Has Marvel Solved Its Villain Problem?
This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel’s cinematic universe has spent the last decade dominating many of our lives as well as box offices across the globe. Whether superhero movies are your jam, or you’ve spent the last decade or more praying that the genre would run its course, you can’t deny the colossal success of the franchise. Also undeniable? Their villain problem.
We’ve seen Marvel succeed with everything from origin stories to sweeping epics that span galaxies, but they manage to be consistently eluded by decent villainy. There have been a few historical successes from the comic giant; Loki, though he managed to go out a hero, pulled off more than a few moments of delightful trickery. The very parts that made him occasionally heroic were what made him an interesting baddie, or at least a layered one. His allegiance was fleeting, but you could always trust his rage.
The often forgotten Arnim Zola should also be acknowledged in the short list of villains prior to 2018 that weren’t fascinatingly bad. In fact, being forgettable is exactly what makes him one of Marvel’s better baddies. Red Skull got all of the glory, but it was Zola that succeeded. After ingratiating himself to the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D, he not only managed to keep Hydra alive, but was the reason it flourished. His actions took down S.H.I.E.L.D. and set the groundwork for the Avengers’ crumble. Honorable mention to Vulture for being just on the cusp of greatness.
That’s it. Those are the few that have managed to be noteworthy enough to warrant more than a shrug. Others, like Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War), Obediah Stain (Iron Man), and Alexander Pierce (Captain America: Winter Soldier) were fine, but don’t quite live up to what you’d want in a superhero epic. The rest? Oh boy. You’ve got a couple of rip-offs of past baddies, like Darren Cross (Ant-Man) and Hela (Thor: Ragnarok). There’s the boringly power hungry, like Kaecilius (Doctor Strange), Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy). And then there’s the truly unfortunate like Whiplash (Iron Man 2), Malekith (Thor: The Dark World), Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3), and Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2).
There’s no real rhyme or reason as to why Marvel has had such a villain curse. Perfectly respectable writers have churned out some of these big bads, and they’ve been coupled with exceptional talent like Lee Pace, Robert Redford, Hugo Weaving, Sam Rockwell, and more. Diving into what’s caused this trend in the MCU is a whole separate editorial, but the question now is whether or not they’ve finally broken out of their rut.
It's 2018. The world is bad, but the antagonists are oh so good. The year kicked off with Erik Killmonger, cousin to the one and only T’Challa. He’s layered, he’s complicated, his funny, and he’s right. Not about killing a bunch of folk, that part’s bad. But his reasoning for wanting to arm his brothers and sisters with Wakandan weapons to stand up to their oppressors? Well, that checks out. His ruthlessness is founded in his abandonment and fueled by the constant murder and persecution of his people. The fire of those motivators follows him to his death, leaving us with a man who would rather die free and on his terms than live a slave. The greatest of villains make both the audience and the protagonist think, and Killmonger delivers on both so fundamentally that he directly influences T’Challa's decision to bring the technology of Wakanda to the rest of the world.
And then there’s that big purple guy. Thanos is a monster. He’s the most disgusting kind of deplorable. Ego the Living Planet doesn’t hold a candle to his hubris, and yet one of them is a yawn fest while the other is captivating. He’s interesting in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, but he catapults himself into greatness the moment he stands with Gamora in Vormir. His surrogate daughter fundamentally misunderstands him, delighting in the fact that he’ll never reach his goal because he’s never loved anything, but it's his love that makes him extraordinary.
No part of Thanos wants power for the sake of power. He chases it for the reason we see many of our heroes do the very same: to save life. No stakes are too high to ensure that life continues on, even if that means half of the galaxy and the one person he truly loves must fall in the process. That might be (should be) some of the most misguided shit you’ve ever heard, but the devastation he feels over the loss of his daughter takes him from merely reprehensible to somewhat sympathetic.
While adding Killmonger and Thanos to the short list of successful villains Marvel’s doesn’t outweigh the unfortunate number of crummy ones, it does give them their two best back to back. Perhaps this means that they’ve broken their streak. The other option is that Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel’s baddies will pale in comparison until we hop back onto that Avengers train in 2019. Hopefully the former ends up being the case.