all but built the MCU. I mentioned Evans instead, though, because 1) I’m a big fan, and 2) Evans more closely captured the comic Cap, while RDJ created a new Tony Stark that the comic has since adopted. But yeah, most people will agree with you, and that’s understandable.

    Reply
  6. Tom McGrew

    Great article, BTW.

    Reply
  7. Wayne Osborne

    If only I could forget both him and Otis…

    Reply
  8. Eric San Juan

    Thank you, sir!

    Reply
  9. Eric San Juan

    Otis, yes. He was … no

    Reply
  10. Ian Sokoliwski

    Honestly, your take on this is exactly why I think that Zemo has been my single favourite villain in any of these movies. He was the perfect villain (the shadowy manipulator who wants to use everyone against each other, never throwing so much as a punch at the main heroes) to let the movie be about the heroes and their own differences. Not so much a ‘regular’ movie villain but, instead, the catalyst for larger characters to punch each other in the face. And GOD DAMN if he isn’t one of the most sympathetic villains in any comic book movie ever!

    Reply
  11. Ian SokoliwskiIan Sokoliwski

    Honestly, your take on this is exactly why I think that Zemo has been my single favourite villain in any of these movies. He was the perfect villain (the shadowy manipulator who wants to use everyone against each other, never throwing so much as a punch at the main heroes) to let the movie be about the heroes and their own differences. Not so much a ‘regular’ movie villain but, instead, the catalyst for larger characters to punch each other in the face. And GOD DAMN if he isn’t one of the most sympathetic villains in any comic book movie ever!

    Reply
    1. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      I LOVED Zemo. He’s gotten targeted for criticism a lot, saying he was a weak villain, he didn’t have depth, etc., but I appreciated that he didn’t twirl mustaches and seek power. He was just a very capable, very broken man looking to … well, to avenge some loved ones. Wonderfully handled, while also letting the focus be on the heroes – which is as it should have been in a movie called Civil War. 🙂

      Reply
    2. Jim PipikJim Pipik

      The CW villain was great, but he wasn’t Zemo.

      Reply
  12. Eric San Juan

    I LOVED Zemo. He’s gotten targeted for criticism a lot, saying he was a weak villain, he didn’t have depth, etc., but I appreciated that he didn’t twirl mustaches and seek power. He was just a very capable, very broken man looking to … well, to avenge some loved ones. Wonderfully handled, while also letting the focus be on the heroes – which is as it should have been in a movie called Civil War. 🙂

    Reply
  13. Trevor Griffiths

    The lack of strong, charismatic villains is one of my big beefs with the MCU and a big reason why I just can’t get into the Marvel movies. It’s hard for me to get really invested in a story that hinges on the premise that all these awesomely powered super heroes are needed to save the Earth from Tom Hiddleston’s mincing about.

    Reply
    1. Eric San Juan

      Understandable. I think most have been fine, a few quite good, there just haven’t been any scene-stealers. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of opinion, though I’m of the mind that you have to care about the heroes first.

      Reply
    2. Trevor Griffiths

      Eric San Juan evil will always win because good is dumb.

      Reply
    3. Eric San Juan

      If I had a glass in my hand right now, I’d raise it to you

      Reply
  14. Trevor GriffithsTrevor Griffiths

    The lack of strong, charismatic villains is one of my big beefs with the MCU and a big reason why I just can’t get into the Marvel movies. It’s hard for me to get really invested in a story that hinges on the premise that all these awesomely powered super heroes are needed to save the Earth from Tom Hiddleston’s mincing about.

    Reply
    1. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      Understandable. I think most have been fine, a few quite good, there just haven’t been any scene-stealers. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of opinion, though I’m of the mind that you have to care about the heroes first.

      Reply
    2. Trevor GriffithsTrevor Griffiths

      Eric San Juan evil will always win because good is dumb.

      Reply
    3. Eric San JuanEric San Juan

      If I had a glass in my hand right now, I’d raise it to you

      Reply
  15. Frank Saxon

    RDJ certainly set the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Evan gave it a heart.

    Reply
  16. Jim Pipik

    The CW villain was great, but he wasn’t Zemo.

    Reply

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