When I think of ensemble superhero epics like The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Suicide Squad, there are more than enough reasons to smile. For example? All the iconic lead characters portrayed by brilliant actors and actresses who share a great chemistry. Also, how can one forget the epic action scenes that offer plenty of eye candy? But I seem to be forgetting something — the villains. Probably for a good reason, too. In none of the aforementioned films are the baddies particularly memorable.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that villains in these movies are downright useless, and I certainly didn't dislike them. It's just, well, they do seem to be the weakest link in these ambitious comic book undertakings. Furthermore, they often seem to fall under a surprisingly similar stereotype: A nonhuman entity who has a pretty straightforward scheme, accompanied by an army of expendable henchmen who the lead characters must fight off. And no, I'm not forgetting Loki; he was great. However, he too falls under that same description in many ways.
This prompts a series of questions: Is having less complex villains a necessary part of the formula for creating a huge comic book epic with many superheroes in it? Or are the DCEU and MCU playing it a bit too safe? Let's take a look at some of the potential reasons behind this and whether it's something that can be improved upon in the future.
The Film Focus Is On The Ensemble
To a large extent, it's simply a question of focus. The main aim of these films is getting these awesome characters together, giving them all a more or less equal amount of attention, and having them interact with each other in an entertaining manner. In a way, it is already a minor miracle when the filmmakers manage to pull that great feat off. So it's inevitable that even in a two-hour-plus film, there is simply not enough time left to focus on the villains.
In other words, the Big Bads in these movies simply function as a plot device. Now let's understand that while the phrase "plot device" can evoke a negative connotation, it shouldn't necessarily be viewed as such in this case. These villains and their usually simplistic setups are the excuses that we need to put all of these characters together and have such cinematic fun.
The Villains Do Provide The Action
I love how modern comic book adaptations have a much deeper focus on characters while also exploring a variety of topical themes and questions. I also love how they often blur the line between villains and heroes, or simply make the villains relatable. Then again, I also acknowledge that they need to provide a little bloodlust and action. To put it simply, we need to see the main characters kick serious butt.
This is where an uncomplicated villain accompanied by an army of expendable lackeys comes into play. Straightforward villain motivation makes it easier for the main characters to unite against the Big Bad in question. If the villains and their motivations are intricate, it might be tricky to always get these different main characters to unite in a believable way to provide the legendary action.
The same goes for a villain's henchmen. If they were too complicated or too human, then there is only so many times the main characters can mow them down before it starts to feel wrong. But faceless drones, usually created with magic or technology, are another story; Thor can swing his hammer at them as much as he likes.
It Takes Time To Craft A Relationship With The Lead Hero(es)
Think of the more intriguing on-screen superhero villains, like Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, or the Joker from The Dark Knight. An important factor that massively added to their appeal and made them more compelling was their dynamic with the lead character.
This, however, is a lot more trickier to achieve when you have many lead characters instead of just the one. The thing is, it would be a stretch to give all of them a personal or philosophical dynamic with the villain. And if only one of the leads is gifted with that dynamic, it could defeat the purpose of an ensemble whereby everyone has more or less equal attention given to them.
So Are They The Villains We Might Not Want, But The Villains We Need?
Taking the above into account, it does seem like these villains have been exactly what these films needed them to be. Comic book ensemble movies have to deliver on their promise by throwing all of these characters together. They are meant to offer spectacle in every sense of the word and are, for many, the highlight of the year in terms of moviegoing. Therefore, these films have to be extremely well crafted, where every detail is in place. And that does call for not taking risks with certain aspects.
Then again, even though I really want the DCEU and MCU to keep providing these movies, delivering on that spectacle is only going to get tougher as time goes on. This means that some risks need to be taken eventually. With that in mind, finding a way to create more complex villains while still having enough focus on all of these main characters along with epic action scenes could be a tricky one to pull off and requires something special.
Which is exactly the reason why the filmmakers should go for it. In order to play it safe in the the long run, some risks need to be taken every now and then to keep things fresh.
Take a look at some of the best movie villains ever in the Movie Pilot original video below: