Marvel has done a terrific job with its heroes. They’ve managed to tie six disparate characters into a cohesive unit across 11 movies. While the ending of Avengers: Age of Ultron makes me a little wistful for the loss of the old team, the studio did a good job of planting the seeds for the other characters, and I’m excited to see what the new Avengers have to offer. This is in addition to the terrific world-building, fun plots, and exciting action.
But with the exception of Loki, their villains are awful.
It’s been said that heroes are only as good as their villains, and Marvel has proved the exception by setting up perfunctory antagonists who are more of an obstacle than full-fledged characters. They lack shading and their simplistic plans and motives have become duller with every new film. Almost every bad guy wants either power or revenge, and both are defined so broadly that neither one is particularly interesting. A villain is essentially half the film, and when he (not surprisingly, there have been zero lead female villains thus far from Marvel) is boring, then it makes his scenes dull, provides no thematic weight, and provides an unsatisfying climax that comes down to a fistfight and/or things falling out of the sky.
So why do these villains fail and how can they succeed?
Loki, the Good Villain
The best villains think they’re the hero of their own story, and while other Marvel villains believe they’re doing what’s best, their best is defined by the size of their goal, not the worthiness of their objective. Loki, by comparison, genuinely believes he’s the best person to run Asgard. He wants the throne, but his motives come from a place of insecurity. He lives in Thor’s shadow, craves recognition, and his self-doubt deepens when he learns he’s a Jotunheimian, not Asgardian. Loki initially doesn’t even want to kill Thor. He’s a villain, but not one who immediately resorts to violence.
That’s because Loki actually uses his brain and personality. He’s not the first duplicitous villain (Obadiah Stain turned on Tony in Iron Man), but he’s the one who does it with the most finesse. He’s not just in it for mischief; he has a plan that involves moving pieces into place rather than just pulling off a mask. Even when he gets lucky like Odin having a heart attack and going into a coma (I’m sorry; “Odinsleep”), he wisely maneuvers his good fortune. Although he eventually arrives at Thor’s initial desire—going to war with the frost giants—but doesn’t go about it in a clumsy, hotheaded manner.
The film also takes advantage of a terrific actor, and Tom Hiddleston’s performance is essential to why Loki works so well. Hiddleston perfectly conveys Loki’s inner pain and makes him more than a manipulator who craves the throne. The actor understood that Loki has conflicting emotions. He resents Thor, but he doesn’t hate him. Even when he sends the Destroyer to kill Thor, it shows that he doesn’t want to do it in person. When Thor and Loki finally have their confrontation, Loki does it with tears in his eyes. Part of it comes from wanting to stay in power, but he also wants to get a rise out of Thor. He wants his brother to hit him. There are no more tricks in that moment. Only raw hurt remains.
So when the character comes back in The Avengers, we understand his origin. We understand that yes, he craves “power”, but he wants a throne. He couldn’t get it one place, so he’s come to get it somewhere else. He also remains a manipulator since being captured is part of his plan. Loki knows he needs to scatter the Avengers, and the only way to do it is from the inside.
Also, Joss Whedon understood he had a treasure in Hiddleston and supplied the actor with phenomenal dialogue and attitude. Loki struts around his subjects, but he always comes off as a pretender. He doesn’t command anyone.
Loki has it all—a terrific actor with time and room to build a character, and a detailed performance based on motives that extend beyond broad desires.
Villains Who Crave Power
The majority of Marvel villains have one goal: Power, and most of them plan to use the power to rule the world. Some go about it in a direct fashion. Captain America: The First Avenger’s Red Skull will wreak destruction by overwhelming his enemies using superior firepower. The Winter Soldier’s Alexander Pierce will do the same by launching an aerial assault, and, like Red Skull, it’s also in service of HYDRA.
Red Skull arguably fits better into The First Avenger not only because of Hugo Weaving’s scenery chewing performance, but also because it’s a straightforward film, so it should have a straightforward villain. The First Avenger isn’t complicated, which is why it fits so well into a good-vs-evil conflict. However, The Winter Soldier is a bit of a pretender. Pierce doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, and while his traitorous nature fits into the larger story of HYDRA agents hiding within SHIELD, he works from the same simple place as Red Skull—“I want to rule the world, and I have the weapons to do it.” The movie can couch it in our current political climate of security and privacy, but it’s using an old, outdated playbook.
Then there are the villains who want power for financial motives: Obadiah Stane (Iron Man), Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2), and Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3). For these three, they’re apolitical titans of industry who want to use technology to steer the world in their preferred direction. They’re realistic insofar as corporations controlling American policy, but in the Marvel mold, they plan to do it with weapons rather than financial power (which, granted, is slightly more cinematic than watching credit default swaps).
Finally, there’s the Abomination (The Incredible Hulk), who wants physical power and, not coincidentally, is exceedingly boring. All he wants is to beat up the Hulk, and I’m pretty sure I know who wins in a fistfight between the Hulk and Abomination before the slugfest even begins.
Villains Who Crave Revenge
These villains also want power to a certain extent, but they’re specifically driven by revenge. They’re like children who don’t know how to use their words so they just try to use the most powerful weapon at their disposal.
