Sep 16, 2019
Marvel’s cinematic villain problem
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Jonathan Campbell. Enjoy!]
For those who don’t know, season two of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD just reached its mid-season finale, and it was good. Like, really good. For a show that started off weak and shaky and didn’t really seem like a comic book show at all, let alone one based off of Marvel Comics, it’s really hit its stride, and is now peppered with minor but welcome characters from the source material like Bobbi Morse (AKA Mockingbird) and a few other surprises, and it also sees the organization in an all-out war with HYDRA, as it should be. The show really does feel like it’s building the wider Marvel mythos in a way the movies have had little time or inclination to do until recently, and while I won’t spoil what happened in the latest episode, let’s just say a lot of characters and storylines have just been set up, and yes, this will affect the films.
Of the many things season two had going for it, one of my personal favorites was Daniel Whitehall, the head of HYDRA’s American cell after Robert Redford kicked the bucket in Winter Soldier. Whitehall is not a particularly deep or interesting character—he’s a cold and ageless evil mastermind who somehow managed to stay alive since the ‘40s, but dear God, he’s a bastard, a sadistic control freak who uses mind control, torture, and gruesome human experimentation (including one quite brutal surgery scene) to further his goals of mass murder and world domination.
Whitehall is a minor and quite recently created villain in the comics (he’s the successor to the goofily-named C-list HYDRA villain Commander Kraken) , but actor Reed Diamond played him to chilling perfection, striking a perfect balance of calm, cool, and controlling, managing to be vile and horrible yet highly competent and coldly charismatic. He’s not the only interesting or entertaining villain on the show (without going into spoiler territory), but in season two he arguably stands out the most. In fact, for my money, I’d say he’s one of the best individual villains in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But I’m not really sure that’s saying much, because when it comes to its villains, the Marvel Cinematic Universe kind of sucks.
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This is a pretty notable problem, because comic books, and particularly Marvel comic books, have some of the absolute best villains in all of fiction, period, mostly because they’re treated as being as much a core part of the cast as opposing them, with the long-running nature of comics meaning that even the most despicable of monsters can and do get complex and even sympathetic backstories, relationships, and motivations.
And so far, the MCU has been… pretty poor at showing this, to its detriment.
To be fair, the majority of really good Marvel villains belong to the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four franchises, with Magneto and Doctor Doom in particular being perhaps two of the four greatest comic book bad guys ever (along with Lex Luthor and the Joker from DC). But that isn’t much of an excuse, since the MCU still doesn’t make the best use of the villains they have.
Take Iron Man. Now, Iron Man doesn’t exactly have an exceptional gallery of rogues to begin with, but the movies’ solution to this problem is to, well, ignore them. The villain of the first movie is Obadiah Stane, re-cast here as Tony Stark’s treacherous second-in-command rather than a ruthless business rival pathologically obsessed with victory. Jeff Bridges is great in the role, don’t get me wrong, but even though it’s plainly obvious to the audience from the outset that this is a guy who can’t be trusted, the reveal that he’s the villain doesn’t come until near the end of the second act, and he spends most of the movie on the defensive, trying to cover up and get away with his past evil deeds, steal Tony’s stuff, and when all else fails, go on a rampage in a giant robot suit, and somehow escape and profit.
I mean, I get it—it was Marvel’s first movie, they wanted to focus on Tony’s origin story, and the final product is a very good movie. Stane is less interesting and threatening than his comic book counterpart, who had particular character tics (like a chess theme, given a minor nod in one scene in the movie), a complex and elaborate plan to steal Tony’s company, and an insane mindset that would ultimately choose death over defeat, but that’s no great loss, since what we got was good enough to set things in motion for the rest of the Marvel universe.
Unfortunately, it was a pattern that would repeat itself. The second Iron Man got a poorer reception, and while it did well at the box office and still has its fans (and I’ll admit, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of what’s in there), it shot itself in the foot early on by casting C-lister Whiplash as the villain. Well, technically, a composite of Whiplash and the more formidable Crimson Dynamo, but the latter just means they had yet another bad guy in a metal suit as the climactic bad guy (and that was a reshoot—the original ending didn’t even have Tony and Vanko fighting). Sam Rockwell is in it too, as a much younger Justin Hammer, and while he is fun, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously.
