The early reviews have largely finished landing for Doctor Strange, with the film itself already playing in some regions; and thus far the consensus is reading largely typical for a Marvel Cinematic Universe entry: High marks for visual imagination, fidelity to the source material and an engaging protagonist, middling grades for an overly-formulaic story structure and exasperated pleas that the studio find something interesting for a female supporting character to do. It’s also said to feature, even in the most positive reviews, a not-terribly-exciting main villain – a criticism so consistently applied to the majority of MCU releases as to become a default cultural consensus at this point.
Yet the films continue to earn mostly-positive notices and dominate the global box-office. Is it really possible that when it comes to memorable villainy, the Marvel films simply don’t “need” them?
Let’s dispense with one obvious, unarguable point upfront: Yes, the Marvel movies, however good or bad you think they already are, would be better with better villains – inasmuch as a better, more interesting, more compelling character can only help matters even in a movie that’s already “good enough” not to really need them. Iron Man is terrifically entertaining, but if Obadiah “Iron Monger” Stane had been in some way memorable as a heavy you wouldn’t have to think so hard to recall anything that happens in the third act of that movie. Let’s also concede that these are subjective matters: There are some who liked Ultron, Whiplash, Yellow Jacket or Malekith enough on a performance level to not care how they functioned in their stories (or vice-versa).
But consensus is consensus, and the prevailing consensus for the MCU tends to be that villains are not the Marvel movies’ strong suit, but also that this doesn’t seem to have been a deal-breaker. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to follow a correlative pattern: Loki was widely seen as the megafranchise’s top-tier villain well before The Avengers, but the first Thor was not the best reviewed film of Phase 1. Guardians of The Galaxy’s Ronan The Accuser doesn’t seem to be anybody’s favorite nemesis, but he’s the main antagonist of one of the most popular Marvel movies.
Although Marvel movies have a number of pretty consistent flaws, the forgettable villain tends to be the one that sticks: We notice it, even if we don’t really seem to care all that much. It’s there, we acknowledge it, when it’s unavoidably distinctive we joke about it (who didn’t know, just from the trailers, that Malekith was going to prove a poor substitute for Loki – especially with Loki still hanging around)… but it seems to have little effect on the actual reputation and long-term success of the films themselves.
So, why do we treat “great superhero villains” like a hugely important benchmark, then, when the evidence would suggest that they actually aren’t?
Largely, because that’s how episodic (as opposed to “serialized”) fiction tends to work: The protagonists, however compelling, are largely static while the threats they face (usually brought on by a villain) provide the fresh new thrills from episode to episode. Sure, in a long enough running series the hero will accrue new dimensions and trappings – they may even evolve as a character. But the overall goal is for them to stay familiar enough so that an audience can hypothetical watch/read/listen-to any episode and get a full experience. The intended audience already knows who Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Dr. House, the public-servants of Law & Order, the crewmembers of The Enterprise, etc are; the appeal is anticipating (and then discovering) how these known-quantities that we already enjoy will react when confronted with each episode’s new unknown quantity. By the same token, if you are encountering (and enjoying) the heroes for the first time, the promise is that there’s more where that came from.
And from about the inception of the superhero genre in comics until about 1960, that was the way the genre worked: Figures like Superman, Batman or Captain Marvel were fully self-actualized characters whose actions were almost exclusively reactionary. Each week a new (or at least not recently seen) bad guy would show up, cause some new mayhem, and readers would thrill to discover how their hero of choice eventually defeated them. Yes, there was “continuity” in the sense that heroes would retain some of whatever new weapons, techniques, slivers of backstory or personality traits each new encounter revealed, but the basic setup changed at a glacial pace – if at all.
It’s a formula so reliable that it followed superheroes away from comics and into other media. “Villain of the week” storylines were the basis for the enormously popular live-action TV career of Batman and Robin in the 1960s and the animated exploits of Spider-Man in the same era, and given that those franchises probably have the rogues galleries that mainstream audiences can name the most members of, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t successful. But it also helped to fix the idea that a superhero’s story was only as worthwhile as its villain; ever since Tim Burton turned Batman into a major movie franchise, the question before each successive superhero sequel has always been “who’s the bad guy?” before “what will the story be?”
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be held to account for playing things safe and relying on formula, being willing to enthusiastically defy this particular convention could well be the boldest element in the entire franchise (yes, that includes the talking space raccoon) – and, perhaps poetically, the area where it receives the least amount of credit.
