Marvel's Big Villain Issue
Have you ever vacationed in San Marino or Saint Lucia? Have you ever gone on a mission trip to Liberia or Dominica? If so, then you have been to a country that makes less money annually than Disney has made on all 13 Marvel films combined. Once the year is over, and possibly just the summer, the 13 (or 14 if we have to wait for Doctor Strange) Marvel films will have made four billion dollars. Billion. With a “B”. The Marvel interconnected universe is brilliant yet simple at the same time. It’s not just sequels, it’s other movies featuring new and exciting characters, which happens in conjunction with other films, leaving the possibility of guest appearances. This model has made the MCU the largest grossing franchise in history; ahead of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even James Bond, which includes 25 films. Many of Marvel’s films are also critically acclaimed, making them slightly more serious than summer popcorn viewing. But through almost all of their movies, there is one giant flaw. One huge kink in Marvel’s vibranium-clad armor. A great hero needs an equally great antagonist to overcome. How many of Marvel’s villains are truly great? What I hope Phase 3 can fix is this villain problem, though after seeing the exceptional Captain America: Civil War, I am left with little confidence that this will happen any time soon. With that being said, let’s take a look at each of the 13 films’ villains and how much staying power they actually have in the MCU. Spoilers for old movies that are readily available on DVD are in the article, as are spoilers for recent releases.
Iron Man: Marvel’s first outing in films, to a degree, had two villains. Its primary antagonist is Obadiah Stane. This character is very personal to Tony Stark’s life, acting as a surrogate after Tony’s parents are killed. Once Tony is old enough, he can take control of his company, pushing Stane to the background. His early taste for power made him desperate enough to seek out the movie’s secondary villain, the 10 Rings, to kidnap and kill Stark. Originally the 10 Rings were literal rings in the comics that the Mandarin wielded for magical power. This is re-imagined, rather poignantly and topically, as a Middle Eastern terrorist group with mysterious motivations and connections. Stane steals Stark tech to make his own, larger, Iron Man suit, implied in the film to be called the Iron Monger. Stane, like many of the people on this list, doesn’t make it out of the final act. The movie had a nice metaphor for old-world style child-kings with unethical tutors as the main story, and I feel more could have been done with Stane and Iron Monger, alas, this movie is merely to set up future Iron Man stories. We will eventually get to his main comic antagonist down the line. Stane is dead, 10 Rings still out there… 1 out of 2 villains alive. (10 Rings)
The Incredible Hulk: A much improved departure from the bizarre and unnecessary Hulk from five years earlier. General “Thunderbolt” Ross has been chasing Dr. Banner for years, trying to get him into military custody in order to use the Hulk when needed. He has finally realized he needs to fight fire with fire. He enlists Emil Blonsky, a Russian/British special forces soldier who volunteers to take the latest version of the WW2 super soldier serum, despite all previous attempts having disastrous results. Blonsky is a great foil for Banner. Banner is a scientist and, basically, a pacifist. He lives his life learning peaceful techniques to keep his monster at bay, keeping track of how long he goes “without an incident.” He wants the Hulk gone. Blonsky is a soldier who wishes to be younger and stronger. He wants to be the best soldier he can be and would love nothing more than to have Banner’s power. After the serum proves to be effective, but not as much as he would like, he gets an extra boost from another scientist and finally turns into the monster he always wanted, the Abomination. Hulk, of course, defeats Blonsky but his fate is unknown at the end of the film. Is he dead? Was he somehow taken into custody? We find out later in the short film “The Consultant” that Ross pushed for Blonsky to be an Avenger but Stark was sent to convince him that Banner would be a better choice. So Abomination is still alive somewhere in a secure facility. You know where he probably should be? The Raft, that ocean prison featured in Civil War. That could have been a nice little easter egg for fans: a giant enclosed cell all by itself in the background with some giant, scaly, green thing lurking around inside. It would have been about 2 seconds of screen time in the background. That couldn’t cost that much in SFX, right? Hopefully Ross’ involvement in Civil War, is hope that we’ll see Tim Roth’s Abomination in the future. Maybe Loki can retrieve him to distract Hulk in Thor 3? 2 out of 3 villains alive. (Abomination, 10 Rings)
