If there's one criticism of the #MCU, it's that its villains have rarely been up to par. Other than Loki, Marvel's villains have been largely forgettable; from Malekith to Kaecillius, Marvel's movie Big Bads have rarely been compelling. More recently, Marvel's Netflix shows have offered us a reprieve from these cookie-cutter villains, but they've not had much of an impact yet.
Yet the perfect villain has been in the MCU all along, right in front of us for four years: #AgentsofSHIELD's Grant Ward. He's been holding it down as the unsung hero of Marvel villainy, the perfect baddie through all four seasons. When we list the bad guys of the MCU, his name is rarely ever on it. But in reality, Grant Ward has always been the answer to every single complaint fans have ever had about Marvel's villains.
Issue #1: Two-Dimensional Villains
Actor #BrettDalton brought Ward to life from the very beginning of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and his character has gone through arguably the most complex story arc out of any on the show. He's not two-dimensional like other MCU villains, but multidimensional, as complex as or more complex than any of Marvel's on-screen heroes. When we first met him in the pilot episode, the Level 7 operative is the epitome of the perfect S.H.I.E.L.D. agent: Noble, supremely skilled, competent, a natural-born leader and hero in the making. Nobody could have foreseen the changes his character would undergo; the revelation in Season 1 that Ward had been Hydra all along (sound familiar?) is arguably still the defining moment of the entire show.
Perhaps one of the most important elements of Ward's villainy was how well and skillfully he embedded himself within Coulson's fledgling team. Ward was recruited by Phil Coulson after being thoroughly vetted by Maria Hill, who ran Ward through a gamut of rigorous questioning about his previous missions while testing his loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D.. He quickly became an essential part of the team and even started a physical relationship with Agent Melinda May, though his real feelings were reserved for Skye (now known as Daisy).
His success at integrating with the team made his betrayal even more powerful; the revelation that he was Hydra came so unexpectedly and viewers had, to that point, been misdirected to May being the real traitor. From that moment on, Ward became a bit of a wildcard, often clashing with S.H.I.E.L.D. despite his feelings for Skye. The thing is, you still liked him. You even found yourself, at times, rooting for him. For once, we got an in-depth explanation about a villain's motivations: Through flashbacks, we discovered that Ward was an exceptionally damaged individual thanks to the torment he went through in his childhood. The first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are quietly a great psychological dive into how abuse, childhood trauma, and nature all work together to create a sociopath in adulthood, and Grant Ward is that sociopath. But he's a sociopath who is also a chameleon, and the fact he's constantly been reinvented on the show has kept us watching with rapt attention all four seasons.
Issue #2: Thin Backstories Or None At All
Because the villains of the MCU tend to have short shelf lives (see: Issue #3 below), we rarely get into their backstories. We never learn why they are the way they are. A meager backstory is something Grant Ward has never had, however. That childhood trauma mentioned above was dark. Real dark. His younger brother was the only person in his twisted family a young Grant Ward loved. Knowing this, Ward's older brother would torment Ward into abusing his younger brother, and his parents encouraged it.
"My older brother, he didn't beat up my younger brother. He was crueler than that. He made me do it, and I let him. I was afraid."
"What about your parents?"
"They were worse."
- Grant Ward, Season 1
Once, Ward's older brother threw his younger brother into a well in front of Ward and forced him to watch while his younger brother screamed for help. Eventually, the teenaged Ward snapped and tried to burn down his family home; he was subsequently arrested and his family pushed for him to be tried as an adult. While being detained, Ward was visited by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent John Garrett, who offered Ward a chance of freedom under the guise of working for S.H.I.E.L.D. It was here that Garrett began moulding Ward into a Hydra operative, unknown to Ward at the time.
Ward's first test involved Garrett abandoning him in a forest and not returning for six months. During this time, the young agent had to do whatever it took to survive; he built a shelter and hunted food while also raiding other people's cabins in an effort to find food. He even found a stray dog that he tamed along the way, his only companion in all that time.
After five years of grueling survival tests, Ward eventually earned enough of Garrett's respect to finally learn the truth: Garrett was actually a Hydra agent, explaining to his young protégé that the organization had been hiding within S.H.I.E.L.D. until the time was right to reveal itself to the world. But Garrett had one last task in order to break Ward's spirit and ensure his ultimate loyalty: He handed Ward a gun and ordered him to shoot his faithful dog in the head. Though tortured by it, Ward followed orders in order to win his mentor's approval, killing the only thing that had ever shown him affection. The act effectively shattered his mind completely, completing his transformation from troubled juvenile delinquent to sociopathic Hydra killer.
Issue #3: One And Done Roles
The most fascinating thing about Ward's story arc is that there have effectively been four different versions of the character throughout the show's run. The Grant Ward that we first met in the pilot is a drastically different character than the one we have now. This isn't a Marvel villain who lasts for a movie or a season and is then never heard from again; Grant Ward has quite literally been a Hydra, respawning in different forms, the villain who can not be destroyed.
We first met the "good" S.H.I.E.L.D. agent as an integral part of Coulson's team, helping out on every mission as an elite operative. But after the Hydra uprising, we saw a totally different side to the character. Ward became a very effective villain who often clashed with his former team, showing neither mercy nor that he had any qualms about torturing or trying to kill them if they got in his way.
Perhaps the most harrowing thing about his transformation was that he didn't seem to care about the people he had recently called his friends—at least, on the surface. There were times in which we saw the better angels of Ward's nature try to surface through moments of conflict and doubt. Even the legitimacy of those moments were questionable; we simply never knew if Grant Ward was actually capable of feeling remorse or if he was just a very good actor in a complex game.
During Season 3, Ward had a final confrontation with Coulson. After Ward killed Coulson's lover, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was filled consumed with vengeance and after a grueling battle on the planet Maveth, he killed Ward by crushing his chest. It seemed that was the end of Ward, until he (his body, at least) returned possessed by Hive, the ancient Inhuman trapped on Maveth.
After becoming Hive, the creature began a crusade to create an army of Inhuman slaves. It was a completely different character than one he'd ever been before, and Brett Dalton adjusted his performance accordingly. Whereas Ward had been cool and calculating, Hive was completely alien, inhuman (heh). It was fascinating to watch Dalton's performance as an alien learning to be human while in the body of Grant Ward and still with Ward's memories.
In #AgentsofSHIELDSeason4, the finale of which runs this week, Framework Ward seems to be the Ward we all thought we were getting at the beginning of Season 1; a highly-skilled agent who fights for good. True to Ward's character, even this version in an alternate reality also happened to be a double-agent, but this time the reverse, working as a S.H.I.E.L.D. spy inside Hydra.
Could Season 5 Be Grant Ward's Redemption Arc?
The version of Ward we meet in the Framework could arguably be seen as his redemption arc. After committing so many horrible acts throughout the show's run, we finally had the character on Team Coulson fighting for good—for real this time. After Ward's death in Season 3, it did seem that the character had run his course and come to the end of his story, but this new version of Ward has rejuvenated the character and offered an entirely new take on him.
With the Project Looking Glass storyline in AoS, we have a way for the digital constructs within the Framework to become real, so perhaps there's room for Ward to return once more. Only this time, he'll step into the only role he's not yet played in the real world: A true hero.
Do you think Ward is the best villain in the MCU? Let me know in the comments!