As for Iron Man 3… yeah, I get why they did what they did with the Mandarin, and yes, I understand all the arguments and sympathize with them, but they could have done things better. If nothing else, it feels like Tony—or perhaps, Iron Man—wasn’t really challenged in any of his movies by anyone except himself, and that isn’t something that requires the sacrifice of formidable external enemies. Especially since every single bad guy that Tony has fought (bar Loki) has actually been more interested in him than in being a menace to the world; and while that’s pretty common in many superhero movies these days (mostly as it’s an easy way to keep the focus on character development; easy, not best), it does have the effect of making them seem less superheroic than intended if the threats keep coming to (or being created by) the heroes, rather than them going out of their way to fight evil and do heroic things.
Okay, so this is a fanboy rant here, and it’s a matter of taste. The reason the Iron Man movies do this is because they want to focus on Tony Stark and his existentialist issues and character growth, and so they don’t feel that adapting his not-terribly-great rogues gallery is that important. And as far as the Iron Man movies go, I can’t say I’m too upset, because overall I think they’re decent movies. But when people complain about adaptations of a work, it’s because they like the things that end up getting lost in translation, and the classic superhero/supervillain dynamic is one of those things that’s gotten lost in a lot of these Marvel flicks.
Things get a bit harder to justify with the rest of the movies. Putting aside The Incredible Hulk, a movie that you may have forgotten about until I just mentioned it, we come to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Thor has Loki, who while being far less powerful and dangerous than his comic book counterpart, and a bit of a comic relief character at times, is nevertheless by far the most successful antagonist in the Marvel Cinematic franchise.
This owes much to the slimy yet Woobie-ish performance by Tom Hiddleston (who loves the Hell out of the role), who has exactly the right balance of psycho yet sympathetic that earned him millions of screaming fangirls who love him so much that they complained about how he was handled in the Avengers movie on the grounds that it made him “too evil” (ignoring the fact that the first movie was about him trying to murder his brother and wipe out an entire species, of course, but I guess they don’t like Frost Giants that much. Or Thor).
Loki is basically the deuteragonist of the Thor franchise, as well he should be, but that brings us back to the problem of the Iron Man movies: when the focus is on the character arc of your protagonist(s), it can come at the expense of other elements of the movie, if you don’t feel particularly interested in them. Enter Malekith from Thor: The Dark World, probably the most boring and generic of all the Marvel movie villains, and a waste of a perfectly good Christopher Eccleston (who spent hours in makeup each day, and even learned a fictional Dark Elven language for the role). He’s far less menacing or gleefully entertaining than the comic book version of Malekith, who I’ve gotten into the habit of describing as a barbarian-sorcerer version of the Joker, and a character who often serves as a rival of sorts to Loki.
In The Dark World, rather than serve as an evil-er foil to the God of Mischief, Malekith and the Dark Elves exist to give us a plot so that the movie can focus on what interests it more: the dynamic between Loki and Thor, and to a lesser extent other members of the cast. And along with the villains’ poorly described and vague motivation of “plunging the universe into eternal darkness”, this actually harms the film as a whole, since if you have weak villains, you don’t really feel like the characters are in any real danger, even when Malekith kills Thor’s mother and wrecks up Asgard. So consequently, it’s a bit harder to care about these characters; not because you don’t like them, but because you aren’t really worried for them.
Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger is slightly better than Malekith, if only because he gets more focus and has more of a presence, but he still has the problem of being a fairly generic villain, which is a serious step down from the comic book version. Red Skull in the comics is one of the most despicable and terrifying bad guys in the entire Marvel mythos, a malevolent and unhinged mass murderer whose character can literally be summed up as “worse than Hitler”, a monster who disgusts even the Joker, and who’s one of the most persistent and popular villains from the Golden Age (although, he does have the advantage of most likely still being alive, so he may come back in a future film).
He’s tricky to pull off right, because Marvel is going more for a family movie sort of feel, and doing the Red Skull right would mean making Heath Ledger’s Joker look like a carnival clown. But I still feel he could have been pulled off better, especially since Hugo Weaving—while he gave another good performance—has gone on record saying how silly and ridiculous he felt the character and franchise was. Not helping are scenes in the movie that undermine how serious we’re supposed to take him, like blowing up one of his own bases solely because Captain America shows up and he decides his men are “outmatched”. While it shows how evil and egotistical he is (he and Cap took the same serum, so he thinks of Cap as being at least as good as himself), it’s basically a parody of a cliché and makes him come across as a wasteful, stubborn idiot.
