Yesterday evening I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier after not having seen it in months. I enjoyed it thoroughly of course, for it’s one of Marvel’s greatest installments in the franchise, but as I watched it I realized something. For a while now I have presented the argument that a movie can’t truly be incredible and memorable without a great villain. Take The Dark Knight for example. Many people herald it as the greatest superhero ever made not because of Batman (even though he was clearly awesome) but mainly because we remember The Joker.
Heath Ledger took the iconic Batman villain to the next level, making us believe in the cynical plans he constantly concocted and shaking us with his dark jokes about how he got his scars just before killing someone. He was, at many times, smarter than Batman and he made for a compelling antagonist that took the movie to a whole other level.
Marvel has started to figure that out over the years. Villains are Marvel’s one blaring flaw. Their constant obstacle that has become a suspected hindrance to the franchise. But of late they have tried to change that narrative by incorporating villains that are actually memorable and worth caring about in the past few years. And that’s where I come to the point of this post.
My Mother’s Memory
My mother has seen nearly every Marvel film…but she doesn’t remember them at all. She’s your common movie watcher who sees the film but only can recall the most memorable facts from that particular movie. She can’t decipher The Avengers from Captain America: Civil War because to her each film has a lot of superheroes in them. What’s the difference? But she can pick out the Marvel movies that she likes.
The other day we were having a simple conversation about Thanos and why he’s such a great villain and I began to ask her which Marvel movies did she remember due to the villains within those movies.
She, of course, knows Avengers: Infinity War because Thanos is a villain you can’t soon forget. He’s ridiculously powerful, his plan of galactic genocide is horrendous, and he killed over half the superheroes in the movie! Of course she would remember this incredible film. But what about the other Marvel movies?
I asked her who the villain was in Black Panther and she quickly answered Killmonger. And that’s totally understandable. Michael B. Jordan played the role of Erik Killmonger so well some critics were comparing him to Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s complex, he’s compelling, and he presented an argument that kind of made him a hero…from a certain point of view. When he “died” (I’m refusing to believe he’s actually dead) my mother was sad about it because he was such a great character. He’s part of the reason why the movie was so ridiculously enjoyable.
When I asked my mother who the villain of Captain America: Civil War was she immediately came up with the correct response, Zemo. Zemo doesn’t have a fancy suit of armor or a special power but he’s smart. Smart enough to bring down the The Avengers to a point where even if the galaxy is at stake Tony Stark has to grapple with calling Steve Rogers for help.
My mother loves Doctor Strange and so she was able to easily remember its villain, Kaecilius (mainly because he was in Rogue One the same year.) And his eyes are memorable enough.
And finally I asked if she remembered who the villain of Ant-Man and the Wasp was and she immediately responded that Ghost was the antagonist of that film. You see (POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!) she wasn’t really a villain. She just wanted to save herself from dying and stealing Hank Pym’s quantum tunnel technology was the only thing that was going to save her life. I don’t call that villainy, I call that desperation, and in the movie she never kills anybody even though she easily could have. She just wanted to escape the terrible suffering that she had been dealt and thankfully Janet van Dyne was able to save her at the end of the movie. Now she’s supposedly a good guy who may make a surprise appearance in Avengers 4. Who knows.
But, there’s my point. You see these five movies that have been listed. These are some of the best Marvel movies that have arrived in the MCU, two of which (Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther) are clearly the top two films in the franchise. These films had compelling villains that are unforgettable and that’s what made these movies stand out to even the most casual viewer like my mother.
Now there are a few exceptions like Guardians of the Galaxy which undoubtedly has one of the worst MCU villains to appear in the franchise and yet the movie is utterly perfect, even with him. Thor: Ragnarok is another one of those Marvel films who had a lackluster antagonist but the movie still ended up being fantastic. And I’m not saying I don’t like Hela, she’s great, but if Hela wasn’t played by the fabulous Cate Blanchett this antagonist would’ve been about as bland as Ronan. Even Iron Man, which is still critiqued with praise by starting out the franchise at such a high level, has a terribly cliché villain that has uber-boring goals.
But for the most part Marvel’s least enjoyable films were in direct coalition with their lame antagonists. And I think Marvel is figuring that out. If Captain Marvel has a compelling villain it’s pretty much going to be a great movie but if the antagonist is boring it takes the movie’s chances of being phenomenal down a notch.
I thank my mother for helping me with this observation and I hope you enjoyed. Have a lovely day.