Iron Man 2: The less talked about this bloated movie the better. Probably the worst of the 13 films on this list, it featured competing weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer and Russian… criminal? Computer hacker? tech genius? Ivan Vanko. Through some convoluted plot point involving Stark’s dad stealing inventions from Vanko’s dad, Ivan wants revenge and uses HammerTech resources to make a bulky, yet streamlined model of his “Whiplash” attack suit. And also drones to distract and kill people. Vanko spends most of the movie locked up tinkering on a computer and building drones. Meanwhile, Stark goes through a half-assed attempt at the comic book story “Demon in a Bottle” as well as making changes to his suit which are justified by the bloated plot. Whatever. Bottom line: Hammer is arrested for trying to kill a ton of people and Vanko spends about 5 minutes in a suit that looks like Iron Monger but has electric whips attached, then is killed in similar fashion as Iron Monger. Hammer later shows up, hilariously, in the one shot “All Hail the King”. He’s in prison and even has his own own prison bitch. 3 out of 5 villains alive. (10 Rings, Abomination, Hammer)
Thor: Here we have an average movie that gives us one of the best comic villains ever on film. Loki is the younger brother of Thor, but early in the film discovers he’s not actually Asgardian, he’s actually a Frost Giant that Odin adopted many years earlier. Already feeling like the black sheep in the family, this sends him over the edge in a violent diabolical quest to rid his brother and father of the throne in order to rule. He is defeated and seemingly killed, but recovered by Thanos before long in order to wreak even more havoc later. He was presumed dead at the end, but we know better. 4 out of 6 villains alive. (10 Rings, Abomination, Hammer, Loki)
Captain America: The First Avenger: We come to our first asterisk on the list. Of the villains who only showed up for one film, the Red Skull was probably the best. It’s hard to misuse Nazis as villains. I mean, it literally writes itself. Johann Schmidt leads the secret science division of Nazi Germany, called Hydra. He becomes very power hungry and eventually develops tech that could make the Nazis obsolete. He feels he and Hydra are bigger than Hitler and looks to move on once the war is over. This is another great foil for the protagonist. Steve Rogers becomes a super solider because of his ethics and morals. He appreciates strength and knows to use it to help people. Schmidt is the first attempt to use the serum and it is mostly successful but physically turns him into the manifestation of the hate he ascribes to. The Tesseract, or Cosmic Cube, or Space Stone, gives him the power to do what he wants, but also is his undoing. By the end of the movie, the cube, apparently, destroys Schmidt. However, it is the Space Infinity Stone and it opened up a portal to another galaxy before the Red Skull disappeared. Red Skull is assumed dead, but is he just somewhere else? This is why this is an asterisk. We don’t really know. Since Hugo Weaving has outwardly said he hated his time on the movie and doesn’t want to come back, we may never know what happened to him. For this reason, we will call him dead, unless he shows up in a future film. 4 out of 7 villains alive (10 Rings, Abomination, Hammer, Loki)
The Avengers: This movie gives us the return of Loki. He has been given a staff of great power, which can primarily brainwash people. In later films, this is revealed to be the Mind Infinity Stone. He is tasked with stealing the Tesseract in order to open a portal to invade Earth. Once this is done, his stones are to go to his “benefactor” which we find out later is the Mad Titan, Thanos. Why Thanos would willingly give up one Infinity Stone in order to hopefully get another is mind boggling to me, but that’s not what we are here to talk about. By the time the dust settles, Loki is alive and taken to Asgard and Thanos is still hovering around in his big ass chair, watching. 5 out of 9 villains alive. (10 Rings, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos)
