Despite the widespread success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is not a narrative franchise that exists outside of critique. While it's held up better than its sisters over at the DC Extended Universe and — to a lesser extent — the Fox-Marvel Universe, it would be unfair to say that it always holds up to critical opinion.
Perhaps the biggest critique of the #MCU is the "villain problem," which has persisted in the recent years of the franchise, and was brought into focus by a lack of character development for Doctor Strange's Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in the last release.
The criticism hinges on the fact that the villains of the piece are often one note characters. And the bigger problem is that — like Kaecilius — they often suffer from poor character development, rending them one dimensional and not fully articulate. And as the superhero genre is built upon antagonism and conflict, without a good villain it's hard to have a good movie.
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But, despite this, the franchise is not without its strong bad guys. Here we take a look at the MCU's back catalogue of characters to see who makes the grade, who doesn't, and why.
1. 'Iron Man'
- Villain: Obadiah Stane / Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges)
The little movie that started it all, #IronMan's central antagonist was Obadiah Stane — the Iron Monger. Like most origin stories, Iron Man spends more time on tracing the fall and rise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) than it does on crafting the villain, but regardless, Stane comes out pretty well.
One of Tony Stark's numerous problems both in the MCU and in the comics rests upon his numerous daddy issues, so the betrayal by this heartless father figure made a very strong villain. Stane's motivation could've been stronger than merely financial gain, but the ruthless business tycoon figure still has its merits when it works as well on a personal level.
2. 'The Incredible Hulk'
- Villains: General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt); Emil Blonksy / Abomination (Tim Roth)
There are a lot of problems with The Incredible Hulk, and its villains are certainly one of them. Hurt delivers a good performance as the overbearing father of Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), but his single-mindedness on the basis of his military position could've used some expanding upon. He's also not really a villain — personal vendetta against the Hulk aside — but he is certainly an antagonist this time around.
Roth's Emil Blonksy had a lot of potential too. After being injured by the #Hulk (Edward Norton), Blonksy takes Bruce Banner's blood into himself as he wants the power to challenge him. But ultimately his loose grip on sanity lets him down, and it feels like a bit of a cop out. That and the dodgy CGI.
3. 'Iron Man 2'
- Villains: Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell); Ivan Vanko / Whiplash (Mickey Rourke)
Iron Man 2 is often considered the weakest of the trilogy, but it's not all that bad. The choice of villains is actually fairly interesting, especially Justin Hammer, as he is quite different to his comic book counterpart and it marks a change in tone for the villains of the MCU.
Hammer was given a more inept tone in order to create comic relief, something which was carried on into Iron Man 3 with Trevor Slattery. And Vanko is the foil to Hammer's naive schemes, ultimately screwing him over in order to further his own vendetta against Tony Stark. While Hammer has a business rivalry for his hatred of Stark, Vanko's is a much more personal agenda — another wrapped up in the relationship between father and son — and so he comes across as the strongest of the two. The whips are still a bit silly though.
- Villain: Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
#Loki has become a mainstay of the MCU, largely due to his effectiveness as a villain. And it all began back in Thor, which laid down the groundwork for his grudge against his adopted brother.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh — a Shakespearean stage actor — Thor adopts the classic Shakespearean framework of power struggles within a hierarchical family structure. Loki's motivation is clearly established throughout. Isolated from childhood by living in the shadow of his older brother — the golden child — the revelation of the truth of his heritage motivates him to take steps to usurp his brother and take the throne for himself. A classic paradigm, but still an effective one.
5. 'Captain America: The First Avenger'
- Villain: Johann Schmidt / Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)
Red Skull — Johann Schmidt — is Captain America's ultimate nemesis, the red-faced Nazi villain foil to Cap's chiseled American patriot. The two have warred on and off during the 70 years since his creation, and even Red Skull's offspring have gone on to cause big problems for Cap.
Despite the strength of The First Avenger, Red Skull was one of the weaker points as he doesn't get much development beyond the "ambitious, superstitious Nazi." And somehow he's scarier in the scenes when his face is covered by the Hugo Weaving mask. He's eventually defeated by attempting to handle the Tesseract (the Space Stone) with his bare hands, so it's nice that he's defeated by his own ambition in the end. We feel we may not have seen the last of him though...
