After 20 movies, scratch that…20 wildly successful movies, Marvel Studios, for all of their crowd-pleasing accomplishments, has managed to deliver us exactly three truly memorable villains (Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Michael Keaton’s Vulture, and Josh Brolin’s Thanos, in case you had to ask). To use some Marvel-speak, we’re right on the cusp of “Phase Four,” and four is one higher than the number of genuinely worthwhile villains they’ve managed to put on the big screen in the last nine years (they’ve fared better on Netflix with Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave, Mariah Dillard, and Billy Russo, but we’re talking about the movies here).
And while Marvel has struggled to deliver threatening villains since 2008, in that same period of time (and in far fewer movies) Warner Bros. gave us Heath Ledger’s immortal Joker performance in The Dark Knight. Even a secondary baddie like Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow carried more weight than most of the punching bags Marvel has delivered. Tom Hardy’s Bane not only broke Batman but crafted a nightmarish vision for a Gotham City that looked uncomfortably like New York. Hell, for all their struggles, the DCEU managed to give us Michael Shannon’s brilliant General Zod in Man of Steel. So what’s Marvel missing?
The Marvel formula is reasonably simple, and it’s made even the less impressive films at least thoroughly entertaining. You make your hero, flawed though he or she may be, as enjoyable as possible to watch on screen, you keep the stakes big and loud if not demonstrably high, and you break the tension at every opportunity with some wit. It works. But audiences have caught on to this storytelling sleight-of-hand and realize that there has rarely been a moment where we really thought the villain would come out on top in a battle, let alone a war. The closest we’ve come is Thanos, with the godlike, reality-warping powers afforded him by the Infinity Stones, and the bonkers cliffhanger ending of Avengers: Infinity War.
There’s little doubt that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was the most indispensable bad guy in the MCU. But Loki is very much a god of mischief, not a god of real evil, and with the exception of a few moments in The Avengers, it’s far too easy to root for him while he’s busy charming everyone in sight. On the other hand, no sane person really wanted to see the Joker, Bane, or Ra’s al Ghul succeed in the Dark Knight trilogy.
The best that Iron Man had to offer, the Mandarin, had to be subverted (brilliantly or otherwise, depending on who you ask) in order to steer away from some of the more uncomfortably racist implications of the character for his appearance in Iron Man 3. Was Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin memorable? Certainly. Is he a villain truly worthy of the third installment of a massive superhero movie franchise? Probably not.
But when the potential of an all-time great villain like the Red Skull (and a potentially perfect bit of casting in the case of Hugo Weaving) is squandered, something just ain’t right. Anyone remember much of what Johann Schmidt got up to in Captain America: The First Avenger other than get turned into a rainbow at the end? No? Me neither. On the other hand, outside of an exceedingly charming Robert Redford, Captain America: The Winter Soldier lacked one true villain for us to hang our hatred on, instead playing a long game with a redemption arc for the title villain. Nor was Heinrich Zemo ever sufficiently explored in Captain America: Civil War.
There’s an argument to be made that characters like Iron Man and Thor don’t have the most potent jerks in their closets to begin with, so it’s understandable that they’d have to face a parade of soldier villains in the course of their respective franchises. The problem is that, until recently, a sizable chunk of Marvel’s best villains simply weren’t available for use at Marvel Studios. That, of course, has changed with Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, which finally opens up the doors for the rosters of the X-Men and Fantastic Four to join the ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And while the Fantastic Four are a perfect tonal match for the MCU, and the X-Men may present more of a challenge, there’s already no shortage of bankable heroes already in play (even accounting for a number of key contracts expiring after Avengers 4). But the Fox deal brings two characters far more important than the collective sum of their parts, and these two characters alone could reinvigorate Marvel movies for the next decade.
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I am, of course, talking about Doctor Doom and Magneto.
Doom is arguably the greatest villain in all of comics (with apologies to the Joker). A key inspiration for Darth Vader, and long acknowledged as the driving force of villainy in the Marvel Universe from back when Thanos was just a vision in Jim Starlin’s psychedelic explorations, Doom is exactly what has been missing from the MCU. A shadowy dictator with boundless scientific knowledge, a literal nation of his own to command, and an axe to grind. Think of all the technological wonders we’ve seen Tony Stark unleash on screen. Now imagine all of that and more being wielded by an Eastern European dictator with none of Tony’s conscience.
All of the Fantastic Four movies have been deeply flawed, but the sin they all have in common is how grievously they failed the character of Victor Von Doom. My only regret is that Benedict Cumberbatch is already tied to the role of Stephen Strange, because it’s difficult to imagine anyone embodying this role to more imperious perfection. Well, maybe Michael Fassbender, which brings me to our next baddie.
When you make your comic book villain Mt. Rushmore, Magneto gets a prominent place, right next to Doctor Doom and the Joker. Marvel is going to have some explaining to do about where mutants have been this entire time. If they want to explain why the world hates and fears mutants, and perhaps why most mutants prefer to keep themselves secret, then it’s crucial that Magneto be the first mutant we meet in the MCU. Not only is the master of magnetism one of the most powerful mutants alive, his motivations and sense of purpose would be wholly unique to the mostly one-dimensional baddies Marvel heroes have been gleefully steamrolling. Of course, unlike Doom, who has no cinematic baggage to speak of, Magneto has a legacy of brilliant actors who have defined him. Finding someone who can fill the purple cape of Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender will be a challenge.
Neither of these are one-and-done villains, but nor are they the kinds of video game final bosses we’ve come to expect in most superhero movies. These are villains who carry so much weight that it’s no coincidence that Fox once considered a Magneto solo movie (which eventually morphed into X-Men: First Class) or that Legion showrunner Noah Hawley has been developing a Dr. Doom movie for the studio (the status of this in the wake of the Disney buyout is currently unknown). In fact, the smartest thing Marvel can do to not only help combat superhero movie fatigue but do their best villains right and show fans they’re committed to upping the threat level in future movies, is give both Doom and Magneto their own movies, and let that set the tone for their respective heroes’ inclusion in the MCU. Warner Bros. is already making noises about giving baddies like Joker, Deathstroke, and Black Adam solo movies, so Disney should get ahead of this trend while they can.
While both Magneto and Doctor Doom deserve the spotlight treatment as soon as humanly possible, and it would seem the Thanos drip-feed approach is dead after Infinity War, there’s one other baddie who comes to the table with the Fox deal who will require a similar assemblage of heroes to combat him when the time comes.
A giant cosmic being who literally drains the life-essence from planets and who has created a handful of marketable cosmic herals for himself? Yes, we’ll be happy to meet Galactus briefly in a future Guardians of the Galaxy movie before everyone has to unite to take him on in Marvel’s Fantastic Four III or whatever. And this time, you can bet your comic book collection he won’t be a purple cloud.
In any case, before we all start falling over ourselves to try and cast the next Wolverine or Professor X, or start salivating at the prospect of a Brad Bird helmed Fantastic Four movie, Marvel Studios should use these key players from their latest acquisition to shore up the one glaring hole the MCU has. But after Tom Hiddleston set the standard, they’d better find some top-drawer talent to embody Doom and Magneto, pronto.
Bring on the bad guys.
(main image art by John Byrne)