The Marvel Cinematic Universe highlights its heroes and neglects its villains. Why is this? Marvel has a history of creating complex comic book villains with rich character depth, but the MCU movies display the bad guys as hollow shells of their true selves, nothing more than stepping-stones for the heroes to show their own growth.
But there is one Marvel villain who was given proper attention and nuance. Loki, the God of Mischief. What makes Loki different? Why was he the one villain given any respect in the MCU? There is narrative reasoning behind these creative decisions, and it is something Marvel must explore as the company seeks continued fan support for its growing cinematic universe.
The Marvel Universe may be home to more memorable characters than any other imaginary world in existence. Thousands of heroes and villains have battled across countless comic book pages for most of the last century, their iconic personas and brightly colored outfits fighting their way onto Saturday morning television and into movie theaters.
Marvel has continually done well at adjusting to the modern world. Good guys and bad have been reinvented over the decades as new ideas and technologies have influenced our lives. As a result, the super heroes we love and super villains we hate have gone through many changes since their creations. We’ve seen these characters grow, seen them respond to devastating hardships and tackle countless obstacles. Many of them have even conquered death, being reborn to fight another day.
The heroes usually strive to conquer evil, but what or who is evil in the Marvel universe has not always been crystal clear. More often than not, Marvel villains have been complex figures who’s goals weren’t so different from the heroes themselves. They have rich back stories that help us to understand their pain and sometimes convince us to believe in their cause.
The X-Men’s nemesis Magneto is one of the most infamous and powerful Marvel villains, yet he is able to draw sympathy from his audience. Magneto fights for the civil rights of his mutant brethren, renouncing the pacifist route of Professor Xavier and instead deciding to empower his allies, using his abilities to protect the mutant misfits of society from the same persecutions he suffered as a survivor of the Holocaust. He is even old friends with his arch rival, their philosophical differences being the only rift between them.
Such character complexity is common in the history of Marvel’s villains, but that hasn’t been true of the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe. Between 2008 and present day, Marvel has been forming a grand narrative through its blockbuster films and hit television shows, starting with the first Iron Man movie and leading up to all of the action-packed Avengers movies that have come out recently. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU.
If you look beyond the surface layer of explosive action and witty one-liners you will find that there is a complex plot line in the MCU which is supported by strong characters, but the character development has been excessively one-sided.
The heroes are getting all of the attention while the villains are being shoved aside. To some it might make sense for that to be the case, but it goes against Marvel’s track record.
In this episode we will explore why the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lack character depth and discuss why this must change. I am your host, Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
The villains in these films have been little more than stepping-stones, offering a way for the heroes to show a growth in power.
The villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe often come off as flat, bland, especially so when compared to their two-dimensional comic book counterparts. This isn’t the fault of the actors. They play their parts well. Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger was spot on. Likewise Tim Roth played an excellent Emil Blonsky turned Abomination in The Incredible Hulk. No, it’s not the actors causing these iconic Marvel villains to fall flat.
The fault belongs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Its underlying structure and the strategy put in place to build it.
Let’s take a step back and look outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just months after Marvel released its first film, Iron Man, under the moniker Marvel Studios, DC Comics released what came to be one of the most successful superhero movies in history, The Dark Knight. Now, most of us can remember the late Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance as The Joker. He was a maniac. An anarchist. He is a movie villain who will be remembered for ages to come. Performances aside, the amount of screen time and development given to the Joker gave us a chance to relate to him, despite how insane he was.
Now compare your memory of the Dark Knight’s Joker to the bad guy from Marvel’s first Iron Man movie. The average movie enthusiast may remember that actor Jeff Bridges was the bad guy, but who was the character that he played? Die-hard Marvel fans may remember because of the comics, but what about the average movie go-er? Did the name Obidiah Stane pop into your head? How about his alter-ego of The Iron Monger? If so I envy your memory. He was simply a forgettable character, and not because of Jeff Bridges’ acting skills. Marvel is to blame for that. The company was already looking ahead to the future of its cinematic universe. The Iron Monger was not an essential character to what lay ahead, and so Tony Stark, the hero, was given all of the screen time and development.
We can even compare Marvel to itself. Before the formation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we had Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films. Who could forget Willem Dafoe’s malicious Green Goblin or Alfred Molina’s cynical Doc Ock? These villains had depth, they struggled with personal conflict. They were both at first mentors to Peter Parker. Scientists, teachers, friends, men who were turned into monsters by their individual obsessions. These villains from the Sam Raimi Spiderman era are more memorable than the recent Ant Man adversary Yellowjacket or the mega-powerful Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy. These modern villains have no lasting impact. They have no depth of personality. Why is this?
It’s because the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are sacrificed for the sake of the overall narrative. The heroes are the stars, they are the ones who transcend the confines of a solitary film, going on to save the day yet again in sequels and superhero buddy movies.
There’s a reason behind it all. Whether it be Iron Man, Captain America, Ant Man, or Star Lord, we’ve been force-fed their origin stories by the MCU. The villains in these films have been little more than stepping-stones, offering a way for the heroes to show a growth in power. The bad guys in these origin stories are ultimately defeated and then the heroes go on to fight the next even bigger threat. As an audience member this is both rewarding and discouraging. It’s great to root for the heroes and their triumph against evil, but we’ve come to expect more from our villains. Especially comic book fans. In comics there are villains as long-lasting and as well-developed as the superheroes themselves. Few villains are pure evil. They’re not all monsters which are meant to be vanquished. They are often conflicted and misunderstood. Outcasts and rebels. Anti-heroes and fallen angels.
