This article contains spoilers for every MCU movie up to and including Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Since Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, Marvel Studios has gradually built worldwide box office dominance, developing a sprawling superpowered franchise which every other studio wants to emulate. It isn’t without its curiosities and questionable decisions, though.
While Iron Man’s villain Obadiah Stane was revealed rather late in the film, he was a decent enough adversary for an origin story, and he pushed an early-in-his-superhero-career Tony Stark to his limits. In the same year, General Ross was a clear and deadly villain for The Incredible Hulk film, even though Tim Roth’s Abomination did all the heavy lifting.
Similarly, Tom Hiddleston’s debut as Loki in 2011’s Thor provided a decent challenge for the God of Thunder, before going on to become a formidable foe for a whole host of heroes in 2012’s Avengers Assemble. Still Marvel’s most memorable menace, Loki has been given a lot of screen time to develop into a fully formed character who audiences really respond to.
However, since 2010’s Iron Man 2 Marvel has introduced a more unusual terror – the sidelined antagonist. This rushed sequel pulled a fast one on our expectations, advertising Mickey Rourke as the big bad, before revealing that he would end up imprisoned and working for Justin Hammer for a sizeable chunk of the film. This has seemingly set a precedent for future non-Loki bad guys – that they would get nudged from their advertised central positioning in favour of revealing a different threat.
Iron Man 3 is perhaps the most notorious example of this, with Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin being revealed as merely an actor, and Guy Pearce being eventually revealed as the true villain. Marvel’s ‘One Shot’ short All Hail The King suggests there is even another layer of revelations to come. Thor: The Dark World continued this trend, rendering Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith near-mute and sadly underdeveloped. Most recently, Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier arguably became a bench-warmer in his own movie, proving to be more of a set-up for future instalments than a truly anarchistic adversary, with the real enemy being HYDRA.
So why does Marvel keep doing this?
Studio-wise, the most obvious reason for toning down the threat of the advertised villain and highlighting evil plots in the background (Hammer’s plot to muscle in on Stark’s empire, Loki’s plan to usurp Odin, the possible emergence of the real Mandarin and the HYDRA plot within S.H.I.E.L.D.) would be the necessity to keep the separate franchises going.
Although Justin Hammer’s plot is still resolved over the course of Iron Man 2, the background threats from other Marvel movies are still looming and awaiting further development. Zola’s algorithm and the three central Helicarriers may have been stopped in The Winter Soldier, but HYDRA is still out there waiting to terrorise Cap once again in at least one more sequel.
After the amazing reception of Avengers Assemble, developing a broader Loki narrative of attempted galactic domination is surely a wise move. Likewise, the threat of ‘the real Mandarin’ has been teed up and may be developed upon if we ever see more standalone Iron Man films. Both these future plots would not be foreshadowed yet if it wasn’t for the creative decision being bravely made to advertise a main antagonist then sideline them and reveal something else.
This allows Marvel to develop a template for standalone sagas beginning with an initial stoppable threat in part one, before moving the goalposts and revealing something more in the sequel, leading into a big bust-up in the third instalment. This certainly seems to be the way it’s shaped the Captain America and Thor franchises anyway – kick off with a relatively easy fight against your main baddie, reposition that villain or their organisation in the second instalment, then (presumably) defeat them once and for all (or at least inflict a lot of damage) in the third part.
Of course we still need antagonists though, so some new ones must be drafted in to keep us entertained with plenty of punching and kicking in that middle instalment, before sidelining them later to make room for the larger narrative. It might not please everyone all the time, but this method certainly allows Marvel to develop broader narratives than just a new freak-of-the-week-style scenario occurring every year, which would surely be less entertaining.
There is also the problem of the Avengers to consider. As reviewers and commenters continue to point out – if these villains were really that dangerous, surely one of our heroes would call for some back-up? Avengers turning up in each other’s movies would not only cost Marvel a pretty penny, it would defeat the point of developing separate franchises in the first place.
Rather than calling in the Hulk, Iron Man or Thor then, Cap should be able to fight his own battles with the support of his S.H.I.E.L.D.-based supporting cast. Likewise, Tony should be able to solve his solo problems with the help of Rhodey, JARVIS and Pepper, while Thor’s Asgardian comrades should be support enough in his own movies.
