Marvel Cinematic UniverseMythologyOpinion Op/Ed: Marvel’s “Villain Problem” is really an “Emotional Connection” Problem written by Robert Reineke March 9, 2017 Much has been made about Marvel’s “villain problem” lately, with Marvel rationalizing part of it by saying their films are about the heroes not the villains. While there’s a point to that, I’d say that there’s no bravery without fear, no heroism without emotional and physical stakes, and no weight to anything without emotional or at least intellectual investment. With most of Marvel’s heroes rushing into battle without fear and a wisecrack ready, and little connection to what they’re fighting, it seems like their heroes don’t have a particular investment in the villain. Which brings us to the central question. If Marvel’s heroes don’t have particularly strong feelings about their antagonist, why should the audience? Let’s look at some recent examples for what works. Recent MMM award winner John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were given time to develop a real relationship in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. Suspicion led to gratefulness led to a discovery of betrayal of trust. J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort entwined emotionally in the murder of Harry’s parents with a real sense of fear for Harry. Frodo and Sam was greatly afraid of Sauron in THE LORD OF THE RINGS and everything he represented, that they soldiered on despite all of that demonstrated their bravery. You can say that MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was more of a Furiosa story than a Max story, but both protagonists had good reason to be afraid of the villain and it’s no coincidence that Furiosa got to strike the final blow against her foe with their common history. In recent comic book films, it’s true that the X-MEN have gone to the well too often with Magneto, but there’s a clear relationship there with actual emotional weight. None of the foes in the other X-MEN films have managed to fill those shoes. Christopher Nolan was very careful to establish a relationship between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul as a father figure who turns out to betray what Bruce stands for. The Joker struck at Batman’s philosophy and also him personally through the death of Rachel Dawes and by destroying Gotham’s would be white knight in Harvey Dent. So, let’s turn our attention to the MCU starting with Tony Stark and assess the villains simply in terms of their relationships to the hero and see how it matches up with the general consensus about which villains were effective and which weren’t. I don’t think anyone thinks Iron Man has had a particularly great set of villains, but I think the consensus would be that Obadiah Stane has come off the best, even if Stane stepping into a set of powered armor for the third act seems like a stretch. Part of that is because Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors on the planet, but part is because Stark and Stane seem to have a relationship and history together. Stark couldn’t care less about Whiplash and Justin Hammer, although they care about him, and Guy Pearce’s Mandarin is more one sided from the villain’s point of view, albeit the wounding of Happy Hogan and kidnapping of Pepper Potts gives Stark motivation. Still, Stark is so egocentric that he always seems more in a relationship with himself than anyone else and perhaps that’s somewhat limiting as to how potent his villains can be. I don’t think it’s arguable that the strongest relationship between Tony Stark and his opposite is in Civil War with Captain America. Zemo, meanwhile, seems to only develop a relationship between himself and Black Panther. The Hulk, as represented in THE INCREDIBLE HULK, is mostly incapable of any emotion other than anger. Tim Roth and Ed Norton never really interact. Tim Roth turns in a fine performance with motivation and an arc, but he never is able to really emotionally connect with his opposite and vice versa. Which brings us to Marvel’s real triumph in the villain game, Thor’s relationship with Loki. It’s clearly the most complicated relationship in the MCU, as we’ve seen the two both as brothers-in-arm and as antagonists in THOR. We’ve seen mutual grief. And we’ve seen jealousy and betrayal. Not only is Tom Hiddleston great in the role, but we’re given reason to care about him. There’s a love/hate relationship between the two brothers, but in both cases the feeling is strong. In contrast to Loki, we’re given no particular reason to care about Malekith. Thor and Loki are given motivation to take him down, but Malekith represents nothing meaningful to Thor other than a villain to fight. Malekith espouses no philosophy that challenges Thor in any way and the two have no relationship beyond fighting, so why should anyone care more about Malekith than any other villain Thor fights? CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is an interesting case because Steve Rogers is given ample reason to care about the Red Skull. The Red Skull arranges by proxy for the murder of Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Erskine and also apparently dispatches Bucky. But, there’s never really a point in the film where I ever think that Steve Rogers is really obsessed with the Red Skull. It always seems to rank behind getting into the war and forging a relationship with Peggy Carter. It doesn’t help that their first encounter is very brief and there’s never much of a back and forth between the two. