The Marvel Cinematic Universe, from its humble origins back in 2008, has transformed into a license to print money. Eclipsing anything Fox or Universal has conjured up, the MCU has delivered a fine selection of big-hitters. Installments including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man are seen as some of the genre’s most influential works. They broke the mould, providing enough entertainment value and lasting memories to elevate themselves above most blockbusters. In fact, each MCU flick – good or bad – contains enough chutzpah and enthusiasm to stand out from the Ghost Riders and Fantastic Fours. Even the X-men franchise, despite reboot-sequel Days of Future Past‘s critical and commercial hit-rate, couldn’t possibly compete with the MCU.
However, the MCU has one major flaw that can no longer be ignored. Of course, everyone knows these movies revolve around their protagonists. Indeed, the Avengers movies achieve significant results simply by placing several protagonists in a room and making them bicker. Their heroes, whether they be thawed-out soldiers, super-industrialists, rage-fuelled scientists, or super assassins, would be immensely interesting even while reading the phonebook. Unfortunately, the antagonists have been thrown to the wolves. What do I mean, exactly? Well, by examining their villains intently, anyone can point out just how two, sometimes one, dimensional most of them have been. In chronological order, this post tackles and picks apart each antagonistic force in the MCU.
Let’s start off with Jeff Bridges’ character Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. Admittedly, Bridges’ casting was one of the movie’s many inspired choices. This Oscar-caliber character-actor flips between sympathetic and sinister with a handful of facial expressions. His character, for the first two-thirds, is a charismatic extension of Tony Stark’s universe. Stane, becoming a father figure after Tony’s parents’ death, is a charming-uncle figure. However, the third act turns him into a masochistic, overambitious maniac. The transition, utilising a bigger, badder version of the Iron Man armour (cleverly named Iron Monger), hits without explanation or development. Being an origin story, however, these story and character choices are easily forgivable. This franchise opener is more about building the hero than taking the villain down. Sadly, these issues are replicated in future Iron Man installments thanks to nobodies like Whiplash and Justin Hammer.
The Incredible Hulk, coming a mere month after Iron Man‘s rocket-like ascension atop the box office, is the MCU’s red-headed step-child. Edward Norton, one of the MCU’s most controversial decisions for multiple on and off set reasons, brought a weight and originality to the big, green, mean machine. The Bruce Banner/Hulk’s conflict is, without doubt, the contemporary, upbeat version of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Of course, as George R. R. Martin pointed out recently, Hulk movies need a similarly-superpowered villain to go up against their damaged protagonist. Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky/Abomination is a major step up from Stane and Iron Monger. His character is the far from your typical Marvel scientist-turned-evil archetype. He, a mercenary doing anything to get his youth back, is a worthy thematic adversary. The final-act smackdown is an exhilarating rush compared to the dour first-two-act introspection.
The Captain America villains are certainly a mixed bag, forming a solid, protective barrier for the complex narratives to grow. The Red Skull, played by typical villain-character-actor Hugo Weaving, is, on the outside, your typical, middle-aged, caucasian antagonist. Stuck in Hitler’s shadow, he, like the compelling comic-book counterpart, yearns to lead HYDRA into a march across the globe. Throughout The First Avenger, his presence marks a big improvement over preceding MCU villains. Thanks to a fun second-act twist, his brutal aesthetic is shown off gloriously. Despite a silly exit from the flick, his plan for world domination, based on ever-expanding technological advancement, makes for an enjoyably charming opposing force.
The Winter Soldier sees Cap facing numerous problems – the will to retire, picking who to trust, his agency’s surveillance hunger etc. Though these issues further develop the character, the physical threats push him to the edge. Of course, The Winter Soldier‘s major antagonist also makes for the franchise’s most intriguing aspect (SPOILERS ahead). Cap. and Black Widow, fresh from being hunted down by SHIELD, discover their organisation has been infected by Red Skull’s HYDRA organisation. This move, making for a significant change for the MCU, was elevated by Robert Redford’s charismatic turn. Unlike most MCU villains, his character crosses the line between despicable and sympathetic. The Winter Soldier, though part of several major twists, is one of the film’s least developed characters. However, his physical and psychological prowess will severely impact Civil War next year.
Unfortunately, these are the two best villains in the MCU’s Phase 2. Iron Man 3 is a fun, engaging flick thanks to Shane Black’s restrained writing and direction. Robert Downey, jr’s Tony Stark, the MCU’s heart and soul, proves, once again, to be the franchise’s most interesting protagonist. The balance between big-budget action and laugh-out-loud moments, not to mention the Ben Kingsley/Mandarin twist, help seal over Iron Man 2‘s gaping foibles. However, slimy industrialist Aldrich Killian, despite the performance from Guy Pearce, marks the template for middle-aged, pissed off caucasian antagonist. Thor: The Dark World‘s problems are worse, with Christopher Eccleston forced to trudge through his role as Malekith the Accursed. Stranded in heavy practical effects, the character is given only a handful of scenes. Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan the Accuser offers character-actor Lee Pace little to work with. In addition, Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross/Yellowjacket comes off like a carbon copy of Iron Man‘s Stane/Iron Monger character.
Despite said troublesome cast of villainous characters, two antagonists stand out from the underwhelming pack. Ultron, the creation of Tony Stark, is enlivened by two of the industry’s most brilliant people. Part of Age of Ultron‘s monstrous lineup, writer/director Joss Whedon and underrated character-actor James Spader are two of the movie’s high points. Stark, having seen a vision of oncoming chaos and despair, builds the Ultron program to permanently protect the globe. However, Ultron, killing Stark’s computer system JARVIS, goes on a tyrannic rampage against humanity. Unlike other MCU villains, Ultron aids the movie’s thematic arc. What would the world come to if a globe-spanning security system existed? How would varying groups react to it? Who would be in charge? Interesting ideas, along with Spader’s witty, light-hearted performance, make him more nuanced than most AI baddies.
Of course, Loki is the only MCU villain with more than one-and-a-half dimensions. In 2011’s Thor, Loki is the film’s most compelling character. His multi-tier plan involves multiple father figures, Thor, his friends, and his new love interest. Shakespearean in tone and nature, his motivations are guided by a lifetime’s worth of lies and deceit by Odin. His fighting skills and tricks come in handy by the third act. In The Avengers, he expands his goals to include the entire universe. Stealing Hawkeye and the Tesseract, his intentional-capture plot sets the super-troop’s teeth on edge. The final battle, despite the battering received from Hulk, unleashes his advantageous master plan. His presence in The Dark World elevates an already troubled action-adventure flick. Switching personalities and mannerisms, Loki, thanks to the final scene, draws us back for more.
The MCU, close to Phase 3, has several problems in desperate need of fixing. Its villains all fit the same template – angry, middle-aged white guys in need of a long, hard look in the mirror and a Nandos. Saved for the third-act battle, each villain is left primarily to the waste side. It’s a formula that’s still working, but may soon need an upgrade. Don’t worry, only 20 more installments to go.