When Did Marvel Villains Get Good?
January 8, 2019
(After the Channel Awesome logo and the 2018 opening, we are shown NC in his room. Note: The wall's now gray)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. (tries speaking in a cynical tone) Let's talk about how Marvel movies are destroying cinema.
(Footage of various Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are shown. Beethoven's "Fur Elise" is heard in the background)
NC (vo): Yes, they may be fun and exciting, with good characters, comedy, drama, and action. And, yes, they've allowed us to bring what we thought we couldn't bring to the big screen, and people that are so familiar, they almost feel like cinematic family to us now.
NC: But there's just too many of them. Some of them, I dare even say, are not great.
NC (vo): Out of their 20 hit movies that came out in the past 10 years, (Posters for The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are shown) four of them were kind of "meh". I'd even go so far as to say, "Eh".
NC: It's not like we went through a dark age of cinema...
NC (vo): ...where the majority of films were creatively and emotionally bankrupt.
NC: (starting to lose his cynical tone) It's not like...Marvel movies are anything compared to those masterpieces... (Finally loses his cynical tone and snaps) I'M SORRY, BUT I LIKE MARVEL!
(Footage of MCU films resumes showing)
NC (vo): I get why it's popular to argue they're repetitive and there's too many of them, and, sure, a lot of them aren't even that bad arguments. But even before the MCU, Hollywood was running on creative fumes. (Dozens of movie posters showing two types of movie genres, romantic comedies and films starring Adam Sandler, are shown) Imagination and good storytelling was kind of a rarity, and they were still repeating the same ideas and stories, just in really shitty ways. Marvel isn't perfect, but it's constantly entertaining and constantly turning out much better films than that dark age of cinema I mentioned earlier. (A clip of Iron Man 2 is shown along with footage of Battlefield Earth, Dante's Peak, and Spawn) I'd much rather watch the worst of Marvel with at least their charming main characters than the majority of what came out for years and years.
NC: The reason I bring this up is to show that I am a giant Marvel Cinematic Universe fan. But there is one criticism that everybody makes that I tend to agree with, too: The villains suck.
(Images of classic Disney villains are shown)
NC (vo): It's funny how Disney, the current owners of the MCU, have turned out some of the greatest cinematic villains in history, yet in recent years, they've been hitting some duds. (As NC speaks, the pictures of the Screenslaver, Roar Omega Roar members, Robert Callaghan and Mordu are shown)
NC: Marvel, I guess fittingly enough, is the same way.
(Footage of various MCU villains is shown)
NC (vo): Ever since their first hit with Iron Man, the villains have always been not awful, but underwhelming. They're boring, uninteresting, kind of silly, and even when they're given a good backstory or reason to be evil, they just seem unpassionate.
NC: Now, don't get me wrong.
(An image of Marvel villains in comic book form is shown)
NC (vo): The comics they come from usually have a lot of great emotional development, as well as interesting story threads. (Back to the MCU) But the movies, despite doing a lot of other things very well, never seem to reflect that.
(Footage from a press conference of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is shown)
NC (vo): Even when Samuel L. Jackson was trying to defend Marvel, he had to hand victory over to DC when it came to the villains.
Samuel L. Jackson: There's Marvel, we have heroes, and there's...there's DC, where you have interesting bad guys. (Everybody laughs)
NC: It seems that, again, like recent Disney, the focus seems to be on making the main characters more interesting and complex.
NC (vo): Which many people would agree is probably the more important element. (The antagonists and protagonists from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are shown) And, yes, there is an irony that early on, Disney properties seemed to be focused on making the villains more charming and complex while the title characters seemed secondary in terms of interest or passion.
NC: But, of course, the focus should be making the hero and the villain equally interesting.
NC (vo): This is admittedly tough, though, especially when for years, people didn't take your medium seriously. Comic book movies are big hits now, but for a while, (Posters of Batman & Robin, Steel, Spawn and Superman Returns are shown) they were seen as box office poison. Nobody wanted to make them, they were seen as kids' stuff, too corny. So not only did focus have to be on the hero having emotional substance that can be taken seriously, but it had to be done in not just one film, but a lot of films, to show this is a genre worth paying attention to. So, for a long time, we got forgettable antagonists, usually with complicated plans, very little personality, often just a dull stick-in-the-mud. Despite many of them being played by good actors, they never left the impact that made the original characters so engaging.
