Warning: mild spoilers for Doctor Strange ahead.
So PCU just saw Doctor Strange on Tuesday, and hey, great movie. Maybe one of Marvel’s best, and it definitely keeps within the pattern and tone set by the other films: heroic origin, bridging middle arc, and big climactic finish with some teaser scenes in the credit. Oh, and one other problem: Doctor Strange had the near-total absence of any character development for the villains.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, a rival sorcerer to Dr. Strange, who…is bad for…reasons. Oh, the reasons are spelled out in the movie (I TOLD YOU THERE’D BE SPOILERS): he sees life on Earth as finite, but the dark lord Dormammu promises eternal life. Kaecilius thinks existence would be perfect and more bearable under Dormammu, so he’s willing to betray his master and sell out to dark magic. Right. Got it. That’s all fine, but beyond a token introduction to Kaecilius and his motivations, we never really get to know the guy. He spends almost all of his appearances in the movie being evil and trying to kill people. For a multidimensional movie, the villain of Doctor Strange is painfully one-dimensional.
If you haven’t noticed, this is a problem for the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Quick, and without consulting the internet: name one well-developed MCU villain besides Loki, and explain why they’re so well-done.
Go on. I bet you can’t. If you can, congratulations. But I’ll bet most people reading this article can’t.
Yes, Loki is the rare exception here. Besides the fact that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals absolutely every scene he’s in, the fact is that Loki has two things going for him. One, he’s got a well-developed backstory. Keeping true to the comics, Loki is actually a frost giant adopted by Odin as an infant. He’s in Asgard, but not of Asgard. He’s permanently the outsider, not as good as his brother Thor, always standing next in line for his father’s affections.
But second, Loki gets an incredible amount of screen time compared to the MCU’s other villains. We get to know Loki because we’re actually able to get inside his head. We know that he’s always scheming, a trickster, and he’s never quite showing us everything that he has planned. Loki is memorable because Loki is fun, and we get to spend the right amount of time with him so we can get to know him.
So now let’s think of the MCU’s other villains and see how badly developed they are in comparison with Loki:
- Obadiah Stane: OK, Stane is tolerable as the steward of Stark Industries who’s displaced when the drunkard son suddenly wants to take his company back. With Iron Man as the impetus for the MCU, and maybe the gold standard for Marvel movies, I’ll actually say Stane is a decently developed character. It’s just that he was killed at the end of Iron Man, so we haven’t seen him since 2008.
- The Abomination: Admittedly, The Incredible Hulk is the oddball MCU film since most of its cast hasn’t been reused. But can anyone remember what Emil Blonsky’s deal was other than he wanted to kill the Hulk for some reason? He turned into an even uglier version of his comic book counterpart, was defeated, and we haven’t seen him since 2008.
- Whiplash: This guy wanted revenge on Tony Stark for…some reason. Also, he wanted his bird. Whiplash was also a fairly disposable villain, and we haven’t seen him since 2010.
- The Red Skull: I’ll give credit that Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull doesn’t need a lot of development. He’s a power-man Nazi, so he’s evil and that’s all we need to know about him. However, Weaving didn’t want another performance, so even though the MCU left the door wide open for him to return, we haven’t seen him since 2011.
- Thanos: You’re thinking “Thanos,” right? Wrong. Thanos’ development remains to be seen. He was a cameo in The Avengers and a slightly bigger cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, and that’s it. Maybe we’ll get a decent understanding of Thanos in future films, but for now, he’s still a blank slate.
- Robert Redford: Seriously, I can’t remember the name of Redford’s character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He was Hydra and therefore bad. Again, he’s a nonmemorable villain.
- Malekith: He was bad and wanted to destroy the Nine Realms, or something.
- Aldrich Killian: He was also evil and wanted to destroy Tony Stark, for…some reason. (I am intentionally not researching these people to illustrate the point that they’re so non-memorable that I can’t remember a thing about them.)
- Ultron: Nope. Ultron’s an evil computer program, so he’s immediately evil. James Spader played him as the evil villain he should be, but it was pretty hard to get into Ultron’s head and understand why he was such a jerk computer program. I’m sure Wikipedia could explain it, but again, he’s not so memorable that it comes to mind right away.
- Ronan: He’s a Kree who really hated the Xandarians for…some reason, so he really wanted to kill them all. I can’t remember. Seriously. Ronan = bad.
- Yellowjacket: Come on. Yellowjacket is basically the lite-version of Iron Man’s Obadiah Stane. There’s no story to him beyond him being a bad guy who stole Pym technology.
This says nothing of all the lesser-included villains in the MCU movies: Klaw, Crossbones, Arnim Zola, or Helmut Zemo. They’re all there and, at least in the case of Zemo, we got a little bit of his motivation (his family died in the fight with Ultron). But none of them are on screen long enough for us to really get a good feel for them and sympathize with what makes them bad.
Now, let’s compare that with the non-MCU Marvel movies. The original Spider-Man and X-Men franchises at least attempted to spend some time with the villains. You can complain that these movies had problems all you want—and in many cases, I’d probably agree with you—but at least there was some hero-villain balance that made them interesting.
For example, the original X-Men movies spent a good chunk of time developing Magneto. He’s a traumatized Holocaust survivor and a tactical genius, so we understand why he sees mutants being threatened and needs to form an army to fight back against another extinction event. Ian McKellen’s Magneto is fun, precisely because the films—yes, even X3—devote enough time to him that we can get to know and appreciate the character. We get to see that Magneto is pompous, arrogant, and racist…but also a victim of a sad past, and still good friends with Xavier even though they’re on opposite sides of a war. Come on—seeing Xavier and Magneto meet to play chess even with Magneto in jail is a great scene.
Likewise, the Raimi Spider-Man films also spend time on their villains. Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn is over-the-top and hokey, but we get some insight into his desperation to save his company and the madness of how the Goblin formula has poisoned his brain. With Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, we get to know him as a researcher who can’t believe he’s capable of errors, driven to madness by an accident that kills his wife. Hell, you can complain all you want that Topher Grace was a lousy choice for Venom and that every copy of Spider-Man 3 should be destroyed. Still, Spider-Man 3 actually gave Brock a place in the movie and a reason for him to hate Spider-Man that we actually got to see in the movie.
Look, I’m not saying at all that the MCU is a bad set of movies. They’re great, and Disney has really hit their groove in applying a “Marvel formula” to each film. They’re cookie-cutter movies, but they’re producing good cookies, so I’m not complaining about the result. What I am saying is that these films would benefit from having a few villains besides Loki and Thanos who last for longer than one movie. Most of these characters end up either dead or in jail by the end of the story, and we never see them again.
Marvel Comics is defined, in part, by the great adversarial relationships between its heroes and villains: Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom. Daredevil and the Kingpin. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Wolverine and Sabretooth. These aren’t one-and-done stories, but well-developed rivalries that go back years. We root for the hero, but at least we’ve often come to understand the villain.
Let’s hope that future MCU stories will at least recognize that a good, long-term villain helps fans invest in the story all the more. We don’t need any more disposable Kaecilius-types showing up just long enough to disappear again.