Simply put, the reason a certain plurality of MCU villains feel like an afterthought it because they’re exactly that. They contribute to the plot, they occasionally drive the momentum and they give the hero somebody to punch at the end. But apart from some noteworthy exceptions (Loki, The Red Skull) they’re there for strictly utilitarian reasons – and if it seems like they don’t get the kind of extended space to show off that made certain similarly thinly-sketched antagonists of superhero films past more memorable, it’s because they’re serving precisely the same function as the weather in Twister or cancer in Terms of Endearment: Providing outward stimuli for inner conflict. Put another way: Marvel movie heroes’ real nemeses tend to be the heroes themselves.
That sounds just so slightly hackneyed, and maybe it is – but it’s also right there onscreen. Sometimes obviously (See: Banner, Bruce), sometimes subtly (Captain America’s steadfastness is a mirror-manifestation of Steve Rogers’ profound insecurity), but it’s almost always there all the same. Tony Stark gets in his own way so reliably that his most successful enemies really need only nudge him into doing so at the most beneficial time. Star Lord is trapped by the sense that if he ages, mentally, beyond the age he was at his mother’s death, he’ll have to acknowledge that she’s really gone (hence the unopened birthday present). It wasn’t Loki that prevented Thor from reclaiming Mjolnir, it was his own selfish nature. And now we have Stephen Strange, who could have the power to look beyond the boundaries of our universe… if only he can learn to look beyond himself first.
This is a trick the films largely absorbed from their source material. When Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and the other early vanguards of the Marvel Universe were laying out the company’s future foundations, the main new element that they brought to superhero comics was a sense of dimensionality to their characters. The “powers equal to their problems” angles they brought to their most famous creations may seem simple by modern standards – Thor can barely walk in human form, Iron Man’s awesome power-armor is actually a life-support device, swingin’ free spirit Spider-Man is actually an awkward kid crushed by responsibilities and neuroses, a guy literally named Captain America is also “just” another veteran struggling to rejoin a world that changed while he was away – but in the early 60s this was revolutionary stuff.
Sure, there were still villains-of-the-month to fight in the early Marvel books – something had to go on the cover and impress upon kids that this was a different story from last time – but by and large they were seldom the only thing going on and in many cases they acted more as distractions than anything else: Whatever The Rhino was up to may have been a pain in Spider-Man’s ass, but the real nightmare would be if tussling with him made Peter Parker late to pick up Aunt May’s medication, or deliver his photos to The Bugle, or miss his date with Mary Jane.
The MCU films have, for the most part, succeeded in building a massively popular brand by following this character-centric template. It’s hard to imagine most of these characters being constantly recast in the way Warner Bros. has burned through Bruce Waynes for the same reason that audiences have so enthusiastically come onboard with the once thought impossible “shared universe” concept as a whole. People love these characters beyond their costume and nickname because that’s what tends to happen when you spend a movie getting invested in somebody’s internal development. This is also a big part of why Marvel loves “doppleganger” villains so much: Letting the hero punch-out the wrong-decisions version of themselves makes a handy symbolic visualization of that interior struggle.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that Marvel should get any more of a pass for cookie-cutter villains than for any other over-reliance on formula. The fact that their films don’t “need” richly-drawn, memorable bad guys to work isn’t an excuse not to at least try anyway, and at this point the studio has refined their good guys so well that not putting a little extra effort into the baddies does start to feel a little bit like slacking off.
It’s also worth considering that this focus on internal conflict might also contribute to Marvel’s female supporting characters having so little to do. If the main person the hero needs to learn how to properly love and care for is himself, there’s a lot less rationale to devote screen time to a whole separate love interest whose role is going to be largely symbolic. However compelling they were on their own, Peggy Carter and Pepper Potts didn’t really have journeys of their own to undertake, so much as they were on hand to gradually transform from disapproving-yet-nurturing maternal figures into prospective-girlfriend figures so as to reflect Captain America and Iron Man’s respective boy-into-man growth. Of course, this is more a problem of writers not being able to conceive of women as anything other than some form of love-interest in the first place, but that’s another column altogether.
Fair is fair, and if Marvel is to be (rightly) criticized for not doing enough to break the superhero genre of some of its worse habits, the MCU also deserves to get the credit when it does something right. And in liberating the superhero movie from relying on villain-of-the-week model, Marvel has expanded the type of stories that such a film can tell dramatically. Now, all that’s left is for them (and everyone else, for that matter) to actually take full advantage of it.