Iron Man 3: Well, better than half of the Phase 1 villains made it. That’s not too bad. Things are about to tank in Phase 2 and 3. Iron Man’s third, and likely, final solo outing promised to finally give us the leader of the 10 Rings, Stark’s Big Bad in the comics: the Mandarin. The magic element would be stripped away, but at least they were taking a serious, modern approach: he is a terrorist leader that could strike anywhere. He was based in reality and that alone made him terrifying. Though he got a lot of criticism for being played by a British actor, it was still a fine choice, since in the comics the Mandarin’s mother is a white British woman; Ben Kingsley was a fine selection. The movie also featured a newer Iron Man villain, Aldrich Killian. He used some new and unusual tech to turn people into bombs. Meantime, in a twist that broke the hearts of comic fans around the world, the Mandarin turned out to be a fraud- an out of work, drunk actor named Trevor Slattery who made the Mandarin videos for Killian as a distraction so he could get revenge on Stark because... he blew him off 10 years earlier at a conference? Saying it out loud, this plot is kind of weak. Surprise surprise, Killian’s “turn people into bombs” scheme worked against him and he didn’t make it. Slattery made it but his fate is unknown since in “All Hail the King” he is kidnapped by a supporter of the “real Mandarin”, giving hope to maybe one day seeing him in the future. So, Killian is dead and Slattery isn’t really a villain but there is a real Mandarin, so I guess one for two in this movie? For simplicity sake we will lump the real Mandarin in with the 10 Rings, since he is the leader. So… 5 out of 10 villains alive (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos)
Thor: The Dark World: I go between this movie and Iron Man 2 as far as the worst. What keeps this just slightly out of “worst Marvel film” for me is Loki’s supporting villain role and the post-credits scene, which to me is equally important to the Avengers reveal at the end of Iron Man. We learn that both the Tesseract and the Aether are “Infinity Stones”, as this term is used for the first time. This is huge, as comic fans know that if Thanos is lurking and he’s after Infinity Stones, then the Gauntlet must be around somewhere and that is one of the biggest Marvel Comic cross-over stories ever. The main villains in this movie, Malekith and the Dark Elves, are completely forgettable and have no bearing on the future of the Marvel Universe (even though Thor’s mom died, which you forgot about until I just now mentioned it). Loki survives after faking his death and replaces his father on the throne without anyone finding out. Odin’s fate is unknown. Malekith is dead and the Dark Elves are promptly forgotten about, forever. 5 out of 11 villains alive (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos)
Captain America: Winter Soldier: Arguably the best of all 13 films, there was a lot of political intrigue in this film and featured several villains, which the previews did a good job of not giving away. So, here we go: Alexander Pierce is a high level government agent who has control over SHIELD, but it turns out he is dirty and puts an arrest order on Captain America. The titular Winter Soldier makes it out of this movie but his whole “villain” status is questionable. To make it simple, he is still treated as a villain in future films, so he is a living villain. Pierce is killed by Fury. And in the biggest twist, we learn that Hydra has been infiltrating SHIELD for 60 years and they make their presence known. Jasper Sitwell is outed as a Hydra operative, and he is killed when he is hilariously thrown into highway traffic by Winter Soldier. I will include him separate of Hydra since he was a recurring character up until this point. Before Dr. Zola died, he transferred his brain into data tapes and became an AI program. He is destroyed while Hydra is searching for Rogers. Brock Rumlow, part of the SHIELD STRIKE team is Hydra and ends up with some bad burns and hates Rogers by the end. He becomes Crossbones and appears in Civil War. Finally, Batroc the Leaper is featured in the beginning and gets away. He is apprehended again but is still alive. So, holy hell, 7 villains in this film, 4 of them survived. 9 out of 18 villains alive (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra). Oh god, Bonus, in the end credits scene, Von Strucker is seen screwing with Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Damn. 10 out of 19 villains alive. (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra, Baron Von Strucker)
Guardians of the Galaxy: Now we go far away from Earth to another galaxy where we find Peter Quill and his merry band of misfits who have to stop Ronan the Accuser from using the Power Infinity Stone from destroying a planet and committing genocide. Pretty intense, but the stone will end him by the time this is all over. His partner, Nebula, makes her escape, and Thanos is still hanging out in the background, but he’s been mentioned already. 11 out of 21 villains alive, still. (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra, Baron Von Strucker, Nebula).