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER manages its hero / villain relationship better. Certainly, Steve Rogers is given plenty of reason to have feelings about Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, albeit the fact that the Winter Soldier is a brainwashed terminator limits any back and forth so that Chris Evans is doing all the heavy lifting. Alexander Pierce and Steve Rogers never develop much of a relationship, but at least Nick Fury does have a relationship with the villain. And, as mentioned above, the Steve/Tony relationship in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR works because of their historic relationship and because they interact with each other in the film on multiple occasions. THE AVENGERS reused Loki to good effect. Obviously, it helps that he has a relationship with Thor, but it’s worth noting that every Avenger gets to have one significant conversation with Loki whether it’s Captain America standing up to Loki in Germany, Thor pleading with his brother to return, Black Widow turning the tables on Loki, Tony Stark’s conversation as a prelude to battle, or Loki’s final ploy with the Hulk. There’s give and take on both ends of those conversations which defines the heroes and the villain. Couple that with the fact that for once the heroes are worried that they’ll lose and it’s a really nice bit of writing by Joss Whedon that cements Loki as the star villain of the MCU. Ultron fares worse than Loki in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON for a number of reasons, but the biggest one being that Tony Stark doesn’t really wrestle in a satisfactory way with his culpability of creating Ultron. There’s also not much back and forth between the Avengers and Ultron, Ultron gives a big speech about how there are no strings on him, but it’s a monologue rather than a dialogue. The emotions between the Avengers and Ultron kind of get short shrift as the film is also dealing with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch as well as other important things like Thor taking a bath. As well stated as the final conversation between Vision and Ultron is, I do wonder if it might have been a more emotional, resonant sequence if it was between Ultron and Tony Stark. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY took some criticism of their villain too. Ronan isn’t a problem because of his look, the performance, or because he doesn’t do sufficiently villainous things, but he’s a problem because he doesn’t represent much to Peter Quill, Rocket, Groot, or even Gamora. If STAR TREK has taught us nothing, it should have taught us that conversations over view screens is a good way to flesh out the hero/villain relationship without us wondering why the villain just doesn’t kill the hero. Ronan gets to tell off Thanos over view screen after all. Maybe a dance off would work better at the climax if Peter Quill and Ronan had some significant interaction prior. I kind of doubt that Ayesha is going to forge a stronger emotional connection in the sequel, although there is a possibility that Ego and Taserface could make up for that. ANT-MAN made a lot of things work, but when looking at the villain we have to acknowledge that Scott Lang and Yellowjacket only have a relationship by proxy through Hank Pym. And Scott Lang’s relationship with Hank Pym is a work in progress through much of the film. You can cover that up through a charming Paul Rudd performance, clever jokes, and visual inventiveness but you ultimately can’t hide the fact that there’s an emotional void between our title character and the villain. DOCTOR STRANGE had Kaecilius inadvertently throw Dr. Strange’s own words back in his face, but otherwise they’re total strangers. Kaecilius has a beef with The Ancient One, but he doesn’t give much thought to Doctor Strange and the two never really engage in any sort of meaningful way. The Ancient One has to die before Dr. Strange has any real emotional investment in his villain, and even then it doesn’t easily extend to Dormammu. Fortunately, Dr. Strange does have a relationship for Mordo which is promising for the future. It doesn’t stop at Marvel though. Neither Clark Kent nor Bruce Wayne ever really express any strong opinions and emotions towards Lex Luthor during the course of BvS, and Doomsday is basically an engine of destruction rather than a character. Batman’s coda with Luthor is the only real emotional interaction between the villain and the heroes. The idea of the Enchantress being Rick Flagg’s love interest isn’t a bad one, except Flagg is, at best, the third string character in the ensemble and most everyone else doesn’t care one way or another. David Ayer is right that a stronger villain would have been The Joker if only for his emotional connection with Harley Quinn. Zod, by representing part of Superman’s heritage, has a symbolic relationship with Superman, but not much of a direct emotional connection. Or, only slightly more than any of the other Kryptonian survivors. And, again, there’s never a real conversation between hero and villain with give and take. There’s been a boatload of talent essaying the villain roles at both universes. There have been schemes that seem reasonable based on what we know about the motivations of the villains. There have been interesting design choices. I don’t buy that Marvel isn’t trying or has devoted insufficient screen time to the villain, but I’d say that they’ve devoted the wrong type of screen time. But, there’s reason for optimism on the horizon. Certainly, there’s reason to believe that Black Panther and Killmonger will have interactions and an emotional relationship. Aquaman and Ocean Master also have a natural bond that’s ripe for an emotional connection