6. 'The Avengers'
- Villain: Loki (again)
Loki's back, but he's not quite the villain he was the first time around. This time he's working for the Chitauri, who in turn are working for #Thanos, and his reasons for doing so are a bit less solid than before. He just really doesn't like Earth, because of Thor. (Chris Hemsworth) It's always Thor's fault.
Despite this, he's fun to watch, and it's nice to see the God of Mischief actually causing mischief amongst the newly formed Avengers. But on that note, the old "sowing discord in the group to fracture them" scheme has been done to death before, so it felt a bit old. Although he did teach us the insult "mewling quim," so we have to give him points for that.
7. 'Iron Man 3'
- Villain: Aldrich Killian / the Mandarin (Guy Pearce)
Iron Man 3 did something interesting with its villains, setting up Ben Kingsley's Trevor Slattery as the Mandarin, before revealing him to be a hired actor and Aldrich Killian to be the true architect of the scheme. But sadly, this was also it's biggest failing. While it was a nice subversion, it felt like a disservice to the man who is one of Tony Stark's biggest nemeses — if not the ultimate arch enemy — in the comics.
Additionally the twisting of the Extremis storyline to turn people into exploding monsters was a little too silly for a franchise that up till then had villains grounded in science and machinery. And let's not go into how the nerdy acne-faced Killian decided to wage war on Tony Stark because the playboy once ditched him when he was drunk at a party. Way to hold a grudge, dude.
8. 'Thor: The Dark World'
- Villain: Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)
We were so excited to see Christopher Eccleston in elf-ears as Malekith, but sadly The Dark World failed to live up to our expectations. And poor Malekith was about as effective as a damp cloth. Loki hangs around to cause trouble too, but he's not really in the antagonistic sphere this time around (at least, not until the end).
Malekith has an alright kind of motivation — Ruler of the Dark Elves, he returns after a thousand years in hiding to continue his war upon the Asgardians — but what he is attempting to achieve is the biggest cliche in the book. By using the Aether (the Reality Stone) he wants to defeat the Asgardians and... plunge the world back into eternal darkness. Dark Elf or not, that feels like a directionless concept. Also he doesn't get nearly enough screen-time to make us give a toss one way or the other about what he's trying to achieve and why.
9. 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
- Villains: Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford); Bucky Barnes / the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is held in critical opinion as one of the finest movies to come out of the MCU, and it's the one that cemented directors Anthony and Joe Russo as the darlings of Marvel Studios. And part of the strength of The Winter Soldier rests with its villains.
Firstly, there's the Winter Soldier himself. The amnesic, tortured tool of HYDRA, he's a mysterious figure from Steve Roger's past, an effective character to bring into conflict with Captain America (Chris Evans). He's directionless, but in a way that is backed up by the nature of his character. And those torture scenes can't help but make us sympathise with him.
And then there's Pierce, the scheming HYDRA leader hiding in plain sight. You have to admire how he orchestrated the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., and he's one of the only characters in the MCU with enough balls to smack-talk Nick Fury, so points for that.
10. 'Guardians Of The Galaxy'
- Villain: Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace)
A Kree radical, Ronan the Accuser cut a pretty intimidating figure in Guardians of the Galaxy. He starts off as a middleman to Thanos, but then realizes that he can take the power of the Infinity Stone for himself. He's got it out for the Xandarians, the mortal enemies of his race.
So far so good, but Ronan is kinda just written off as being a "fanatic." It's easy to prop up a character's motivations on the basis of them being a terrorist or the like. It's easy to call someone evil because they have a different religious bent, but it's harder to actually flesh them out and give them real, relatable points of view. And while Ronan is pretty damn scary, he was also the first Marvel villain to be defeated through the medium of dance (and friendship!), which kinda says it all really.
11. 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron'
- Villain: Ultron (James Spader)
How could James Spader voicing a robot turn out so underwhelming? First there's the strange design, the curving metal of his face, which looks like wheel rims. His first appearance in the body of a ruined Stark drone was actually more effective than his final upgraded design.