Lastly, in Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Ronan the Accuser, who’s basically Malekith 2.0, a marginally more interesting character who at least has a somewhat clearer and more acceptable motivation of being a genocidal fanatic, as well as a (one-sided) enmity with one of the heroes. But he was still a fairly uninteresting villain based on a much more interesting anti-villain. Comic book Ronan is the epitome of a Lawful Neutral character who passes steely judgment on people and worlds who displease the Kree empire, not out of some bloodthirsty xenophobic fanaticism, but out of an absolute iron sense of loyalty and duty to his people; he would back down if commanded, and show mercy if appropriate. Essentially, he’s Judge Dredd in space. And he’s given some complex and even tender moments, too.
Both movie-Ronan and movie-Malekith share the same dreary sense of aesthetics: both live in dark and evil black spaceships just so the audience can know just how dark and evil and black-hearted they are, rather than the movie giving us time or opportunities to get to know them better. Thanos shows up in Guardians as well, but while Marvel uses this and The Avengers to set him up as their ultimate villain, leading to a climax in a two-part Avengers finale at the end of Phase 3, thus far he too has done little other than sit or stand around acting like a dick while his underlings fail or betray him.
Say what you want about the DC movies, but Joker, Bane, and General Zod came across as threatening and interesting, each with their own ideology and motivation and backstory (or in Joker’s case, backstories); whatever problems those movies may have had, the bad guys added to the story and felt like they were driving the plot, rather than just being another part of it.
And that’s part of the problem: for better or worse (mostly better, but not wholly), Marvel seems to have intentionally avoided being like DC, not just in terms of having a much lighter and more optimistic general tone, but also in keeping their movies smaller and more focused on entertainment than having too much depth (or attempts at dealing with depth, at least).
That might work fine for individual movies or a normal action-based series, but its a bit harder to justify when adapting a comic book franchise, and it’s causing them problems. Because the way they handle their villains is symptomatic of a wider malaise: poor world-building in the earlier movies, as Marvel Studios was more concerned with simply having the movies made than thinking too long-term. This is evidenced by the fact that only the Thor and Captain America movies ended up having anything to do with the plot of The Avengers (giving us its villain and its MacGuffin, respectively) beyond introducing characters, while Iron Man 2 felt less like a genuine sequel and more like Iron Man 1.5, adding finishing touches to the world introduced by the first movie but not really standing on its own two feet.
Basically, one of the joys of reading a comic or watching a series based on them is the fact that the hero is not the only star of the show, and these films kind of miss that. Granted, a movie is not a comic or a show, and has to deal with restrictions in running time and such, but even so, it feels like they could have done much more with the rich and elaborate source material they were drawing from. Making grander and more developed movies can be done without compromising the overall upbeat feel of these films or taking it down a gritty Dark Knight-esque road. Mind you, the villains aren’t the only casualties of this somewhat minimalist approach to adaptations; many supporting players suffer, and with Dr. Strange around the corner, they have to backtrack on that whole “magic is just alien science” theme the Thor flicks and Agents of SHIELD went for. But the villains just stand out a little bit more to me because, dammit, I love the bad guys.
Which made me so happy to watch The Winter Soldier, because by God, it was good to see HYDRA back and have the heroes at a complete disadvantage for much of the movie, and the way Agents of SHIELD has handled them in season two has been pretty satisfying overall. Not to mention, they let both Crossbones and Bucky live to fight another day (Bucky likely isn’t an enemy anymore, but still).
And oh, that chill that went up my spine when I watched the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer and James Spader’s icy cool voice narrated how he was going to be destroying the world, and making references to Pinocchio sound eerily menacing, not to mention the trailer hinting at Ulysses Klaw and knowing that we’ll be seeing at least a little bit more of HYDRA in this flick, plus up to ten Marvel movies for Phase 3 that look like they might actually build off of one another and the larger mythos that they’re finally starting to really sink their teeth into, rather than “just” another sequel or “just” another origin story.
It’s been said that every great story needs a great villain; I don’t fully agree with that, but pulling off a deliciously evil or competent or complicated antagonist usually helps. And keeping the villains around rather than taking a James Bond-style approach of killing them off in every movie makes sense if you’re trying to build a multi-faceted fantasy world with ongoing plots and myth arcs rather than giving us the same story of “hero fights and kills the villain” over and over and over again.