Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.

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