With Avengers: Infinity War rapidly approaching, I’ve found myself thinking far more about Marvel movies than I ever thought I would. In fact, originally I didn’t expect to even like them that much at all.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of action movies—I enjoy them as much as the next guy, but they don’t really tend to leave the theater with me, and for a while, that was how I approached the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. I saw Iron Man 2 and Captain America when they were on Netflix and thought they were cool, but I didn’t really give them much thought. I saw The Avengers in theaters, which was definitely fun, but then I moved on and basically forgot about it.
But then I saw Guardians of the Galaxy. I’d grown up with two separate Spider-Man franchises, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, an ever-growing and ever-more-confusing series of X-Men films, and of course the classic Christopher Reeve Superman. Needless to say, despite not being that into action movies, I’d had a steady diet of superheroes. Yet somehow, I left that theater feeling completely refreshed. I felt like I had just watched something completely new, and it wasn’t just the delightfully bizarre characters, the pretty effects, and the offbeat humor. After that, I began to care a great deal about the MCU. I’ve seen every new film since then in theaters, and I went back and watched the movies I’d missed. I’ve now seen every single one of these movies at least three times, and I’m beginning to understand why I find them so alluring. At the same time, I’m also beginning to understand the largest grievance people seem to have with them.
There are three main complaints I see raised against the MCU online. The first two—that the films tend to “look like muddy concrete” and that the soundtracks are rather bland and forgettable—are hard to argue with, and as a fan, they are a little disappointing. But with the use of new cameras and color-grading techniques and the intervention of composers Michael Giacchino (Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther), the general consensus seems to be that there has been serious improvement on those fronts. The third, however, is far more significant and far more contentious: the “villain problem.”
The idea here is that the antagonists in MCU movies often end up bland, unremarkable, forgettable, and dead. This, again, is hard to argue with. There is a veritable laundry list of Marvel bad guys with names like Vanko, Malekith, and Ronan who die at the end of their first movie and leave little to no lasting impression in your mind unless, like me, you’ve spent far too many hours painstakingly analyzing their performances to determine exactly why you need flashcards to remember their names. There’s not a lot of disagreement among fans over whether or not this is true, but as yet, no one seems to have provided a definitive explanation as to why, nor a solution that the community will agree on. One article by DigitalSpy provided multiple possibilities, but none of them really seem to hit the mark. The first suggestion in that article—that otherwise talented actors have been unable to give memorable performances due to being bogged down by makeup and excessive computer graphics—obviously cannot be responsible. James Earl Jones delivered arguably the single most iconic and memorable movie-villain performance in history as Darth Vader—a character whose body was portrayed by a separate actor and who never even shows his face. (Yes, I’ve seen Return of the Jedi. Don’t be pedantic; you know what I mean.)
Another suggestion is that the villains simply need more screen time in which to develop, but this is also provably false. Incredibly, IMDb has a list of MCU movies broken down by screen time for each major character. There, it’s logged that Ivan Vanko received a full 20 minutes of screen time—more than a third of the time given to the movie’s main character, and two minutes more than was given to the primary sidekick—and I’d bet you don’t even know what movie I’m talking about. I had to Google his name to make sure I had it right, and I’ve seen these movies three times. (It’s Iron Man 2, by the way. He’s the “I vant my burd” guy, played by Mickey Rourke).
The most compelling explanation I’ve heard so far is that the villains need to be more relatable to the audience and have more fleshed-out, emotional backstories. This, I feel, hits close to the issue, but it still doesn’t really address the main problem. While it’s certainly true that giving a better, more relatable, and more emotionally interesting back story to a villain would almost certainly make them more memorable, we shouldn’t have to do that. We know from previous works (like, again, Star Wars and The Dark Knight) that it is completely possible to create a compelling, memorable, intimidating bad guy who is also completely unrelatable, irredeemable, or flat-out insane. While Vader was famously given a richer backstory in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s hardly like anyone left the theater in 1977 saying, “What’s-his-face—Veemer? Vodar? Vader?—wasn’t really all that memorable.”
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is widely recognized as an absolute trainwreck of a film, but surprisingly, many bemoan the early death of Darth Maul, the red-faced, devil-horned Sith lord who lost a duel to Obi-Wan Kenobi. He never spoke a single word and was only on screen twice before his final fight, during which he was unceremoniously killed off. Going by the theories floated about the MCU’s villain problem, he should have been completely brushed off as a mere footnote in Star Wars lore, but not so. In fact, fans grew so attached to his character that he was later brought back to life in the animated Clone Wars series.