Loki is perhaps the most complicated and most important character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But there is one villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which has been given proper attention and nuance. Loki. The God of Mischief. Prince of Asgard. Brother of Thor and Son of Odin. Loki has appeared multiple Thor and Avengers movies and is expected to continue appearing in future releases. What makes Loki different? Why is he the one villain that has been given any respect in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
While the other MCU villains are quick to cause conflict and exert themselves as the bad guys, Loki’s path has been a bit more complicated. The movies present his story well. As a child he was raised as a son of Asgard, though in truth he was found abandoned as an infant on Jotunheim, the planet of the Frost Giants. Thor, being Odin’s true son, was destined to one day succeed his father as the King of Asgard. It was obvious that Thor was the favored child, and so Loki sought the King’s acceptance, his love. This became the driving force behind his selfish desire for the throne. “Only one of you can ascend the throne,” said Odin in the first Thor film, “but both of you were born to be kings.” The truth in these words becomes apparent when we learn that Loki is actually the son of Laufey, the Frost Giant king of Jotumheim.
Up until this realization Loki was portrayed as merely a prankster seeking his father’s attention. After coming to terms with his genetics and his destiny, Loki turned on his adoptive father and brother, colluding with Laufey to plan the death of Odin and Thor. Here the audience was set to believe that Loki had fallen off the evil deep end of the moral spectrum, and just when that fate was to be sealed Loki turned on his biological father, slaying Laufey and attempting to destroy Jotunheim all in an effort to gain the praise and acceptance of Odin.
Instead Loki’s calculated manipulations had the opposite effect of his desires. Thor returned to stop the destruction of Jotunheim, effectively personifying the will of Asgard as Loki fell further out Odin’s favor, off the Bifrost Bridge, and into the waiting hands of the Dark Lord Thanos.
Now things start to get complicated, but I don’t want to spoil all of the movies for you. I will say though that the audience is set up in each of the succeeding Thor and Avengers movies to question Loki’s moral position. Does he want his brother dead, or does he want his help? Is Loki serving the evil Thanos willingly, or is he being controlled against his will? What are his motives? Loki’s humanity is what makes him an interesting villain, and it is what has been lacking from every other villain in this cinematic universe.
So, why is he different? It is a difficult question to answer without having the complete story to reference, but we can assume that Loki is guiding the heroes, and us, the audience, to the larger conflict, the ultimate enemy. Over the course of the overarching plot the Marvel heroes became lost and confused. They continued to fight bad guys whenever they popped up, but their own desires and personalities conflicted with one another and even the world at large. They became such a mess that Iron Man and Captain America recruited the other heroes against each other and engaged in a civil war. That’s not very heroic of them. Without an evil to defeat, the heroes became the bad guys themselves.
Through Loki’s moral judgements the heroes have had to question themselves and their own motives. Because of his actions they are coming to realize that the real war is yet to arrive and that they are gravely underprepared. Loki in effect has been a saving grace for the Avengers, giving them something to ally against and learn lessons from.
Loki is perhaps the most complicated and most important character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He represents a change in the narrative that must come to fruition. We know our heroes. We know what they stand for, what their weaknesses are, and thus the villains of the MCU can no longer be mere stepping-stones. The heroes are becoming their true selves. They will soon run out of room to grow.
Knowing that Thanos wants to end all life in the universe is not enough.
And so it is the villains who must grow. Little is known about the Dark Lord Thanos. He is a puppet master, a warlord, and he wants all of the power in the universe for himself. That’s what we know. So far he is not a very interesting character. In order for Marvel to continue drawing interest in their universe we are going to have to see who Thanos is, where his desires stem from, and what his internal conflicts represent.
The same goes for any new evil powers which may be brought into the story. Marvel clearly understands that they have built a universe which cannot sustain a simple good versus evil dynamic. Our heroes are complex. Loki even more so. For the audience to believe in the power of Thanos he must become something bigger and more intricate than the other already well-established, exceedingly powerful characters.
We can speculate all we want about who will come to wield the power of the infinity stones and become the biggest threat in the universe, but I think that without question we will be seeing the MCU movies shift the weight of character development over to the more powerful and menacing villains of the narrative. If the audience is expected to truly fear the great evils set against our heroes, we have to believe in their evil motives. Knowing that Thanos wants to end all life in the universe is not enough. We have to know why he wants this and somehow sympathize with his desire for it. If the Dark Knight’s Joker can cause us to sympathize with his desire for pure chaos, then Thanos can do the same.
I must say that I am impressed by Marvel’s recent accomplishments. Overall the movies have scored big at the box office and been received well by critics and fans alike. All in all, I think Marvel may be building the first truly great example of a shared universe, something that other creatives can look to for inspiration in their own works. They are exploring new grounds in creating such an expansive cinematic narrative, reinventing what it means to fuse together a shared universe as storylines crossover from film to TV and even into the comics and games.
The television shows haven’t suffered from the same lackluster villain development as the movies. Kilgrave’s blatant disregard for human life and his manipulative attempts at compassion made Jessica Jones a standout series. Some excellent villains and anti-heroes have also been given fair treatment in the other shows like Daredevil and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
I look forward to seeing how Marvel continues to develop this cinematic universe. There are sure to be more heroes on the way, but I think the mistreatment of franchise villains is soon to be put to an end. I’m hoping they go as far as making some movies starring our favorite super villains. A movie about Venom would be awesome, wouldn’t it? You could throw in Carnage as well and go deep into the origins of the symbiotes. Or Dr. Doom. He would make a great movie. Juggernaut is an interesting character, he tried to become a good guy several times and just never was able to hack it, maybe you could mix in…
This has been an episode of Paracosms. Head on over to my website at arthurmcmahon.com to learn more about this show and myself. You can read full Paracosms episode transcripts and find links to the books I have written.
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