The New Complexity of the Marvel Villain

I remember Marvel Studios years ago. Every movie was fun and some films were better than others but one element of the universe that was always lacking was the movies’ villains; Whiplash, Red Skull, Yellow Jacket, Ego, Secretary Pierce, Ronan, Ultron, etc.

These villains were, in a word, lame. And then we got Zemo.

In an instant, the typical antagonist whose grand plan was world domination was flipped on its head. The writers tricked us into thinking that this was Zemo’s motivations as the story unfolds with a predetermined conclusion that Zemo was about to unleash a small but mighty army of scary Super Soldiers onto The Avengers, only for that narrative to be flipped on its head when we realize Zemo’s only goal was to see The Avengers destroy one another.

And what were his motivations? His family was killed in Sokovia.

Suddenly Zemo wasn’t the typical Marvel antagonist. He was a man whose yearning for The Avengers’ downfall spawned from a place we can all understand; grief. That’s why when we reunite with him in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier the writers didn’t exactly portray him as this evil guy but as a smart individual who just so happens to not like The Avengers.

The second villain that made me stop and say to myself, “Wow, I can understand their motivations” was The Vulture. He was a crook, yes, but his turn to crime came from his yearning to provide for his family. So yeah, he was a bad guy who was willing to kill a kid–Peter Parker–but at least I understood where he was coming from.

Then there was Erik Killmonger, a man who made it his life goal to kill the person responsible for his father’s death while also wanting to liberate Black people all over the world. On one side, you could almost view him as a hero if his methods weren’t so extreme. I’m still being stubborn in believing that he isn’t dead but…maybe he is. I’ll find out in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Of course, there’s also Thanos, an individual who’s as fascinatingly complex as they come. Just read his story. When he saw that his world was dying he tried to tell everyone that they were in danger. No one wanted to listen to him; a young scientist whose radical views scared them. When his civilization did crumble he went insane and decided that he would be the one to save the universe, even if it meant killing millions along the way.

Yes, he’s a megalomaniac but in his mind, he was the universe’s humble savior; a shining knight in golden armor who was willing to do anything it took to keep everyone safe and happy.

And the trend didn’t stop there. Ghost turned out to be a woman who survived a terrible accident, gained extraordinary but agonizing powers, and was used by bad people to do bad things. Quentin Beck a.k.a Mysterio was a scorned Stark employee who wanted to become the world’s new Iron Man. Taskmaster turned out to be Dreykov’s daughter. That’s going to be a very complex storyline for her future in the MCU.

Loki': Meet the Man Behind the Curtain, He Who Remains | Marvel

And then there’s the Loki series which features a vast array of morally grey characters. Mobius has villainous tendencies but ultimately, he chooses to stand on the side of what’s right in the end. Loki is a villain who turns good. Sylvie is a hero whose final decision in the series could be seen as villainous. Ravonna Renslayer reads as a villain but I just see her as a woman in search of the truth…and maybe power. And then there’s He Who Remains; a man who has overseen the Sacred Timeline for maybe even hundreds of millennia. A man who watched terrible (and sometimes unfair) things happen to billions of people while never interfering all because he understood that to do so would unleash a threat so terrible trillions would suffer.

So yes, He Who Remains could be considered the villain of all villains but he isn’t.

And it’s this list of villains that reminds me why I love Marvel Studios. They understood that the one thing that was heavily lacking in these stories were equally fascinating antagonists and now, with such great villains, these movies are 1000% better.

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