The Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of fantastic stories, from the origin of Iron Man in Iron Man, to the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Films like The Avengers and Iron Man 3 have gone onto become some of the most successful films in history.
Despite their insane success and terrific story-telling skills, Marvel still gets a bit of criticism for one particular aspect: their villains. While some of the MCU's villains are quite complex, like Iron Monger and Loki, others are seen as rather dull, like Ronan the Accuser and Red Skull.
Despite audiences telling Marvel that their villains aren't good enough,, Marvel seems to have no intentions of fixing the "problem." Why is this? If Marvel truly cares about improving their films for audiences, they need to have proper conflict. So why aren't they fixing the "villain problem?"
The simple answer is that the villains don't always provide the central conflict of the film. While most superhero films use the primary antagonist / villain to steer the central conflict, the MCU has been mixing things up.
The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe focus more on the protagonist themself than they focus on the protagonist fighting the antagonist. There are already plenty of superhero movies where the superhero just fights the supervillain. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe relied on this overused hero vs. villain theme in every movie, it would have failed a long time ago.
Instead, the people at Marvel try to make their films stronger by following different literary conflict archetypes. These conflicts include:
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. Self
- Man vs. Technology
Most superhero films follow a Man vs. Man conflict, where the hero must face off against the antagonist. The Man vs. Nature conflict follows the hero who must defeat a force of nature, such as a beast who is attacking people, or even the apocalypse.
Man vs. Society would be one of those heartwarming tales where the hero knows something is right, even when the rest of the world doesn't think it is, and so the hero must stand against society to do the right thing. Man vs. Self is a psychological conflict, as it deals with the hero overcoming his own personal problems. Man vs. Technology features a hero who must overcome technological advances (robots, usually) — often, the hero himself creates the technology he must take down.
These conflict archetypes are all apparent in the MCU. In fact, depending on which angle you look at it from, nearly all of the MCU movies feature a conflict archetype beyond the typical 'Man vs Man.' The only Marvel movie that really falls under Man vs. Man is The Avengers. The others fall elsewhere.
The fact that 'Man vs. Man' isn't the central conflict in any of the Marvel movies proves what a small role the villains play in creating drama & tension in the Marvel universe. Let's take a look at each type of conflict and which movies fall under each.
Man vs. Society
Captain America: The First Avenger
While The First Avenger was marketed to have a war-themed Man vs. Man conflict with Cap fighting Red Skull, it primarily features the Man vs. Society archetype. Throughout the movie, Steve Rogers is pushed down by society, but he continues to get back up and fight what the world has tried to make him.
Before Steve became Captain America, he was denied the ability to do the one thing he wanted to do: serve his country. When he finally had the opportunity to serve his country, he was turned into a circus act. Steve refused to accept this, and took his destiny into his own hands by crossing enemy lines to save the U.S. captives. Even though society tried to stop him, Steve overcame their obstacles to be the man he knew he could be.
Thor: The Dark World
The antagonist in the second Thor, Malekith, is considered by many to be Marvel's weakest villain. This is because the MCU was too focused on developing the primary conflict of the film rather than developing Malekith, who was nothing more than a plot device.
The Dark World was actually similar to Pixar's Brave. Thor would soon become the rightful King of the Nine Realms, but he did not want this responsibility, because it was forcing him into a life he did not want to live. Thor wanted to live a simple life with Jane instead, and Odin (representing society) did not want this to happen. The entire movie was focused on Thor overcoming the life his father set up for him in order to make things right for Asgard, while still securing his life with the woman he loved.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier focused on Captain America throwing off the shackles of society, or what society had become. H.Y.D.R.A. had taken over S.H.I.E.L.D., uprooting everything Captain America thought he stood for.
The movie focuses on Cap and Black Widow taking on their corrupted government, knowing they would be made out to be criminals because of it. It was a very powerful political-thriller that I enjoy watching because of how unique it is for a superhero movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy
A band of criminals must overcome the labels placed upon them in order to make things right in the galaxy. Each of the characters have a label placed upon them that they must overcome. Star-Lord is an outlaw and thief; Gamora is the adoptive daughter of the most feared villain in the galaxy; Drax is a mindless brute who only wants to kill; Rocket is a failed experiment who is nothing but an abomination; and Groot is a tree with a limited vocabulary.
Despite these labels, the Guardians know what the right thing to do is, and so they do it. During the climax of the film, they must do the one thing they know they do not want to do: return to the government that gave them their labels. They know they will most likely be reduced to criminals yet again, but by taking that leap of faith and being themselves, they are finally seen as more than what they are labeled to be.
Captain America: Civil War
In Civil War, Captain America watches as the United Nations and his friends turn against him, forcing him to give into a law he knows is wrong. Captain America, along with the people on his team, stand up to the Sokovia Accords because they know what the right thing to do is.