So, if the problem isn’t makeup or CG, and it’s not lack of screen time, then what is it? Well, I think it all comes back around to the same reason I actually like the Marvel movies: they’re sort of their own genre. Unlike traditional superhero fare, it seems to me that the films of the MCU, for the most part, aren’t actually about beating the bad guy. Each series of MCU movies has its own central theme, and the fight against the main villain often takes a back seat to developing that story. Guardians of the Galaxy, the film that got me hooked on the MCU, isn’t about defeating Ronan. As far as the story is concerned, Ronan—whose primary motivation was the destruction of the planet Xandar and all its inhabitants—may as well have been an encroaching asteroid. Iron Man isn’t about Tony Stark against Obadiah Stane, it’s about Stark’s struggle with his own legacy and his desire to correct the mistakes of the past.
If you look hard enough, you can of course find morals in absolutely anything, even if they aren’t there. Some films (see: Christopher Nolan) even deliberately insert completely meaningless gibberish that provides no actual moral clarity while simultaneously violating the first rule of cinema: “show, don’t tell.” But all of it typically remains secondary to the main focus of the story: the battle between good and evil. Whether it’s Superman versus Lex Luthor or Merlin versus Morgana, the story remains the same. Inside this construct, villains like Darth Vader and the Joker thrive. The fundamental structure of the story draws attention directly to the villain, setting them up as a physical representation of the very concept of evil. In this position, they only need to have one characteristic to be memorable: intimidation. Vader’s voice and helmet, Maul’s demonic visage, and the Joker’s complete insanity serve this purpose perfectly.
You can often immediately tell whether a movie is going to focus more on good versus evil or on something else by its opening. Good-versus-evil stories tend to emphasize immediately establishing their villains, sometimes even before their heroes. Star Wars: A New Hope begins with a clear demonstration of the threat that Vader poses and thus establishes its priorities as a story: “You should be scared of this,” it says. “This is what our heroes are up against.” It’s the same with the bank robbery in the beginning of The Dark Knight—it immediately establishes the Joker’s insanity, his philosophy, and the threat he poses to society, and in doing so, it tells us in no uncertain terms that the whole point of this story is to take him down. But this pattern is conspicuously absent from the Marvel universe. You will almost never see a villain in the opening scenes of a Marvel movie, and if you do, they’re not a villain yet. Instead of establishing their champion of evil for the hero to defeat, Marvel films prefer to establish their themes and how they relate to the hero.
Here, we’re finally coming to the meat of the issue: the relationship between the theme and the characters. The way I see it, for a villain to be memorable, they need to stand as a direct threat not just to the heroes, or to the world, but to the story itself. When the theme of the story is victory against evil, that’s easy; just make them as scary, intimidating, and powerful as possible. You know the story—evil takes over, good fights evil, evil is defeated. The scarier the villain is, the more unlikely this seems. You remember them because you know why you should fear them. But when, as is so common in the MCU, the movie does everything it can to distract from the fight and imply that there is an entirely separate conflict you should be worrying about, that’s not enough anymore. Whether you realize it or not, you’re not actually fearing for the hero’s life anymore. You’re fearing for what they stand for. If the villain isn’t a threat to the story itself, then they’ll just slip right under your radar. There’s a line in Pixar’s The Incredibles that embodies this phenomenon quite well. Superpowered siblings Violet and Dash are hiding in a cave waiting for their mother to return, and Violet warns Dash not to be naïve: “Mom and dad’s lives could be in danger,” she whispers, “or worse—their marriage.” This is played off as a joke, but it actually speaks to the way the story is constructed. The Incredibles isn’t about Mr. Incredible’s fight against the giant robots of his nemesis; it’s about his fight to keep his family together.
Likewise, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t about defeating Ronan, the primary antagonist. It’s about building a family. The focus of the movie is the idea that the family you make for yourself can often be just as strong and valuable as your “real” family. Each one of the Guardians relates to this theme in their own way. Peter Quill never got over the loss of his mother to cancer. Rocket never had a family, and the closest thing he has to a friend is Groot, his arboreal mercenary counterpart. Gamora was “adopted” by the mad titan Thanos, whom she eventually betrayed. Drax had his wife and daughter slaughtered before him. None of them have any of their “real” family left, but together, they forge a new family.
