The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Villain Problem

This past weekend I got to see Ant-Man, and overall, I enjoyed it. The humor was constant, the conflict was interesting, and the action was clever. It was a good service to the characters Scott Lang and Hank Pym, and I was happy I saw it. It wasn’t nearly as good as Guardians of the Galaxy, or Winter Soldier, but it was definitely a great way to beat the heat. However, as I left the theater, I came to a strange realization. I could not remember a single bit of dialogue from the antagonist, Darren Cross. The only thing I could remember is that he was played by Corey Stoll (and the only reason I remember that was because Corey Stoll is kind of weird-looking).

Sadly I wish this was just a problem associated with Ant-Man, but no, the villains in the MCU are at best mildly interesting, but at worst completely forgettable. (With one exception, but we’ll get to him later). This is a problem that needs to be addressed, because it’s hard for audiences to care about the hero winning the conflict if the villain isn’t interesting enough to offer legitimate stakes to the conflict.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has spent the past seven years making fantastic superhero movies. From the snarky Iron-Man to the loveable loser Ant-Man, they’ve created a whole universe of funny, dynamic, and interesting heroes that are making billions. And, I, like so many fans, keep going to see their films. Even the ones that are bad (Thor 2, Iron Man 3) offer some entertainment. They are great at building these heroes, but ever since the first Iron Man movie they have had weak villains.

His super power is over compensating.

Spoilers Ahead

Looking at Ant-Man we have this great lead character, Scott Lang. He’s funny, likeable, and has a great motivation with wanting to do what’s right for his daughter. And then we have Darren Cross, who could be a really fascinating villain. He was a former apprentice to Hank Pym, and the film could have explored the resentment he feels toward his mentor. But, instead of examining the possible psychological issues that Cross has, and what his yearning is in life that led him to villainy, we as an audience are simply told, “Oh he’s just crazy, because of the Pym Particles. That’s why he’s evil.”

That isn’t satisfying for the audience. So when we see Ant-Man kill Darren Cross (who became the Yellow Jacket) we don’t really care. It’s not the same feeling of seeing a hero triumphantly defeat his enemy. It’s the same feeling of seeing a friend finally take out the trash in his living room. It’s good to see him finally do it, but it’s not a worthwhile viewing experience, which is a shame, because almost everything else in Ant-Man is fun, and entertaining. It just has a boring villain.

Though admittedly his costume is a lot better than the original.

Looking at a few other examples can show the MCU how to create a great villain. The original Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy did a great job showing off very sympathetic, and intriguing villains. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn was a likeable, funny, and intimidating man. We as an audience got to see all the different lairs of him falling deeper into his insanity, before he fully embraced the identity of The Green Goblin. And this was not done at a sacrifice to Peter Parker’s development as a character; they were both given even amounts of screen time. In fact almost all the villains in the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy are given a lot of fascinating character development to make them interesting villains. Except for Topher Grace as Venom.

But, there are more superhero movies that understood how to create interesting villains. The Dark Knight, X-Men, and even the ever so controversial Man of Steel had great bad guys that were just as important to the movie. Heath Ledger’s Joker wanted to watch the world burn with his unique blend of urban terrorism, and sick humor. Ian McKellen’s Magneto wanted to make the world a safer place for mutants by eradicating humans. Michael Shannon’s General Zod felt that his only duty was to save the Kryptonian race by making Earth their new home. These are antagonists with clear wants, goals, and in some cases sympathies. That is more than what I can say for MCU’s display of bad guys.

Most of their villains overall lack any real depth, or complexity with their actions. Whiplash, Iron Monger, Abomination, The Mandarin, Aldrich Killian, Red Skull, Baron Von Strucker, and Ronan are all motivated by revenge, money, or trying to take over the world for whatever reason. They aren’t there to be a real challenge to the hero; they are there to fill out the bad guy checkbox and then move on. Most of them die anyway and can’t be reused for later films; part of this is probably because the writers and producers aren’t interested in bringing them back to flesh out their characters. It’s easier to kill them off.

