Superheroes from both the MCU and the DCEU have become cultural icons, but will we ever have a truly memorable villain?
Between Marvel and DC, the movie industry is nearly saturated with vigilantes; a fact that isn’t necessarily bad, since they’re written so well. Charismatic, capable and funny, they shine both in their own films and in ensemble ones (mostly). But despite this — or perhaps because of this — we often get shortchanged when it comes to villains.
The MCU is full of unremarkable and forgettable villains. From Obadiah Stane to the Mandarin, they exist solely to give the main hero a character arc, and hardly ever leave an impact or elicit lasting fear. Sometimes, they’re even comic relief. Even Loki, probably the most beloved of villains in the MCU, is meant to be more of an antihero than an actual villain — and fans tend to love him more than fear him.
With DC’s stumbling beginnings building its superhero franchise, it’s only natural that they also faltered on the villain front when it came to Zod, Lex Luthor and Amanda Waller. Wonder Woman’s Ares briefly seemed to be a more exciting creature — more of a concept than something that could be literally fought — but that was quickly overpowered by the movie’s need to stay true to its superhero film nature (which is fair, I guess.)
And both Marvel and the DCEU have often settled for monster/alien villains that are just too foreign to our reality for us to really care, which is probably why pretty much every movie nowadays has a massive troll we have no feelings about at the end for the cast to take down together.
It would be nice to see a villain really inspire fear for once, in a more profound, realistic way.
Probably the last truly great villain that graced our screens in a superhero movie was Bane, in 2012’s Dark Knight Rises, the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s incredible Batman trilogy. Bane was memorable because he was a seemingly unstoppable force of brutality.
Even as a successor to Heath Ledger’s historic performance as the Joker, Tom Hardy’s Bane didn’t really feel like a downgrade. He was terrifying, in part because of his appearance, in part because of his voice. But unlike the Joker, whose fearsomeness relied on his unpredictability and his ability to singlehandedly manipulate people, Bane never really did anything alone: he was the embodiment of a chaotic multitude that was ready to rip Gotham to shreds with its bare hands.
But why have Marvel and DC since steered clear of this approach, and given us constantly underwhelming villains?
Partly, it’s because it was a conscious choice. Before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 premiered, io9 had an interesting conversation with Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president, about the nature of their villain development. Ultimately, he seems to agree.
“In 2008, two superhero movies that came out,” Feige said, referring to Marvel Studios’ first film, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight. “One focused on the villain, one focused on the hero, and we at Marvel looked at them, like ‘Yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.’”
But he does suggest that Infinity War will be different. “In a movie that has a lot of characters, you could almost go so far as to say [the villain Thanos] is the main character,” he said. This means that there must be some serious new thought being put into Thanos, especially since he’s been somewhat omnipresent up to now in the MCU, and will only now be truly emerging from the shadows.
It’s about time that Marvel focused on making their villains more appealing. As much as we love the heroes, no matter what they’re doing, it can get old to experience the same fights against the same archetypes over and over. We need something that hits us personally — that inspires fear and truly raises the stakes, and that makes us think.
DC is also gearing up for an ensemble superhero film with Justice League, which they are probably hoping will become a series of movies featuring the League. Its villain is Steppenwolf, presumably followed by the freaky alien army we saw Batman fight in Bruce’s dream in Batman v. Superman. It’s also possible that we’ll be seeing other DC villains, at least in passing, given the backstories of all the different members of the Justice League, but just how they decide to present them remains to be seen.
If Marvel was making a conscious decision to not invest in their villains, then DC is suffering by following suit and underusing the potential they have with their characters. With the focus on bright explosions and collisions, too much of the original message the villains were meant to convey gets lost.
For the superhero stories to evolve, the villains need to evolve as well, and become characters that truly leave a mark. More than alien superpowers or intimidating physical appearances, it’s what the villain stands for that makes the movie meaningful, and that makes the whole fight matter.
After all, it’s the more realistic villains that frighten us; the ones that represent the darkest, most twisted parts of human society. And to defeat them, if only over the course of a movie, is the whole point of superheroes in the first place.