No More Heroes

Musings on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

With the summer over we are now officially we are now into that lull period before the next barrage of Superhero Blockbusters. My twitter timeline continues to be filled with regular leaks from set and every conceivable rumor that is floating around in hollywood. This got me thinking about what I want from the upcoming cycle of these films, specifically from Marvel who gave me two films that despite their flaws I genuinely enjoyed in “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Not perfect by any means (both followed really predictable plots), both had enough quality and charm in the right places to not leave me with the same regret at spending my cash that Avengers and Iron Man 3 did. I am actually looking forward to giving the upcoming Marvel films the chance I was not willing to after I ran the gauntlet that was Avengers/Iron Man 3. This realisation left me musing as to what I want to see in Marvel movies going forward.

My first thought was regarding the fact that I want to see more of a variety of tones from the Marvel staple but I wanted to write about something more (for lack of a better term) quantifiable. I do have another draft about how the “connected” cinematic universe approach isn’t working for me but I also wanted something that would take into account that despite what they are marketed to us as, each movie is a singular experience. Each movie is something should be wholly experienced within that two and a half hours that you are sitting in that cinema. Not the result of pouring over half a decade of loose continutity and easter eggs on the internet afterward. Then it hit me. Marvel has a villain problem.

Bring On The Villains

From my perspective the “House of M” has been consistently terrible at bringing us good, well written and remotely memorable villains. Now it would be ease to rebutt this by saying “Well what about Loki?”. However when truly examined Loki ends up being a prime example of both what should be right and what is wrong with Marvel cinematic villains.

When you look at the first Thor movie, Loki is developed well he is given motivation for his later actions through both what we see taking place on the screen and from discoveries he has made about the past. Within the context of the film we understand his motivations and his actions within the film carry a lot of meaning. Fast forward to “Avengers”, Loki is brought to us as the central villain but aside from a throwaway scene with “the Other” we have no real motivation given to us within the framework of the film. He procedes to manipulate the (not yet) Avengers and instigate a “full scale” alien invasion of Earth (New York) and we are not even given a hint of some grander delusion of what he wants to do with the Earth or even a more personal vendetta. This is where Marvel Villains keep falling short.

For the remainder of the Marvel rogues gallery like Whiplash, Hammer, Malekith, Ronan, Pierce/Hydra, Bucky, Red Skull, et al (I had to google them). We are largely forced to just accept that these people are simply just “evil” or are given a throwaway piece of spoken exposition about their motivations (sometimes accompanied by a montage/flashback). Sometimes the villain is buried simply because there is another character that is deemed more popular and given the screen time insteand (see Malekith/Hydra).

Removing or downplaying the motivations and development of the villain hinders the film in two ways. It removes an element of menace of that is necessary to make the dynamic of the film work. To introduce that element of worry about how our heroes will overcome this villain.

I point to what is essentially the seminal villain of this generation in Heath Ledger’s joker. The Joker succeeds in that film in that he manages to eschew a traditional origin story (see Loki in Thor) but still establish his motivations for his actions and his reasons for confronting the hero within the framework of the film. This then lends itself to both motivating the story and the action of the heroes in the film. There is a rhythm of action and reaction as a tug of war ensues between hero and villain. It is a dynamic that is unique to that Batman (and Gotham) and Joker struggle. If the Joker is removed that equation the movie then becomes a fundementally different one.

Contrast this to Thor: The Dark World, If Malekith were substituted for Hela, Skurge or the Stilt Man, it would have resulted in little more than a name change and a different opening montage. Loki suffers similarly in “The Avengers” the confrontation does not seem to be truly part of Loki’s ongoing struggle so much as he was simply a popular pick. You can easily swap any of the Iron Man villains around with little worry of derailing the film.

I think for Marvel to sustain their momentum they need to look outside of simply adding more superheroes to their roster. They should look at building out a more complex world of supporting characters, specifically the villains. Having a stable of memorable villains and supporting characters is something that keeps these heroes fresh for generations and we don’t have to keep going back to continually retelling origin stories to capitalize on our memories of how good the old movies were.

Till Phase 4, Make Mine Marvel

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