to be made. Dr. Strange and Mordo should be a natural for this too. The Justice League and Steppenwolf and the Avengers and Thanos might be trickier though, particularly in the case where their appearance leads directly into battle instead of dialogue. Wonder Woman could go either way, especially as she and Ares are related in some versions of their stories and Wonder Woman is historically repulsed by war. It doesn’t take much to make a villain mean something. Heck, look at THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE where the Joker’s whole scheme is motivated by his feelings toward Batman and culminates with Batman saying “I hate you.” It can be done in 90 minutes or so. How many hero/villain relationships are strong enough for the words “I hate you” to apply? Great movies have been made without a great villain, but great villains are almost always great because they inspire strong emotions. Thor and Loki do that with their “I love you/I hate you” dynamic. A great hero / villain dynamic should inspire lines like “I hate you and everything you stand for”, “I pity you”, “I love you, but this is the wrong path”, “I want to redeem you”, “I fear you” and so on. At the very least, it should inspire stronger emotions than “I’m mildly irked by this external obstacle.” And, you’ll notice that there’s always an “I” in that statement which should point out that the idea that making the villain better doesn’t necessarily come as a sacrifice on the focus on the hero. Inspiring strong emotions in the protagonist is classic storytelling, see Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius or Ahab’s with Moby Dick, and there’s no reason that the antagonist shouldn’t be the focus of those emotions. Instead of saying “we’re focused on the hero” it would be better to address the actual issue. And that applies across the board to all studios and films in basic storytelling. Op/Ed: Marvel’s “Villain Problem” is really an “Emotional Connection” Problem was last modified: March 9th, 2017 by Robert Reineke Related 5 comments 0 Facebook Twitter Google + Pinterest Robert Reineke previous post Weekly Ratings Roundup: February 26 to March 4, 2017 next post Weekly Ratings Roundup: March 5 to 11, 2017 You may also like Theater Review: THE HISTORY OF INVULNERABILITY April 12, 2014 Weekly Ratings Roundup: February 12 to 18,... February 23, 2017 Super Bowl Brings Marvel Super Heroes To... February 2, 2015 Weekly Ratings Roundup: April 2 to 15,... 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Hopefully that changes for the better going forward. ultrontrain As a very supportive fan of the MCU, I think this is a well-written argument with a good premise. I like or love all the MCU movies, but it would be nice if Loki wasn’t the only MCU movie villain who really became an icon, though as you pointed out, X-Men and the DCEU have this flaw as well. That said, I do have a couple points of disagreement: 1) I liked what they did with Ultron, making him the ultimate personification of Tony Stark’s darkness and paranoia. I feel like he was a very interesting, charismatic character whose story arc wasn’t given enough time to make a huge impression. 2) Helmut Zemo definitely has potential if they bring him back. He had two hostile interactions with Steve Rogers and turned Bucky into the Winter Soldier again, so Steve and Bucky now have emotional connections with him. Also, he broke the news to Tony Stark about Bucky killing his parents under HYDRA’s literal brainwashing, so there’s that, not to mention killing the Black Panther’s father. Not to mention he has an interesting story arc of a normal, broken man who succumbed to his loss to become a terrorist. Plus, he did what Loki and Ultron could not: he actually defeated the Avengers and turned the world against them without even fighting them himself, making him the only MCU villain to win. That said, I think the MCU is taking notes. They didn’t kill off Helmut Zemo and have hinted at him coming back, they gave Mordo an origins story and set him up to be an archenemy to Dr. Strange, and the Russos and Feige have emphasized that Thanos will be heavily developed in Infinity War and the fourth Avengers flick. Robert Reineke I don’t think we disagree too much. I think Ultron simply wasn’t given enough time and interactions to really make that connection. And I kind of think they held their cards with Zemo too long, similar to Talia in DKR, but I agree that you can forge that connection moving forward. ultrontrain Indeed. Granted, AOU was still a solid blockbuster, and Ultron himself was a worthy and interesting villain for the Avengers. Though I do think AOU got a bit cluttered at times with all the subplots and story threads it had, which took away time from building up more to Ultron. As for now, I’d say Ultron would rank more in league with villains like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin or Colonel William Stryker, good but not quite “top tier.” ultrontrain Now in retrospect, it seems the MCU finally hit gold with another villain: Vulture in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” He was easily the most grounded and human antagonist of the MCU films yet, and the film really developed an emotional connection between him and Spider-Man. Also, Toomes’ motives were very believable, he was a family man whose back was against the wall after being pushed out of business by Stark’s cleanup crew, and so he understandably but wrongly got into crime. As he got further in, he got rich, and then used it to basically lash out at the world for wronging him. His arc was very reminiscent of Walter White that way.