Ivan Vanko (Iron Man 2) is an oddball among Marvel villains. He doesn’t want to rule the world, and he’s not after a specific item, but he does want revenge against Tony Stark. However, he’s also working for Justin Hammer, who technically has more power, but is also so obtuse that he doesn’t realize Vanko is smarter. Either way, he’s a set piece villain who’s “avenging his father”, has some nifty electric whips, spouts some nonsense about blood in the water, and then throws some drones at Iron Man. Killian is kind of in the “I hate Tony Stark” camp, but getting back at Tony seems like a side benefit of the villain’s larger scheme.
Then there are two villains who could be carbon copies of each other: Malekith (Thor: The Dark World) and Ronan (Guardians of the Galaxy). They’re both aliens whose people were wronged by a prosperous culture (if you want to look for a subtext regarding U.S. foreign policy you can, but you’d be putting more thought into it than the movie), and now plan to get their revenge by wiping out everything using an Infinity Stone. They have a simplistic goal facilitated by a super weapon.
Malekith and Ronan not only lack personalities; they lack a people. The reason they’re in charge is because they “lead” the Dark Elves and the Kree dissidents, respectively. But Malekith was willing to sacrifice his own people to make his escape, and Ronan is a Kree zealot who doesn’t have a single Kree follower. Instead, they have faceless army who can be defeated by the heroes without remorse. They may as well be robots.
The Ultron Malfunction
I’ll give Joss Whedon this: Ultron is different than all of the other Marvel villains insofar as his initial motivations. His endgame—destroy the world, preferably by dropping something on it—is the same as other antagonists, but at least he’s coming from a semi-interesting place due to his parentage, anger, and confusion.
Unfortunately, the movie rarely delves into his conflict. Tony and Ultron trade more blows than dialogue, and Ultron rarely expresses his anger with his father. Their relationship is handled more on a thematic level, which deepens with the inclusion of Vision. There’s an interesting dynamic: Tony’s desire to protect the world ends up creating a weapon of mass annihilation except that weapon ends up creating humanity’s salvation.
But without delving further into a tangible relationship with Tony, we’re left with some nice, brief moments with the Twins, and a thoughtful closing scene with Vision (although I think Vision has the better half of that exchange). Beyond that Ultron is a charismatic figure with the same plan we’ve seen from other A.I. He’s just as much as child of Skynet as he is of Tony Stark. He may be filled with more emotions, but those emotions eventually give way to “Kill all humans.”
Thanos, the Weak Titan
There’s still an entire phase to build up to Avengers: Infinity War and the final battle between all the good guys and Thanos. However, what we’ve seen so far from the Mad Titan is laughably pathetic.
At the end of The Avengers, he was an exciting idea. However, his presence in Guardians of the Galaxy showed a villain who is either playing the longest game possible or is astoundingly inept. Rather than get the Infinity Stone himself, he outsources it to a guy he doesn’t need in the first place. Gamora and Nebula, Thanos’ daughters, are on loan to Ronan, so he’s a middleman. If Thanos really wanted the Infinity Stone, he could have sent Gamora or Nebula directly. Instead, it gets filtered down the chain until it reaches Korath. So to recap: Thanos’ plan to get an Infinity Stone goes down to a middleman who then sends it to middle management. Then, when the middleman gets the Infinity Stone, he uses it for himself and hangs up on Thanos.
Thanos also had an Infinity Stone in his possession inside the scepter, and gave it to Loki. This means that either Thanos’ plan involves giving an Infinity Stone to another person for an indefinite period of time, or Thanos didn’t know there was an Infinity Stone inside. The Infinity Stones are immensely powerful, and Thanos has missed out on two out of six and currently has none.
Assuming that Thanos is playing a long (and apparently needlessly complex) game, his motives are still unclear beyond “courting death”.
Overcoming Bad Villains
Skipping past Ant-Man (judging by the trailer, we’re headed back to Iron Man: The bad guy is a businessman who gets a suit that’s more powerful than the hero’s), Phase Three needs to up its villain game, and there are a few ways to do it.
First off, they can go the Loki route and give the bad guy more than one film to develop. Daniel Bruhl is playing Baron Zemo, a baddie who will appear in Captain America: Civil War. However, the main conflict in that film appears to be between Iron Man and Captain America, so it’s possible Zemo can lurk in the background and gain a little character development instead of having to launch an evil scheme. Last Novemeber, we reported that Zemo might also be the lead villain in Doctor Strange. Marvel lets its heroes develop over the course of multiple films, and they should be open to doing the same with their villains.
We’ve seen Thanos in three movies and he’s barely moved the needle, so perhaps it’s time to introduce his motive. In the comics, Thanos is in love with Death, and not just in a metaphysical sense. Death is a woman, and he wants to impress her by using the Infinity Gauntlet to cause widespread destruction and chaos. A villain who’s in love is an interesting twist, and it lends Thanos some humanity. Yes, he still wants power, but at least it could come from an emotional desire rather than a vague need to destroy.
But even if Marvel sticks to one-and-done villains, they need more character development. They need to want more than power or revenge. They should stop being dark versions of the heroes, and should take a more active role instead of relying on glorified henchmen. If they want to wipe out the world, it should come from a unique place rather than the need to subjugate others. And they definitely need to stop wasting talented actors like Christopher Eccleston, Lee Pace, and Josh Brolin.
Marvel has crossed worlds, expanded to future films, and built strong characters. It’s time to give the bad guys some glory.