NC: That is...except for Loki.
(Footage of Loki is shown)
NC (vo): Everyone seemed to like Loki, despite him being, and let's be fair here, often pathetic. He looks silly, nothing goes his way, he's constantly outwitted, and his motivation might be the weakest out of any of the villains. He just wants attention.
NC: But, with that said, that is a very relatable motivation.
NC (vo): Therefore, we do always feel empathy for how things never go his way, and on top of that, he's just funny. For a while, he was the only Marvel villain who smiled. He enjoyed being the trickster, the manipulator, the one that made everybody's life an obnoxious hell. I think a lot of us can connect with that joy that ties to our inner troublemaker, doing something wrong to get something that you want.
NC: Outside of Loki, though, Marvel offered very little that stood out.
(We are shown another image of Loki, and then we are shown an image of Garry Shandling's character, Samuel Sterns, and his cameo appearance in The Winter Soldier)
NC (vo): Honestly, if you'd ask me who was the second most intimidating threat in the early run of these movies, I'd say Garry Shandling whispering "Hail HYDRA". That's how unimpressive things got!
(Images of Thanos are shown)
NC (vo): With such an unimpressive lineup, many thought that the presentation of Thanos, the ultimate villain that had been built up for several movies, was never gonna deliver on what was being promised.
NC: But then, somewhere around 2017, things started to change.
(Footage of the MCU's recent villains is shown)
NC (vo): In Guardians of the Galaxy 2, we got Kurt Russell as Ego. He was a surprisingly good villain. Then in Spider-Man: Homecoming, we got Michael Keaton as Vulture, another surprisingly good villain. Then came Thor: Ragnarok with Cate Blanchett as Hela, along with Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, Black Panther with Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, and finally, Infinity War, with Josh Brolin as the long-awaited Thanos. That's five movies in a row, hell, six if you count Ant-Man and Wasp, that delivered strong, interesting, passionate, funny, unforgettable villains that finally seem on par for some of our most iconic heroes. Suddenly, six movies in a row, the antagonist was just as much fun to watch as the protagonist.
NC: So, what happened?
(We go to a brief commercial break, before resuming showing various MCU villains)
NC (vo): How did these baddies go from miss after miss to hit after hit? What were these villains doing that these villains weren't? Well, I don't think it's one specific thing, but I do think all of them have several elements in common.
NC: And I'm not lying, fangirls. I think they're all elements that you could tie back to...Loki. (An image of Loki is shown, as the sound of screaming girls is heard)
(Footage of Loki is briefly shown)
NC (vo): Yep, all the ingredients that made these baddies so memorable all took a page from Loki's cookbook.
NC: And before I go any further, it's probably worth saying...
(He shows the caption "Spoilers", along with a clip of Hades from Hercules)
NC: Let's take a look at Guardians of the Galaxy 2.
(Footage of Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is shown)
NC (vo): Ego, throughout the majority of the film, is a likeable guy. He's a jokester, he's a visionary, he's a go-getter. For him, you can get anything you want if you just try hard enough. Like Loki, he was the only one who started smiling, enjoying what he did, thus, we enjoyed watching him. He's easy to like, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when you find out what a psycho he truly is, and serves also as a cautionary tale about who you can trust, even if it's a parent. This lesson wouldn't be nearly as dramatic if we didn't enjoy watching him as much as we did.
(Footage of Adrian Toomes/Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming is shown)
NC (vo): In Spider-Man: Homecoming, we got a lower middle-class worker who was screwed by Stark Industries and the government, leaving his job and life in the dust. Like Loki, he was overlooked and forgotten, and wanted what he felt was owed to him. His relatability comes from the idea that he's a common working guy, so much so that it's an absolute shock when you see just how common he is. Switching back and forth between prom chauffeur and murdering mastermind showcases how little the laws of human life can be. It's like a common job to him, demonstrating his creep value.