Avengers: Age of Ultron: Other than villain issues, the one thing Phase 2 had going against it was that all of the movies seemed to happen in a vacuum with little set up for future films. There’s an alien invasion in Thor 2, but the other Avengers were busy? Really? Tony Stark blows up his suits and has apparently been cured of PTSD, but this is completely ignored in the second Avengers outing. The tv show, Agents of SHIELD, is criminally ignored in the movies, and is one of my biggest criticisms of this franchise. Fury gets the life saving helicarrier from the secret SHIELD run by Coulson in the episode that aired before this movie was released but that important fact is never mentioned and barely eluded to. Also, by this point in the show, the characters have started to deal with Inhumans and their abilities. Making Wanda and Pietro Inhumans who acquire their powers through Terrigan Mist experiments conducted by Strucker would have been a nice payoff to people watching the show, but instead Loki’s staff with the Mind Stone can apparently grant powers also? This movie could have done a lot with previous movies and television, and paid off a lot of different things, instead we got a decent one-time villain in Ultron, who is seemingly killed off at the end, and Von Strucker is killed OFF-SCREEN! Are you kidding me? This movie was fun to watch but my god were there some poor plot decisions made. Ultron could also have very well planted a copy of his programming somewhere on the net to be opened later. Being a network-based killbot, it’s possible, but until Marvel decides to go that route, all Ultron replicants were destroyed. No villains made it out of this one and we killed off one that was previously added. 10 out of 22 villains still alive. (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra, Nebula). Damn it, hold that thought. In the middle of the movie, Ulysses Klaw is hired by Ultron to steal vibranium from Wakanda. He loses an arm, but makes it out alive. 11 out of 23 villains still alive. (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra, Nebula, Klaw)
Ant-Man: A nice change of pace as Marvel gave us an Ocean’s 11 type of movie with a throw-away villain. Through corporate espionage and nefarious business tactics, Hank Pym loses his shrinking suit designs to Darren Cross who can’t perfect the science to make it work. Much like Stane in the first Iron Man, he is not as good a scientist as his brilliant counterpart, but better at business, and that pisses him off. Cross shrinks forever and is presumed dead, but since Scott Lang figured out how to reverse infinite shrinking, there is hope Cross could be alive, and possibly Janet, Hank Pym’s wife. Though Cross was so ineffectual and forgettable that I can’t imagine Marvel would bother to bring him back. He’s dead. 11 out of 24 villains still alive (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Winter Soldier, Crossbones, Batroc, Hydra, Nebula, Klaw)
Captain America: Civil War: Hope you weren’t too excited about some of the names on the list, because it’s about to change. Civil War opens with Captain America leading the new Avengers in tracking down Brock Rumlow, who is now Crossbones. He is a terrorist for hire and now steals and sells weapons to the highest bidder. He hates Rogers and wants him dead at all costs. He tries to take him out with a suicide bomb, but fails and dies in the process. The Winter Soldier is forced out of hiding when he is framed for an attack on the UN, killing King T’Chakka of Wakanda, pissing off his son, Prince T’Challa, who dons the Black Panther suit and goes after his father’s would-be assassin. This is all a smoke screen by Colonel Helmut Zemo, a Sokovian soldier whose family is killed during Age of Ultron. His plan is sound: an outside enemy can’t permanently divide the Avengers, but problems from within can. All of the events were his plan, in order to reveal to Tony Stark that the Winter Soldier killed his parents in 1991, leading to a personal and brutal fight between him and Captain America and Bucky. In the end, the Avengers remain divided, with Roger’s and his crew in hiding in Wakanda with the Black Panther. Zemo attempts to kill himself but is stopped by Black Panther who feels for his pain. Zemo was a master schemer in this film, but little else. He is, however, alive, and Bucky is cleared of all charges, at least in the hearts and minds of the audience, but is still at large in the film. I will say he is now a wanted anti-hero and no longer a villain, meanwhile, Rumlow is dead and Zemo is in captivity, alive, hopefully scheming for an even better follow-up in the future. Three villains, one alive, one dead, one no longer a villain. 10 out of 25 villains alive. (Mandarin, Abomination, Hammer, Loki, Thanos, Batroc, Hydra, Nebula, Klaw, Zemo)
Let’s take a closer look at which villains are alive and viable for future films. Whether or not there is ever a 4th Iron Man seems to change monthly. Sometimes it’s possible, other times, not a chance. The likelihood that the real Mandarin shows up is unlikely. General Ross returning in the newest Captain America is a good sign that other Hulk characters could show up, but there is no news of Tim Roth returning. So Abomination returning is unlikely. Justin Hammer was used as comic relief in his appearances and isn’t leaving prison. His arc is done. Loki will be back for Thor: Ragnarok and Thanos is presumed to be the big bad of Phase 3. Nebula is also confirmed for the Guardians second outing. Klaw is a well-known villain of Black Panther, and he already has the connections to Wakanda to be in the movie, but Andy Serkis has not been cast and it is rumored that Michael B. Jordan will be playing the villain, so he is unknown, but is the most likely unknown on this list to return at some point. Batroc not showing up in Civil War might mean we’ve seen the last of him and without another Captain America movie, we may be done with Zemo. Hydra will hang around on Agents of SHIELD for as long as that show is on the air. So in terms of movies, there are only 3 living villains out of 24 total that we know for sure will still be around for future films (Loki, Thanos, and Nebula). One other villain group will have a presence and be featured on tv (Hydra), and the other 5 living villains are up in the air (Batroc, Abomination, Mandarin, Hammer, Klaw). There are also a few villains that could be brought back pretty easily using various plot devices, though it’s unlikely (Red Skull, Ultron, Yellowjacket). Marvel, it’s not hard to write a good villain. Make them formidable, give them a recurring role that is important, and for God’s sake, stop killing them off.