I have a problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s been plaguing me like an inadvertent eye twitch for years now. Last Sunday, I dragged my feet to the big screen with a group of friends to watch Avengers: Endgame. I started this journey a decade ago with the first Iron-man movie and dammit I would see it through to the end. There I sat in my In-humans T-shirt mustering all my zen patience to block out anything I knew about Marvel Comics to preserve my movie-going experience.
Over the years, it has become easier to do but it’s still one hell of a horse-pill to swallow knowing that despite the success of modern superhero movies, most of them aren’t made for you. By you, I mean the superhero fan instead of the superhero dabbler. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Marvel movies, I just think that at their best, they max out at ‘good’. For example, as a superhero fan first, I’m not really interested in the actor Tom Holland–I’m interested in the character Spider-Man. Him being a good actor to me is dependent on how well he can portray Spider-Man. The majority of people who dabble in superheroes may or may not understand what makes that hero work. With that being the case, it’s much more important for Marvel to make likable actors than anything else since they are sure to show up in the inevitable sequel. Here’s where my eye twitches and we get to my actual point.
Marvel movies bother me in two ways.
One is they sacrifice the function and essence of their villains in order to spend as much time as possible setting up likable heroes for mass appeal. This allows their heroes to be digestible and fun but hollow because their actual character is rarely challenged past the surface level.
The other is the lack of interesting villains in the first place. Let me explain.
They say “the hero is only as good as the villain”. Given how Heath Ledger’s role as The Joker in The Dark Knight is often credited with changing the game when it comes to modern superhero movies, I would say the villain’s role is vital to making superheroes work. There’s endless content out there explaining why The Joker succeeds so well in that movie but it honestly just comes down to one thing: They kept the true essence of the character and allowed him to completely challenge Batman and everything else fell into place. In the Joker’s case, his essence is an unpredictable anarchist who is very skilled at disrupting Batman’s order in Gotham City.
The essence of a character is formed over a period of time through a variety of situations. The longer the comic book run, the longer writers have to find out what works and what doesn’t work for the character and who is the best at challenging them, aka the villain. It’s pretty damn bold to think these movie meatheads will take characters that have spent decades being perfected into what makes them interesting, change them, and expect to do a better job. The Dark Knight was wise and kept the core essence of The Joker while translating it to fit into the modern era of cinema. Marvel, on the other hand, went a separate route. Kind of.
As stated before the MCU could care less about villains for the most part and are mostly interested in making movies to tie different heroes together so we can spend roughly two hours watching “tea time with the Super-friends”. When Marvel does occasionally portray their villains in full-form by golly it enhances the whole room like a set of new drapes. Let’s talk about two MCU villains who make the plot interesting verses who only make up the plot; Loki and Thanos.
Loki not only has personality, a deep backstory, and the ability to truly test his enemies, he also has the essence of what made the character great in the first place. He’s a manipulative, mischievous, and cunning trickster. He almost never fights his opponents head-on and always has an ace-in-the-hole. This shows in just about every one of his interactions with the heroes. He constantly challenges them revealing their true character allowing the heroes and conflict in the story to feel all the more engaging.
For instance, in the first Avengers film Loki attempts to manipulate Black Widow by crushing her morale as she inquires about the condition of her partner Hawkeye. Loki directly assaults her past and ideology while attempting to get an emotional reaction which allows her to reveal her true character. She is a cold spy and a master at manipulating her own emotions as well as others and manages to get important Intel from Loki using his own actions against him. It’s a giddy little scene that had Black Widow fans nodding in approval.
Now Thanos isn’t a terrible villain, he’s just okay. He does not really challenge the heroes other than being strong. The only situation he puts the heroes in to reveal their character is dying for the sake of the universe which even Rocket Raccoon would do. It’s not a very unique situation. Thanos’s essence in the comics is a cool, calm, and collected megalomaniac. A prideful tyrant who is nearly unstoppable once his power is paired with his intelligence. He has some kind of advantage physically or mentally over every Avenger and it would have been great to see him exploit that in a way only he can and watch how the heroes overcome it. Thanos in the MCU is much more of a misunderstood tortured philosopher with a warped sense of justice who just happens to be strong. He doesn’t demonstrate any superior intelligence and the way the Avengers manage to defeat their greatest foe is head-scratching to say the least. Who knew that in order to beat a tyrant with the power of a God all you needed was the good old dog-pile and a switcheroo maneuver. Endgame’s three-hour-long swan song is all about crying and cheering for our favorite actors not having a compelling comic book story translated to film. If we really think about it, Thanos from the MCU isn’t that unique and could be swapped out with many other villains to achieve the same result.
This leads me to my second issue.
The second issue I have with Marvel’s movie villains stems from the biggest problem they have up to this date; the absence of the Fantastic Four. The FF is the backbone of Marvel. You can’t go far into any of their comics without running into them in one way or another. The series is responsible for some of the best top-tier villains in history such as Galactus, Annihilus, Namor, Super Skrull, Kang the Conqueror, and of course Doctor Doom. The issue with the Fantastic Four is big enough to have its own discussion so we’ll put it on Marvel’s tab for now.
To wrap this up, my issue with Marvel isn’t a matter of “it’s not like the comics so it sucks” my issue is it’s too close to the comics but lacks the soul of it. Sam Rami’s Spider-Man wasn’t perfect and definitely was not like the comics. Mary Jane should’ve been Gwen Stacy, Peter had much more attitude–he actually killed Uncle Ben’s killer, etc. It didn’t matter though. They got the core of what made that character work and it was brought out largely because they did such a great job with the Green Goblin. Despite my cynical tone, I believe since Marvel has shown they can make compelling villains and stories in the past they can do it again. I just believe they need the right incentive. Maybe if more people expressed how disappointing Iron-man 3 was because they watched Robert Downey Jr. pretend he was James Bond instead of Tony Stark confronting his alien PTSD through his greatest enemy, the Mandarin, then maybe we can actually get somewhere with these stories.