Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ahead
After fifteen movies, it’s hard to deny that MCU movies have a certain formula. Each one follows quippy characters embarking on a hero’s journey to prove their self-worth as part of a MacGuffin-driven plot that sees them interact with an inevitably doomed mentor and suffering love interest, culminating in a large-scale, CGI-heavy finale. Oh, and there’s a Stan Lee cameo at some point and post-credits scene teasing the next adventure. The origin stories are particularly brazen, with Ant-Man and Doctor Strange feeling very much like riffs on the original Iron Man (which was itself inspired by the likes of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man).
For the most part, this dependability is accepted by the fans thanks to the unique spin each character and associated actors and filmmakers bring, although there’s one key part that repeatedly comes under fire: the villains. Saying that Marvel has a villain problem can often be taken to say that it has no good antagonists. Now that isn’t totally true, but there’s no avoiding that outside of Loki, Bucky and arguably Zemo none have left any individual lasting impact on audiences (and the former two are most definitely in anti-hero territory by this point).
The core of the issue is that each villain is bland in a repeatedly similar way; almost in spite of the source they’re typically a mirror of the hero, which makes for a trite arc on the tenth time and ensures the finale is inevitably two evenly-matched, similarly-designed fighters punching each other. The threat they pose is also so underwhelming, with the depths of the scheme barely elaborated on and the talented actors brought in to portray them wasted. The exceptions prove the rule; Loki and Bucky work because they’re nuanced and conflicted, while Zemo’s tangible impact on The Avengers made him immediately formidable. Compare this to Ronan or Malekith or even Ultron; they do have defined motivation, yet are given no time to really breathe and express that.
Within this there’s the further problem of the big bads – the hidden, maniacal overlord secretly controlling everything: the likes of Alexander Pierce, Dormammu and to a degree Thanos. These characters are usually intended to be a surprise opposition, so are downplayed in marketing and have a slight role in the first half of the film lest their true motivations be laid bare, which usually leaves them even more underdeveloped than their lackeys.
This whole thing is a hangover from the original Iron Man where Jeff Bridges’ menace as Obadiah Stane was so intense that Jon Favreau realized he could cut several arduous villain scenes without lessening the character’s impact; further movies copied this amount of screentime, but didn’t put the effort into providing the same strong grounding as Bridges got. Iron Man is also the reason this hasn’t halted Marvel’s box office dominance. By design the MCU is a series about heroes. You go see an Iron Man movie to see Tony Stark in the Iron Man suit first and foremost, and the studio ensures that above else that is done right. Villains are still a narrative requirement, but if the film presents an interesting enough internal conflict for the protagonist from the off then all they really need to do is reflect that back. As crazy as it sounds, being fully-formed isn’t a necessity.
It’s not ruined the franchise, but it’s a concern that spans die-hard fans and casual audience goers. Refreshingly, however, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes very close to showing how this milieu can result in a fresh antagonist.