The Avengers: Age of Ultron's bank-busting run in theaters only further proves that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of the top juggernaut's in entertainment business, on both movie and TV screens. But even as films like The Avengers, Guardians of The Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have thrilled audiences with superhero adventure, there's been one point of general criticism that hasn't gone away: villains in the MCU tend to be underwhelming.
Now Avengers 2 is finding itself hit with similar criticisms, despite having a fan-favorite foe (Ultron) played by a unique, fan-favorite actor (James Spader). So why is Marvel Studios having such a hard time putting great baddies on the big screen? We breakdown the situation, as well as what Marvel could do in order to correct it.
Here is the list of MCU villains in order of their first appearance onscreen. NOTE: While "big bads" are the main focus of this discussion, we've included a lot of the "little bads" as well.
- Ten Rings - Obidiah Stane / Iron Monger (Iron Man)
- Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross - Abomination (Incredible Hulk)
- Justin Hammer - Whiplash (Iron Man 2)
- Loki - Frost Giants - Destroyer (Thor)
- Red Skull - Arnim Zola - Old Hydra (Captain America: TFA)
- Chitauri - The Other - Thanos (The Avengers)
- Aldrich Killian / "The Mandarin" - Extremis Soldiers - A.I.M. (Iron Man 3)
- Malekith - Kurse - Dark Elves (Thor: TDW)
- Winter Soldier - Alexander Pierce - New Hydra (Captain America: TWS)
- Ronan The Accuser - Nebula (Guardians of the Galaxy)
- Baron von Stucker - Ultron - Ultron Legion (Avengers: AoU)
The main problem with almost all of the villains listed above (with one or two exceptions) is that they fall into at least one (if not both) of these categories: Either they were A) not explored enough or given enough depth, or B) were killed off too early to develop into something bigger in future MCU properties.
The major exception is, of course, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who has been well developed over the course of no less than three films (so far). However, Loki is an anomaly since Hiddleston wasn't originally supposed to be the main villain of The Avengers or appear much in Thor 2; the actor's massive popularity with fans has brought Marvel back to that well over and over again. It'd be fair to label Loki as the exception that proves the rule.
Hearing that Marvel's movie villains would be brought to life by veteran actors like Jeff Bridges, Ben Kingsley, Hugo Weaving, Mickey Rourke or Robert Redford, repeatedly made fans giddy with the thought that Marvel villains would be getting the best treatment. However, longtime antagonists from the comics like Red Skull, Ronan, General Ross or The Mandarin have offered little in the way of depth or intrigue when adapted for the screen. In the end, many of these great villains being played by great actors were either not what fans expected (Kingsley's fake Mandarin), or turned out to be one-off performances (Redford's Alexander Pierce) with no potential for future MCU appearances.
Even Ultron, who (thanks to James Spader) was given a serious personality boost, is still being met with somewhat tepid reception. For all of the humor and liveliness in Spader's idiosyncratic robot, many fans feel that the threat and menace of a more traditional Ultron is sorely missing from the film. In most cases of these Marvel movie villains, something has been lost in translation.
On a related topic: it's somewhat unfair that there was so much controversy about Superman killing General Zod in Man of Steel, because as far as villains go, the MCU is wracking up a pretty high body count, too. The only franchise that has not killed off and/or destroyed a major villain is (ironically enough) The Incredible Hulk, as the raging Jade Giant somehow managed to leave both General Ross and The Abomination alive by the end of his solo film.
Comparatively, Tony Stark and Co. have killed every major Iron Man movie villain; Thor slew Malekith and Kurse; and while he's never done the deed himself, both of the "big bads" that have gone up against Captain America have ended up dead. The combined forces of The Avengers destroyed a Chitauri army and Ultron's legion. In short: being a villain in the MCU is pretty much as hazardous as being one in the DCMU.
As of writing this, General Ross, Abomination, Nebula, Loki, Ulysses Klaw, Winter Soldier and scant remnants of Hydra are the only major MCU movie villains that stand to make reappearances in future films. (Argue about Red Skull or Mandarin resurrections all you want, but until those characters officially resurface they're considered KIA.) Meanwhile, villains like Ronan or Baron von Strucker have been wiped out before ever fully tapping into their rich and extensive Marvel Comics histories. As hardcore Marvel fans, it's hard not to see that as wasted potential.
By contrast, Marvel TV doesn't seem to have the same need to destroy villains in order to tell compelling stories about how heroes are made. On the TV side, major antagonists like Grant Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Johann Fenhoff (aka Dr. Ivchenko ) and Black Widow (Agent Carter), and Wilson Fisk (Daredevil) have more depth, intrigue and menace than just about any of the villains in Marvel Movies (Loki and Winter Soldier being exceptions). Even if said TV villains started off rather thin, the time and investment was made to polish them. More importantly, all of the aforementioned TV villains are still alive and can pop-up in future MCU projects with greater depth and history as their underneath them. That's something sorely missing from the movie side, where even Josh Brolin's Thanos is still a vague mystery, some three film appearances in.
Going forward, Marvel Movies could stand to leave behind the outdated structure of early comic book movies (villains in one-off roles) and borrow a strategy from Marvel TV, investing in and building more layered and well-explored villains (as seems to be the plan for Sebastian Stan's Winter Soldier). After all: this is supposed to be an interconnected movie universe with a wide sandbox to play in, so villains shouldn't be prohibited from re-appearing elsewhere in the MCU, battling other heroes or teaming with other villains.
DC is already into production on their Suicide Squad movie, which will make a point of introducing and/or exploring a lot of DC Comics villains before they ever step onscreen to battle a superhero. More importantly, Suicide Squad will attempt to establish an interconnectivity between the villains and the larger DC cinematic universe in a way that Marvel films really haven't (Loki, again, being the exception). Even Sony was pushing into a Sinister Six villain team-up film before those plans got put on hold to bring Spider-Man into the MCU; how is it that Marvel Studios villains are still not getting their due?
With upcoming Marvel films like Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel all telling new hero origin stories, there doesn't seem to be an imminent break in this pattern. Villains like Yellowjacket, Klaw, Baron Mordo or Dormammu (to name a few) could come and go in the span of a film, adding to the list of vanquished foes that Marvel's heroes have left in their wake. But how much continued satisfaction will fans get out of burning through good villains?
How do you YOU feel about the villains in Marvel movies - have they been good enough, or do you expect something better from villains with such extensive and fun comic book histories?
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now in theaters; Ant-Man will open on July 17, 2015; Captain America: Civil War - May 6, 2016; Doctor Strange - November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - May 5, 2017; Spider-Man reboot - July 28, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok - November 3, 2017; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 - May 4, 2018; Black Panther - July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel - November 2, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 - May 3, 2019; Inhumans - July 12, 2019.