The saying goes, “A hero is only as good as his villain.” Superheroes are a varied lot that range from vigilantes to boy scouts, but they would be nothing without an opposing force to stand up against. At worst a villain is un-memorable, making no impact on the hero or the course of his/her life, simply there to be story fodder. The best villains, however, are the ones that make an impact. They challenge the hero, pushing them to their limits in mind, body, and spirit. A good villain – a great villain – leaves a mark not only on the hero, but on the reader or viewer. As Mr. Glass says in M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated Unbreakable:
In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero…
It’s why Superman and Lex Luthor will forever go toe to toe in the ultimate battle of brains versus brawn and why Batman and The Joker are eternally locked in a game neither can simply end. It’s why Magneto and Professor X can never see eye to eye and why Doctor Doom continues to hound The Fantastic Four. The villain defines the hero and gives us the necessary motivation to root for their victory. We want the hero to triumph and the villain provides us with that necessary foil.
Translating that to the big screen, however, can be a bit tricky. We want our heroes to be challenged, but finding the right villain that will appease comic book fans and the general movie-going public is a strange form of alchemy. Sometimes we get lightning in a bottle (Heath Ledger’s Joker comes to mind) and other times…we get Bruce Banner’s father. Marvel movies, and we’re talking Marvel Studios for the purposes of this article, tend to favor the charisma of the hero over the machinations of the villains, which is why, I think, it’s harder to pin down a prominent villain. DC movies, oddly enough, have the opposite problem with the villains eclipsing the heroes (no offense, Christian Bale – I still love you!) Both universes have interesting dynamics, but neither has been able to strike the right balance entirely.
Last week, we were treated to the release of the Iron Man 3 trailer. Not due in theaters until May 2013, IM3 will be the first movie to kick off the next round of Marvel films leading up to The Avengers 2 in 2015. In the trailer we get brief glimpses of the two villains Tony Stark will be going up against: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley). Killian isn’t a major villain in the comic books, mostly known for creating the Extremis virus, but The Mandarin has been one of Tony Stark’s most enduring villains. It’s an interesting mix of adversaries. One is inexorably tied to Tony’s world of science and technology, while the other’s chief source of power are ten magical rings adorning his fingers. Thor already explained that science and magic are practically one and the same in the Marvel Universe, but the villains Tony has dealt with individually have all been technologically based. The villainous combo could make or break the film considering the lackluster performance of Marvel sequels, but I’d prefer to remain optimistic for the time being.
Given that Tony’s trials and tribulations are just around the corner, Thor will be going up against the Dark Elves, Cap will be fighting The Winter Soldier, and Thanos looms over Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers 2, I thought it might be prudent to look back on past Marvel movies and see how effective their villains have been in defining our heroes. I will be keeping this strictly within the Marvel Studios movie universe since the properties owned by Fox and Sony would keep us here all day. But, for the record, Magneto, William Stryker in X-2, and Doc Ock, have been the only good villains to come out of those movies.
Iron Man (2008): By all accounts, the first Iron Man movie shouldn’t work. It’s essentially a movie about a guy who builds a suit three times and blows a lot of shit up in the process. What makes this movie is the utter charm and charisma of one Mr. Robert Downey, Jr. He is Tony Stark and the movie is really about the journey Tony takes from selfish, playboy, weapons manufacturer to less selfish, somewhat playboyish, superhero. Hey, ya gotta crawl before you can walk. But, of course, we need a villain and while the terrorists who kidnapped Tony were effective enough for the first and second acts, the true villain of the movie is the Stark’s long-time family friend and business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Like I said, the movie is about Tony’s arc and the fabrication of the Iron Man suit, so Stane is relegated to your average run-of-the-mill villain. His motives aren’t new (weapons = money = power) and he’s not really a foil for Tony as much as he’s an obstacle, which is probably the point. Had Stane been more charismatic or more sympathetic, the story would have shifted away from Tony, so it’s not a surprise that Stane’s purpose is to just make Tony look good to the audience. That doesn’t mean Obadiah isn’t entertaining to watch, especially the scenes between him and Tony before we learn his true nature.
The Incredible Hulk (2008): After the atrocity that was The Hulk, Sony Pictures actually gave the rights to the character back to Marvel. Already putting into motion the idea of an Avengers movie, Marvel Studios began the process of world-building with a brief cameo by Tony Stark in the movie to tie the two worlds together. Putting aside crazy scientist fathers, Bruce Banner/The Hulk’s (Edward Norton) main adversaries are General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and Emil Blonsky, aka The Abomination (Tim Roth). Though Ross doggedly pursues Banner, he’s there primarily to put Bruce in a corner and let loose The Hulk’s counterpart. The Abomination is the result of a combination of Bruce’s gamma-exposed blood and the super soldier serum, creating an unstable and powerful creature. Though The Hulk is a manifestation of Bruce’s anger, The Abomination is all Blonksy’s delusions of grandeur and power made real. While that might’ve made for some interesting storytelling, The Abomination is only there to go berserk so Ross will have to turn to Bruce to stop what he created. There’s no real purpose to any of it as it just results in an overlong CGI fight sequence and Banner going on the run yet again.