This is the true focus of the film. It begins not with a demonstration of Ronan’s power but with the heart-wrenching death of Peter’s mother and his abduction from Earth. Ronan himself has absolutely nothing to do with the central theme. Though his victory would mean the deaths of all of the Guardians, the movie has set us up to care far more about the bonds they’ve forged between themselves, which makes the threat Ronan poses entirely irrelevant.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, on the other hand, deals with this problem so effectively that Ego—Peter’s long-lost biological father, who is effectively a living planet—is set up to be a threat before he’s even revealed to be the villain. When the Guardians are brought to Ego’s home, he seems nothing but friendly and welcoming. Peter immediately begins to form bonds with him, finally playing the classic father-son game of catch he never could before. Gamora raises concerns, suggesting that something feels suspicious. The resulting argument drives them apart, and Peter spends even more time with his father. Here, though Ego has not yet been revealed as anything but a kind, gentle being who wants to spend time with his son, he is already becoming a villain. Peter is growing attached to him at an alarming rate and is beginning to isolate himself from the rest of the Guardians: his “real” family is superseding his new one. Ego is now a clear threat to the idea that your self-made family can be as strong as your biological one.
The Thor movies also deal with family, though in a completely different way: their primary focus is on the idea of familial responsibility. Loki stands as a clear threat, ostensibly due to his numerous betrayals of Thor and Odin but also due to his adoptive status. Odin made the choice to adopt Loki, the son of a Frost Giant. Each time Loki brings pain to someone else, it not only reflects poorly on Loki but also implies a lack of responsibility on Odin’s behalf in adopting him. Thor: The Dark World touches on practically none of these themes. It fails to establish a theme besides “beating the bad guy,” but then it also fails to establish the bad guy—Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves—as intimidating enough to hold up such a story. It is simply an all-around forgettable movie.
Thor: Ragnarok is interesting. Cate Blanchett’s Hela is a great villain for the first half of the movie, fitting perfectly with the continued theme of familial duty and responsibility (thankfully resumed after the second movie’s lapse). She was Odin’s second in command when Asgard was a warlike empire that sought to conquer and control. She is yet another reflection of Odin’s hypocrisy and poor choices, and she herself believes she is doing the right thing for her people by returning Asgard to its “rightful place” as the iron-fisted ruler of the universe. She doesn’t even understand that Asgard has moved on, as demonstrated in a particularly touching scene halfway through the film. She has bested Thor and Loki and returned triumphantly to Asgard. To her dismay, after a short speech proclaiming her intentions, she is threatened by the awaiting army and told to go back, “whoever she is.” She pauses for a second and then says, in a truly shocked and heartbroken tone, “I thought you’d be happy to see me”—before slaughtering the entire army. It is here that her character breaks down somewhat: her central motivation, as it relates to the theme of familial and cultural duty, is to return the people of Asgard to their rightful place as inherently superior to the rest the universe. But once she’s slaughtered their armies and driven the people to hide in the mountains, she alone is the benefactor of Asgard’s potential status. By alienating its people and laying waste to its armies, she loses her connection to the story’s themes and becomes just another megalomaniac.
Finally, there is my favorite villain: the Vulture. Spider-Man: Homecoming features the same theme that Spider-Man films have since 2002: “with great power comes great responsibility.” It’s about being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. From J. Jonah Jameson’s harsh headlines to Tony Stark confiscating his suit, one of the most important messages of Spider-Man has always been “Authority be damned—look out for the little guy.” It’s this message that the Vulture challenges. When you get right down to it, he’s trying to do the same thing as Spider-Man. He believes that Tony Stark and other millionaires like him are what’s wrong with the world. He believes that he’s looking out for the little guy by standing up to them, and he’s trying to take care of his daughter. He leaves an impression because if you accept that Spider-Man is morally in the right, you have to think about why the Vulture is not.
So what does this mean for Infinity War? Well, I don’t know. I will be perfectly happy if it’s just a fun two-hour slug fest between characters we’ve gotten to know and love over the past decade, but it could be so much more. The Russo brothers have written two of Marvel’s best films, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, so we’ll have to wait and see. The villains of the last three movies—Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-Man: Homecoming—have been substantially better than past antagonists, so there’s hope. (Black Panther’s Killmonger would require an entirely separate article to truly appreciate, and Twin Cities Geek’s Jonathan Palmer has already done just that, so I haven’t even mentioned him here.) All I can say is that April 27, 2018, can’t come soon enough.