As such, one way to ensure the right level of villainous ability in these separate solo franchises is to sideline the initial threat and unravel a more shrouded plot in the background. The Winter Soldier matches Cap for strength and fighting skill, and with his technological weapons and cybernetic enhancements, would probably win if they fought for long enough. It only takes two or three fights for Bucky to start questioning his orders and remember who he is, though – surely a conscious decision. If this fight continued any longer, Cap would presumably need to call in someone with a bit more fire-power.
By sidelining The Winter Soldier for some shady within-the-government plotting (the kind of thing Cap has good form at bringing down), Marvel sets up a sequel in which Cap can actually achieve his goals without too many ‘couldn’t he do with Iron Man’s help?’ questions being asked.
The same goes for Iron Man 3. Could MCU Tony really stop a magic-ring-wielding super-terrorist without everyone legitimately thinking it would make a better story as a team-up with Thor? Marvel avoided that problem by turning the Mandarin into Trevor Slattery – a formidable thespian and the Toast of Croydon, but not much of a terrorist. Aldrich Killian is a villain that Tony can actually defeat, which is a good enough reason to explain why the Mandarin was used as a red herring rather than a mystical menace. By sidelining the main antagonist then, Marvel avoids awkward Avenger absence questions being asked even more.
This works both ways too – surely if every standalone movie villain was as difficult-to-stop as marketing materials are bound to suggest, what would be the point in ever bringing the Avengers together? Avengers Assemble earned the closest thing to unanimous acclaim the MCU has ever seen, thanks in no small part to the God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, returning with more rage and power than ever.
In Thor’s first solo film, Loki was pretty pissed off, but was thwarted comparatively easily by his big (adoptive) brother who was able to defeat him through a string of personal sacrifices – offering his life to save his friends (rendering him worthy of Mjolnir) and then severing his link with Jane by destroying the Bifrost Bridge.
Avengers Assemble wouldn’t have worked if the danger level was as low and easily-averted as that of Thor. An airborne alien invasion of unfathomable numbers endangering one of Earth’s biggest cities is a huge threat, and all the Avengers get their moment to prove their worth. Only the Hulk could subdue Loki, Cap had to inspire the police to evacuate, Tony had to make the sacrifice play, Thor’s lightning was vital to slowing the invasion… Heck, even Hawkeye and Black Widow managed to pick up and handful of pivotal moments.
If the threat was this big in all the other movies, as it could have been in Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 if the advertised antagonists had been a bit more effective, we would have been so bombarded by now with solo films in which singular heroes succeed against insurmountable odds that an Avengers team up would seem completely unnecessary. If the world was truly at stake in every Marvel Studios solo movie, superhero fatigue would be huge by now.
By sidelining their central standalone antagonists, Feige and co. ensure the future of their shared universe – some villains are a massive threat, requiring a whole super team to stop them. Some are less formidable foes and get assigned one Avenger each. They might not even be the real villain at all, making way for a background conspiracy (HYDRA, Loki’s usurping, the real Mandarin) which can be dealt with at a later date, avoiding the problem of ‘the world’s ending!!’ repetitiveness for now.
So, we’ve established a number of legitimate reasons why Marvel keep sidelining their primary antagonists – to ensure the continuation of the standalone franchises through ‘moving the goalposts’ and unveiling a background plot, and to stop our heroes becoming overpowered and solving everything too easily, which in turn legitimises the need for Avengers movies when a villain turns up who poses a bigger threat than Trevor Slattery.
There’s one more reason we should consider too – Marvel makes these choices to keep us guessing and to spring entertainment from unexpected places. By revealing Trevor Slattery, Marvel provided a huge laugh and led into a cinematic experience in which we genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen.
In the age of trailers for trailers and nine minute super previews, we’re glad that Marvel is brave enough to sideline its antagonists and surprise us some of the time. Let’s just hope they don’t have Ultron turn out to be as big an A.I. threat as the toaster from Red Dwarf or this technique might quickly become a tiresome second-guessable gimmick – it’s a fine line, but at the moment Marvel is staying on the right side of it.
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