This movie, in my opinion, is the perfect example of a Man vs. Society film. Not only does Captain America stand against the government, but he also must stand against his friends. He knows what the right thing to do is, and nothing - not the law, nor his friends - will make him move. The speech in the clip below perfectly displays how much of a Man vs. Society film Captain America: Civil War is.
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Man vs. Self
In Iron Man, Tony Stark faces a crisis after he sees his weapons being used by terrorists. Realizing the damage his weapons are doing to the world, Tony faces an inner conflict. He pulls back his weapon development in Stark Industries and creates an alter ego to help save the world he believes he has already doomed.
As the movie progresses, Stark's inner conflict progresses as well. His world falls apart as he learns one of his most trusted friends, Obadiah Stane, is actually the cause of the problem. Tony's own solution to the weapons problem only makes things worse as Obadiah uses the Iron Man technology to help his evil cause. It introduces an intense inner turmoil that Tony Stark wrestles with throughout the franchise.
The Incredible Hulk
While most people assume Hulk is a violent character, he is actually quite gentle in spirit. In The Incredible Hulk, we see the inner conflict of Bruce Banner as he tries to ignore his unique bipolar issues, while also running from the law because of what he had done as the Hulk.
Banner tries to ignore the fact that he is also an invincible Gamma-radiated beast, but the government will not let him forget. By the end of the film, he realizes that his dark side can be used for good, and he finds the perfect balance between Banner and Hulk just as the movie ends.
Iron Man 2
A lot of people love to complain that Iron Man 2 was not a good film because the villains weren't strong enough. That would be a valid argument if the central conflict of the film was about Iron Man fighting his enemies. I actually enjoy Iron Man 2 because of the incredible Man vs. Self conflict that exists in it.
The movie is actually about Tony Stark knowing that his arc reactor will soon kill him, and him letting the reality of it warp his mind. In an attempt to ignore the fact that he will soon die, he turns to alcohol and partying, completely losing what he stood for as Iron Man. As the movie progresses, Stark acknowledges his approaching demise and does all he can to cure himself.
In Thor, we witness the titular god of thunder learn to overcome his ego. At the beginning of the film, Thor is very full of himself and almost revamps a war between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants. Because of this, Thor is cast down to Earth and cannot wield his hammer again until he becomes truly worthy of it.
By the end of the film, Thor loses his ego and replaces it with humility, after learning what it is like to live a mortal life. He undergoes a powerful journey, and his selflessness is put to the ultimate test at the end of the film. Thor must destroy his connection to Midgard, where Jane lives, in order to save the world, knowing that it means he may never see the woman he loves again.
Iron Man 3
The Man vs. Self elements in Iron Man 3 are incredibly apparent, which is why it is one of my favorite MCU films. When we see Tony Stark at the beginning of the film, we learn he has been building countless suits since the last time we saw him in The Avengers. The reason for this is because he is using it as a temporary fix for his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Towards the beginning of the film, Tony loses these suits, which he sees as his only protection against the dangers of the Universe. Tony must conquer his fear and his PTSD in order to save what he knows is truly important in the Universe: Pepper. In the final moments oft he film, Tony destroys his suits, proving that he has conquered his inner demons and no longer needs to rely on them for his mental stability.
In Ant-Man, we learn that the hero of the film, Scott Lang, is a thief who desperately wants to be with his daughter. We also know that Scott is quite impatient and would rather do something wrong to seemingly make his life easier than actually take the time to do things the right way.
His crimes seem to land him right back in jail, until he is given the second chance at redemption. Scott overcomes his criminal nature in order to do the right thing, both for the world, and so he can see his daughter again.
Man vs. Technology
Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Man vs. Technology archetype goes a lot deeper than the "man fighting robots" concept that most people presume it to be. Instead, it is about a man fighting his own creations, and the creations of others too. Stories like Frankenstein follow Man vs. Technology as well. If you watch Age of Ultron expecting it to be only about fighting robots, it will seem rather dull. However, if you look at it as a Frankenstein type of movie, it becomes quite interesting.
In the film, Tony builds Ultron, a robot A.I. meant to replace the Avengers. Like Frankenstein, the rest of the movie follows the heroes chasing the "perfect specimen" they had created. This was no outside source of evil - it was evil created by themselves, making it their sole responsibility to stop Ultron.
All of these movies featured villains, yet if you took the villains out, the story would most likely remain rather similar. Marvel uses villains as plot devices rather than using them as the central focus of the film. This is why movies like Iron Man are named Iron Man rather than Iron Man's Villains. Villains do help the plot of the film, but they are not the central focus - the heroes are.
Characters like Whiplash and Malekith may not be as deep as villains like Hannibal Lecter, but that is because they don't need to be deep. The central focus of the film is the protagonist, and while Marvel may not have created the deepest villains, there is no denying that their heroes are more complex than those of most other superhero franchises. It may seem that the MCU has a serious villain problem, but when it comes down to it, the villains are really no problem at all.
Do you think the MCU 'villain problem' is really a problem at all? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!