(Footage of Hela from Thor: Ragnarok is shown)
NC (vo): In Thor: Ragnarok, we get a banished sister Thor never knew existed. Like Loki, she looks extravagant, enjoys her evil side, and can even get out a good one-liner here and there.
NC: But let's be honest. Loki looks far more fabulous in feminine green outfits. (Images of Hela and Loki are each shown next to NC)
NC (vo): She can be funny, but she can also be quite menacing, not just in how physically powerful she is, but also her over-the-top demeanor in killing someone. Look at that face. That is hardcore.
(Footage of the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok is shown)
NC (vo): On the other end is a comedic overlord who wishes to entertain while also being entertained himself. He's kind of like the ultimate couch potato, just sitting around in his robe, except the shows he watches are real people, and he cares nothing if they live or die. Again, with both of these villains, there's a strange attraction to having so much power, you can just do whatever you like and act however you want to act, going as big and crazy as you want, just in different ways. Of course, pushing to the point of hurting innocent people is what separates us from siding with them, but still, their underlying enthusiasm for what they do is addictive to watch.
NC: In Black Panther, the opposite approach is taken.
(Footage of Erik Killmonger from Black Panther is shown)
NC (vo): Killmonger was one of the most serious villains the Marvel movies have ever thrown at us. Like Loki and Vulture, he feels abandoned and ignored with what should be his. But it goes even deeper than that. Killmonger knows there's a great power not being utilized in a way that can help millions, but rather than use it for peaceful purposes, he uses it to go to war, figuring obtaining peace through force is the way to go. While this idea is similar to many other Marvel villains, we see the harsh environment that Killmonger grew up in, how far he had to come to achieve his goal, and understand why he's been so tainted. Most of us wouldn't do what he's done, but we understand why he's doing it. We feel why he's doing it, mostly because it's not just told to us, it's shown to us. He's the outsider to Wakanda, even though he's the rightful heir*.
- (Note: Tiny slip-up NC has made there. Due to being the firstborn of the second son, younger brother to the previous monarch, Killmonger would be the rightful heir if not for the existence of the previous monarch's own firstborn T'Challa)
NC (vo): His inner city way of speech is completely different from the almost Shakespearean way people in Wakanda speak, but they're both just as big and epic. We see him start off quiet, almost sneaking under the radar. In fact, the brilliance of this villain is, at first, we don't even know he is the main villain. It looks more like it's gonna be Andy Serkis' character. But that's the idea. He appears to be an above-average henchman that turns out to be the biggest threat Wakanda has ever seen. Thus, you not only admire his stealth, but also his strategy. He starts off quiet and deadly, but becomes loud and larger than life. His motivations might seem similar, but his presentation is unique and relatable.
NC: All of this leads up to the ultimate Marvel villain, at least the one the movies were building up as the ultimate Marvel villain: Thanos.
(Footage of Thanos from Infinity War is shown)
NC (vo): Thanos was almost the perfect reversal of what the Marvel villains have been in the past, because he went from being the second main focus next to the lead to the main focus. Now, this could be seen as a problem, except in a movie like Infinity War, with tons of main characters...like, TONS of main characters...it only makes sense that the main threat should be the link that tied them all together. With more characters in this one than any of the other Avengers movies, they knew they had to deliver what they spent over six years building up. Thanos is the closest to what the Disney films used to do, making the villain the most interesting and complex.
NC: But with Infinity War, it doesn't hurt any of the main characters' focus, because we already know them so well.
