When it was revealed that Tom Hiddleston would be appearing as Loki in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a lot of people let out an exhausted sigh. Have we not seen enough of Loki at this point? Does Marvel really need to be going back to that well again? They probably do, actually, for one simple reason: he’s one of the only Marvel Cinematic Universe villains so far who doesn’t suck.
The Marvel series, starting with Iron Man in 2008, has some of the best comic book movie characters of all time: Iron Man, Captain America, Bruce Banner, Star Lord, Rocket Racoon…these are all immediately iconic film heroes, brilliantly realized on screen and who are instantly memorable from their first moments.
The problem with the MCU is that they have rarely had any villains that come close to matching that.
Let’s just run through a list of some of the villains we’ve encountered in the series so far. In Iron Man we have Obadiah Stane, who, despite being played by Jeff Bridges, I forget nearly everything about him by the time the movie’s over. He has the “Tony Stark built this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” line, which is admittedly memorable, but otherwise, Obadiah is basically a bland, bearded white guy in a suit. Not exactly a character that sticks with you or stands out from any generic villain in a movie like this.
But okay, the franchise is just getting started, so we can give them a little slack. In The Incredible Hulk, we have Tim Roth as Major Blonsky, aka Abomination. He’s trying to track down Hulk and eventually injects himself with the same serum, turning into a Hulk-like creature. I honestly had to double check the Wikipedia page to get that right, and I saw the movie a few weeks ago. He’s another bland white guy whose only memorable moment is when he appears as Abomination, which granted looks pretty cool, but that’s still just for that final fight.
Iron Man 2 introduces us to Ivan Vanko, some Russian dude who makes an arc reactor like Tony’s and tries to kill him. Aside from being physically intimidating, his most memorable moment is a running joke involving him and his bird. Try to describe this character without mentioning his physical appearance at all. He’s uh…he like…he’s violent, and he likes birds?
The Justin Hammer character is awesome in this movie, honestly maybe my favorite of these Marvel villains. He’s unique, memorable, has personality and his motivations are clear. He probably could have turned into another bland dude in a suit, but Sam Rockwell makes him something special, and his dance across the screen is honestly one of the best parts of the MCU.
In Thor and The Avengers our villain is Loki, who, along with Hammer, is probably the only truly memorable Marvel villain. He’s a character that sticks with us in the same way that Iron Man and Captain America do, and a character you might dress as for Halloween. Imagine dressing as Obadiah Stane. He’s funny, has interesting personality quirks, and for the most part is what you’d want from a villain. The only real complaint we might have is that he’s never really that threatening the majority of the time, basically just getting others to do his dirty work in Avengers and being reduced to a puny, sad sack by the end. And even the aliens who do his dirty with in Avengers are pretty bland, Halo looking things too.
Captain America: The First Avenger gives us Red Skull. Granted, he’s pretty cool on a visual level, but really only becomes truly interesting when he makes that visual transformation towards the end. I do like him as a villain, but part of me feels he’s only really memorable because he looks different than your typical bad guy. Otherwise, he’s kind of generic once again.
In Iron Man 3 we have the Mandarin. Famously, Marvel strayed from the comic book portrayal of him to create a pretty brilliant twist, turning the Mandarin into a complete joke. It’s funny as hell, but obviously pretty much disqualifies Mandarin as a memorable villain, because he’s barely a villain at all. The real bad guy is revealed to be (spoiler alert!) Killian. I do really like the idea of the real villain being the businessman operating behind the scenes rather than the terrorist boogeyman, but Killian pretty much sucks as a character. He’s another, you guessed it, generic white guy in a suit whose only interesting moment is when he randomly shoots fire (which he never does again). His motivation appears to be that he has a crush on Tony Stark’s girlfriend and one time got stood up by him on a roof.
Next there’s Thor: The Dark World with the villain Malekith. This one flat out sucks too. He’s a dark elf who lost his wife and kids and so now he’s on a quest for revenge, which involves using Aether to destroy the universe or something. He’s a bland, generic sci-fi villain with virtually no memorable scenes or character traits.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier we have the titular Winter Solider as our villain. This one isn’t bad, mostly just because (spoiler alert!) we have a prior connection to the character. Having him revealed to Bucky from The First Avenger is a good twist, though I’m still not clear on how the hell he survived falling off the train in that movie. He’s okay as a villain, mostly for how interesting the conflict is given his pre-existing relationship with Steve Rogers.
Finally, we’ve got Guardians of the Galaxy, and our villain of Ronan. Guardians is my favorite of these Marvel movies, but Ronan definitely could have been better. He’s really just a puppet of Thanos for most of the movie before turning on him in the last act and going rogue. He’s a good, basic sci-fi villain, but not a memorable one, and I honestly think Nebula is far more memorable.
To summarize, then, in 10 movies we have one great villain (Loki), four good/okay villains (Justin Hammer, Winter Soldier, Red Skull and Ronan) and five completely forgettable one (Obadiah Stane, Abomination, Ivan Vanko, Mandarin, Killian, and Malekith.)
Why exactly does a studio with such memorable characters seem to have such a hard time translating that to their villains? Granted, they seem to be gradually improving over time, with their most recent two films having pretty decent antagonists. But practically none of them have ever been threatening, with no Marvel film yet really convincing us that the villain has a serious chance of winning. Could Ultron be that villain we’ve been waiting for? I sure hope so, because for now, the studio is doing so well with its heroes, but its villains need some serious attention.