Marvel films and bad guys.

So I went to see Dr Strange last night. I have to say I enjoyed it without thinking it was great. A solidly mid ranking MCU film if you ask me. I’m not particularly familiar with the character so I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions.

I struggled a bit with just how unlikable Steve Strange was. I realise that was evidently the point. Arrogant selfish man becomes hero….. Blah blah blah. But he just didn’t seem to have any redeeming features whatsoever. And his conversion just seemed tacked on to me. Without giving a spoiler warning at this point there didn’t seem to be anything real about why Steve changed.

<aside> I frequently this these days. I moan like hell when films are too long (who really wants to sit in a cinema for more than three hours?) but I often complain about these sort of films being rushed. Particularly the “origin” stories. I wonder if this is a symptom of the rise of high quality long form TV storytelling. The HBO and AMC type shows just have so much more time to tell their stories and establish characters that film often feels overly rushed to me know </aside>

Having said that the film looked great, glad to see they found a use for the leftover CGI from Inception! I laughed quite frequently, and the magic side of things didn’t feel out of place in the context of the MCU. And despite just moaning about the lack of time, the pace of the film otherwise felt just about right.

If you like your comic book films, then I’m sure you will at least enjoy this one even if you don’t feel the need to rave about it.

But the purpose of this blog is to talk about the villains, so from here on in THAR BE SPOILERS. You have been warned if you haven’t see the film that I might give away the occasional plot detail (though only things relating to the backstory of the villain, of which there isn’t a great deal!).

It has long been a problem for the MCU films that whilst many of the protagonists are interesting and layered characters, the villains are almost universally bland and onenote.

Only Loki has actually lit up any of the MCU films. Loki is great, and I struggle to understand why they don’t follow the process. So with Loki we got a few things when they established the character.

  1. We got to see him not as a villain. The character was initially established as someone with whom we could have sympathy.
  2. He was fun, charismatic, interesting. Even once he started being bad you actually enjoyed his time on screen.
  3. He had some legitimate grievance. I mean I’m not saying that he reacted appropriately but between being the clearly less favoured “second son”, and then finding out he was the stolen hostage of what he thought was his family’s enemies mean you can kinda see why he had the hump.

Understanding his grievance, and being able to empathise with him meant what he goes on to do in the rest of film, and the MCU, everything he does has more meaning. It also means he feels like a real character and part of a living breathing universe.

Contrast this with…. Erm… two seconds while I Google this…. “Kaecilius” apparently. Having watched the film I still have no idea really why he was so cross. He wanted to live forever or something.

I certainly have no idea we he had followers, he seemed totally charisma free; not inspiring in any way whatsoever. As far as I can remember I’m not sure that any of his acolytes even had a line in the film.

Nothing established him, or his reasons for turning bad. The stakes therefore were pretty much meaningless. He could easily have been the generic non descript villains form Guardians of the Galaxy, or Thor 2, and it would not have made the slightest bit of difference to the plot or how the film panned out.

A little bit of time to establish who he was, why he had gone bad would have made the stakes in the film that much greater. Also I think we were clearly supposed to be drawing some parallels between Kaecilius (who looks a bit like Tim Minchin on stage I thought!) and Steve. But because we didn’t see any of his fall, or the reasons for it that whole element fell flat.

I didn’t care in anyway about Kaecilius, didn’t understand why he was mad, didn’t know what his goal or plot was, didn’t see any proper connection between him and the protagonist. He was just a cardboard placeholder to move the plot on.

And because of this the films was ultimately weak and forgettable, albeit fun and pleasant to watch.

Trouble is most of the above could be written almost word for word and all of the villains in the MCU. It is the biggest weakness in almost all of them. And it does mean I often get a little bored even though I am a huge fan boi.

I wonder as well if it is any coincidence that it was Kenneth Brannagh who directed the only actually good MCU villain. A bit of shakespearean pathos is what they could all do with.

The best villains, in film, books, comics or games, are ones you understand. Or ones that somehow reflect the protagonist. Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. Ditto Holmes and Moriarty. The villains have some depth, some shades of grey. Pantomime villains with no motivation just are not fun or interesting.

Kaecilius should have been a dark reflection of what Strange could have become. Strange should have sympathised with him before realising he was wrong and in rejecting that he then does become the hero.

Basically the MCU has to make the villains feel as real as the heroes, otherwise what the heroes do will feel ultimately meaningless. I’ll still watch them, but if they keep churning out identikit boring unimaginative villains like Kaecilius, Ronan, Malakith etc I’ll keep finding them pretty average and forgettable.

I want better.


Originally published at Lunchtime Legend.