NC (vo): We've had tons and tons of movies getting to know them. Thus, all the simpleness, complexity, subtleties, and extremes could all be explored with the villain. Thanos feels life in the universe has gotten too out of control with violence, war and death, so he goes the mathematical route and aims to wipe half of it out of existence. Again, kind of a similar motivation with other lesser Marvel villains. But everything, from what he says to how he says it to the way he carries himself, makes us understand who he is and why he's doing what he's doing. And it's all fascinating. There is little joy in what he does, but he acts like a man who used to experience joy. It's still in there, but only after he carries out his mission can he experience it again. Everything about him is bittersweet, a man who has gone through a lot of pain and knows he will go through even more, but believes it's truly for the greater good. He tries to separate himself from love and desire in the hopes of achieving what he feels needs to be done. But you can see in everything that he does that it's still buried deep inside him, to a point where sacrificing the last person that truly means anything to him breaks his heart, yet he still does it. And he doesn't have to say anything to express the complex emotions he's going through, it's all just right there on his face. There's also a confidence in what he does, an unshaking truth that what he is doing is the only salvation. And again, it's all brought out through the performance and the effects that make him so interesting to watch. Everything he does, you follow and understand, even if you disagree with it. To go from Marvel villains being an obstacle for the interesting hero to overcome to a villain being the most interesting character in an already-massive lineup of interesting characters is quite an accomplishment. So, yeah, all these Marvel villains have come a long way, but what was it that changed? What was it that we saw in Loki early on that we're now seeing in the current Marvel villains?
NC: Well, looking these recent foes over, I think it comes down to four elements.
(Killmonger is shown with the caption "Relatability")
NC (vo): Relatability. Not being told, but being shown how the villain's motivation connects to their unique personality.
(Ego is shown with the caption "Charm")
NC (vo): Charm. Where you have to experience empathy for the villain, and that comes from either laughing with them, feeling sorry for them, or both.
(The Grandmaster and Hela are shown with the caption "Uniqueness")
NC (vo): Uniqueness. Something has to be different about the villain to separate him or her from the rest, and it can't just be the look. (Two villains, Obadiah Stane from Iron Man and Darren Cross from Ant-Man, are shown alongside images of Killmonger and Ego) Stane would probably say and do something similar to what Cross would do, but Killmonger would definitely do something different from what Ego would do.
(Thanos is shown with the word "focus")
NC (vo): And finally, focus.
NC: A hero can be important, but as the saying goes, "A hero can only be as strong as his or her villain."
(Images of two different famous heroes and villains are shown)
NC (vo): Batman is amazing, but he wouldn't be as good without the Joker. Luke Skywalker is great, but his journey would be lessened without Darth Vader.
NC: It's when you take time to show respect for the problem that we can appreciate the magnitude of the solution.
NC (vo): Thus, showing the complexity and importance of your villain magnifies the complexity and importance of your hero.
(Footage of Ivan Vanko from Iron Man 2 is shown)
NC (vo): One of the greatest tragedies of Iron Man 2 is that the villain is actually pretty cool. He has a great backstory, great motivation, great look, and a great actor to bring him to life.
NC: But little to nothing is done with him.
NC (vo): We wanted to see him take on Iron Man, we wanted to see him completely manipulate and outsmart the worthy adversary. But sadly, we got very little of him and he felt completely wasted. So what do you think? Will this list of great Marvel villains continue in the MCU?
(Footage of Ghost from Ant-Man and the Wasp is shown)
NC (vo): Well, Ant-Man and Wasp, that came out after Infinity War, has some enjoyable baddies, but again, by their own terms. It was funny and comical, but still emphasized the motivation and pain behind the main antagonist. So even in a more comedic setting, they can still do this pretty well.
NC: Outside of that, we can only hope this great lineup of Marvel villains continues to be represented.
(All footage of MCU villains is shown once more)
NC (vo): Yes, it sucks it took so long to finally get them right, but at least they finally are now. And we still have a ton of really entertaining movies that just didn't always have the best villains. It isn't the villains sucked and the movies sucked, too. Marvel Comics is not short of great characters, and just because some of them are bad guys doesn't mean they're not as important or interesting. They deserve just as much focus and complexity as the heroes do. They're such a major part of what makes a story so interesting and memorable. But, as long as the villains are continuing to be written with these four elements in mind, Marvel will not only continue to give us the heroes we've grown to love, but the villains we've loved to hate.
(The final scene of Infinity War, showing Thanos watching a sunrise on another planet, is shown)
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.
(He gets up and leaves, now to his left. The credits roll)