The theme of daddy issues continues, and that's an interesting but under-explored facet of Ultron — the robot rips off Klaue's (Andy Serkis) arm for daring to compare him to Tony Stark, his de facto "father." But he falls back into the generic "destroy the world because of thinly defined reasons" trope, with his master plan of destroying humanity to save the Earth having been played out before. Also, the singing. Nothing makes a giant robot less scary than having him sing. Did we learn nothing from The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
- Villain: Darren Cross / Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll)
Oh Yellowjacket, you never really had a chance. Despite Ant-Man being a surprising delight, the villain might've been replaced with a cardboard cut out for all we cared about him.
Another take on the "ambitious businessman" model, Cross failed to receive enough screen-time expansion to leave a mark. Which is a shame, as there could've been an interesting layer of rivalry painted through the fact that Cross was Hank Pym's old protégé, and Scott Lang was the new. His motivations for selling the tech to HYDRA are purely financial, making him a flat and one-dimensional villain. We can partially point to the fact that Ant-Man is an origin tale for this lack of development, but there was so much wasted potential here.
13. 'Captain America: Civil War'
- Villain: Helmut Zemo / Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl)
Despite the fact that his plan hinges largely on luck and coincidence, Zemo as a villain is pretty strongly established despite the fact that he doesn't get all that much screen-time. And his motivation for going against the Avengers isn't just personal, it also ties inexorably into the team's actions during Age of Ultron.
Zemo is an interesting villain because he's a schemer like Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), and a manipulator like Loki, but with real strong reasoning at his core. Part of the success of the character is that he manages to tie together the narrative of Age of Ultron with The Winter Soldier, while also maintaining his own identity. And he actually managed to break up the Avengers too, so, take that Loki.
14. 'Doctor Strange'
Villains: Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen); Dormammu (Benedict Cumberbatch)
While it pretty effectively sets up Baron Mordo as a threat further down the line, the missed opportunity with Kaecilius in Doctor Strange is frustrating, as the script omits a very important part of his backstory from the prequel comic The Zealot.
When Kaecilius lost his wife and unborn child, he sought refuge at Kamar-Taj, pursuing the teachings of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in an attempt to find a way to bring his family back from the dead. But this knowledge was denied to him, so he turns against the Ancient One. In Doctor Strange we know that Kaecilius is angry at the Ancient One for not sharing all her knowledge, but we don't know why, which leaves him feeling like a generic villain instead of a motivated one.
As for Dormammu, he isn't really established enough to be considered as a character, he's more of an obstacle that must be overcome instead of a villain in his own right. Maybe we'll see his return further down the line, but for now he hasn't made a very big impact.
What Can We Learn From This?
Comic books have produced some incredible villains, and some terrible ones. The same can be said for the MCU. Marvel villains have a huge range, and it's not really fair to write the series off as never having had any effective ones.
But it is fair to say that they could be stronger in certain areas. One issue with superhero movies is that they are peppered with origin stories, which means that the majority of the screen-time is handed over to the hero and their helpers as they learn to navigate the new world they find themselves in, before defeating the evil in the third act.
But there are exceptions, as both Iron Man and Thor produced effective villains by using characters linked to the protagonist. Same goes for The Winter Soldier. The best villains are ones who find themselves at odds with the hero character because of some specific motivation, rather than the old good vs. evil binary.
We're mature enough to watch a movie and want more from a villain than just being "evil." We need them to be intimidating, threatening, but also to have reason for what they do. Like the hero character, they need their own motivations, their own reasoning, their own journeys, their own conclusions. It's far more engaging to see Steve Rogers fighting HYDRA to save his best friend than it is to see him fighting them just 'cause they're the bad guys and he's the one in the star-spangled spandex.
On the flip side, the MCU Netflix television shows have received great praise for their villains, Jessica Jones and Daredevil in particular. But TV is a more malleable form, affording much more time and space to develop villains alongside the heroes with whom they come into conflict. And, dare we say, the Netflix TV side of the MCU has been a little more mature than the movies, with a different target audience of an older age.
Thanos has been perhaps the longest teased villain in cinema history, and yet we know very little about him. How his introduction proper into the MCU is handled in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War will go a long way toward balancing out the MCU's "villain problem." We're not saying it's make or break here, Thanos, but there's a lot resting on your big purple shoulders. Hop to it.
Who is your favorite villain of the MCU, and who do you think is the worst of the bunch? Have your say in the comments below!