While that mind-set of killing the bad guy off might work for lesser villains, it’s becoming a big problem for the bigger ones. Alexander Pierce from the Captain America: The Winter Soldier could have been a great character to come back to. Imagine Captain America having to interrogate him for more information about Hydra in a Silence of the Lambs style. But, no it was simpler to kill him off, so they wouldn’t have to go back to him. Ultron’s another character they could have easily brought back in many ways to create more conflict. But, again they killed him off.

And the award for most disappointing villain goes to…

The only villain they’ve kept alive and brought back for reuse is Loki. Who, at first, had a lot of interesting moral dilemmas as the lesser brother trying to prove himself worthy as a king. But, after a while his desires and conflicts just boiled down to, “I just want to rule something. I don’t care what it is anymore.”

And that leads to the biggest problem of the MCU; most of their villains suck. Loki just amounts to a whiney kid, Ronan was a religious fanatic angry over a conflict we as an audience didn’t get to see or understand, Ultron’s character was completely ruined to satisfy Joss Whedon’s dialogue of witticisms as opposed to the menacing robotic genocidal maniac that’s genuinely threatening, and can any of you remember anything about Malekith or what he did in Thor 2?

Man what a waste of a Christopher Eccleston. They don’t go on trees you know!

Now you might be wondering, “Wait a minute, what about Thanos. Surely the Mad Titan will be a major threat to the Avengers once The Infinity War Movies come around.” My response to that is simply, “Sure, if he actually does something.” Thanos has been built up so much that he can no longer intimidate us based on his design. He needs to actually do something that’s worth his anticipation. And now, I’m not seeing it. Especially considering Guardians of the Galaxy had the perfect opportunity to show off his destructive habits, but neglected to do so. Sure, it could have been because of time, but having him sit around saying what he might do to a character we aren’t invested in does nothing to build up his villain credibility. Now once the movies come out, then maybe Thanos will be as devastating as they make him out to be, but he’s just a vague adversary that’s coming eventually.

“I’m sorry, what’s my motivation?”

This is one instance where DC’s movies do have an advantage over Marvel’s. The Suicide Squad film is setting up villains that we’re going to see more of. We’ll see what makes them laugh, cry, and the struggles they go through. So, if and when we see them in the future, we’re going to have more of a connection to them. We may even feel sympathy towards them when Batman punches them, or we’ll get to see them in action. Say what you want about Joker’s face tattoos, his five seconds in the trailer was much more intimidating and memorable than most of the MCU villains. The movie might be shitty, but we’ll be able to see him in action, and actually cause some damage, which will make him a more viable threat.

That’s one terrifying Jared Leto.

However, there is one case where I am very happy to say, Marvel created a perfect villain. Wilson Fisk in Daredevil was fascinating on so many levels. He was sympathetic, he was intimidating, he took action, and it was impossible to tell how he was going to react to whatever situation was given to him. He was a great villain for the hero to overcome, and fight against. He had a love in his life that was heartbreaking to see get torn apart. He also didn’t die, and there are many stories and ways to bring him back, not just in the Netflix Marvel pocket, but the entire MCU. Vincent D’Onofrio did a great job giving this character a much more depth, and complexity than any of the MCU villains. Because, the audience cares about him, and is frightened by him; he creates an emotional reaction out of people.

I think we can all agree this made everyone shit their pants.

Now in all fairness Daredevil had thirteen episodes to build up the characters, even the side characters, and the movies only have two and half hours at max, so obviously things need to be cut. But, that doesn’t mean the bad guy’s motivation, or struggle should be simplified to a point where they are two-dimensional cutouts.

Marvel is great at creating good super heroes that are emotionally complex, have internal struggles, and are not cookie cutter boy scouts. Even Captain America isn’t perfect. But, when they keep fighting the same boring, dull villains that bring nothing new to the table and then get killed off, there isn’t much reason to keep coming back to root for them.

Nick Enquist
Nick Enquist
Nick Enquist writes opinion pieces and reviews of comic books, movies, and TV shows for Monkeys Fighting Robots.