Iron Man 2 (2010): Oy, this movie. Aside from the numerous reasons why this movie doesn’t work, the villains make up a significant portion of why Iron Man 2 isn’t exactly the greatest of sequels. Plot wise, there’s just too much going on and with the rushed production to meet the schedule for The Avengers, the flaws in the movie show. In Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) we’re supposed to see who Tony was, a man selling weapons with no compunction for the lives lost because of those tools of destruction. The juxtaposition works…sort of. Sam Rockwell commits to the role entirely (he’s one of the few bright spots in the movie) but there’s nothing overtly threatening about him that would make him a formidable opponent to Tony. Where we’re really supposed to see the danger is in Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash (Mickey Rourke). The Russian mechanical genius is out for revenge against the Stark family for stealing the patent his father shared with Howard Stark for the arc reactor technology keeping Tony alive. While Vanko and Tony get a nice fight in the beginning of the movie, they barely interact until the last twenty minutes of the film and, even then, the climactic battle between Whiplash, Iron Man, and War Machine was a let down. Whiplash is mostly seen upgrading Chambers’ robotic suits until the end when his inevitable betrayal occurs.
Thor (2011): The film that tested the audience’s ability to accept the “magical” portions of the Marvel Universe, Thor was a surprise hit due in part to directory Kenneth Branagh’s ability to emphasize the Shakespearean elements of the tale: loyalty, power, and family feuds. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is probably the best of the Marvel Universe villains because his descent into villainy coincides with Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) rise as a hero. The film goes to great lengths to set up Thor’s arrogance and Loki’s playful trickery, but also their brotherly affection that takes a turn for the worse when Thor endangers the peace between Asgard and Jotunheim and Loki learns of his true parentage. While Thor’s exile changes him for the better, Loki broods and plots in an attempt to prove himself the rightful king of Asgard. But never at any point do we hate Loki. We sympathize with him because we learn along with him that all he’s known, everything that he is, is a lie. His need for power and the pleasure he takes in torturing and almost killing Thor are the result of a man who’s entire identity has been destroyed. The final confrontation between Thor and Loki is built upon the shattering of a family and Loki’s literal fall is a heart-breaking moment.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): While I do love this movie quite a lot, I admit, there are some problems. Though the film rightly spends a great deal of time with scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), once he’s transformed into Captain America, the plot becomes a bit jumbled as the movie scrambles to get Cap to a certain point to justify the lead-in to The Avengers. That being said, it’s still a great movie. One of the places where the movie falls flat, unfortunately, is in the main villain The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Cap and The Red Skull are the ultimate yin and yang. Both are the recipients of the super soldier serum and both are forever changed by the process. Unfortunately, and to the movie’s detriment, the hero and villain interact very little. Steve learns of The Red Skull from Dr. Erskine before he takes the serum and encounters him after rescuing Bucky. There’s a brief exchange of fists and words, but the two are separated by a walkway in a burning warehouse and don’t meet again until the end of the film. It’s a bit of a waste considering they are philosophically and politically polar opposites. Most of the second act is just Cap and the Howling Commandos making life difficult for Red Skull through a series of montages and Red Skull, in turn, yells a lot and is mostly responsible for the “death” of Bucky. A lot more could have been mined out of this dynamic, but again, it was all leading up to…
The Avengers (2012): The sum total of four years worth of Marvel movies, The Avengers was a two hour payoff for fans across the globe. After setting up all the heroes in the previous movies, all they needed was a reason to come together as a team. Enter Loki and the Chitauri. Loki, now in full blown villain mode is helped by a mysterious benefactor to travel to Earth and set in motion an invasion by the Chitauri. While Loki is still a charismatic villain, and Joss Whedon does draw a great deal on the emotional investment of Thor with his wayward brother, he and the Chitauri factor very little into the overall movie. We want to see The Avengers assemble, and by God they do! The villain could have literally been anyone with enough power to make the team’s formation necessary. Loki just happened to be a really great villain from a previous movie, which worked out for the better as we didn’t need a lot of backstory in setting him up as the chief antagonist. The Chitauri, however, are really just there to show up, present an obstacle for the heroes, and die. The only challenge they present is that there are a lot of them and only six heroes to fight back.
So, there ya have it, all the Marvel villains thus far. Will Killian and The Mandarin make their mark on the movie-going audience? Maybe. It’d be nice if there were more villains running around to invest our time in, but we all know it’s leading up to Thanos, so hopefully the next round of Marvel movies will at least provide us with some meat to sink our teeth into. We want the hero to win, but the villain’s gotta give him/her a run for their money first!
[Update: The character of Justin Chambers has been changed to Justin Hammer to correct a mistake on my part. Don't know why I put Chambers there. Chalk it up to your head being one place while your fingers are typing something else!]