Richard Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture (1977) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) may have already proven that moviegoers want to see superheroes on the screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been successful beyond expectation. Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has been telling a large-scale story without precedent, spanning fourteen big-budget Disney feature films and six television series. And yet, despite this undeniable popularity, audiences remain fairly underwhelmed by the quality of the movies’ villains. The bad guys in these films have outrageous names, they pursue often reality-altering plans, and are played by reliable and charismatic character actors, such as Christopher Eccleston, Corey Stoll, and Daniel Brühl. But at the end of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can recall, let alone express real interest, in Malekith, Yellowjacket, or Baron Zemo.
All of this raises a question: do the bad guys matter? Or, maybe more accurately, who cares about the bad guys, when we have such wonderful and interesting good guys? And isn’t a good thing that moviegoers care more about the heroes than the villains?
I contend that they do matter, very much, but not in the way that you think. These villains make less of an impression than, say, Heath Ledger’s Joker or Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, but their presence and actions are essential for the MCU’s vision of justice. In fact, the MCU can’t imagine goodness divorced from evildoers, which makes it very difficult for us to figure out what audiences are actually cheering for when they cheer for their heroes.
We can begin to see why even boring bad guys matter when we look at the other criticism often leveled against the MCU: their repetitive plotting. Nearly all of the movies feature a bad guy whose search for an all-powerful MacGuffin calls the hero into action, climaxing with the villain using said MacGuffin to rain down large objects on a city, until the hero can either remove or neutralize the power object. This is true of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) blasting the Nova Corps out of the sky with an Infinity Stone in The Guardians of the Galaxy, turncoat Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) activating a code that orders government super-weapons to target civilians in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or Ultron (James Spader) tearing the city Sokovia from the earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
But by taking the villains for granted, this rote plotting in fact demonstrates the necessity of a bad guy in the Marvel method. In nearly all of these movies, the hero doesn’t become a hero without some threat forcing him (and thus far, with the exception of Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, they are all hims) into action: deposed thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds his nobility after his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) looses a mindless weapon onto his adopted small town; Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his fellow Guardians of the Galaxy give up their self-interested adventuring when the fanatical Ronan threatens the universe; Tony Stark’s heroic journey begins when he sees the destruction caused by his weapons, but he spends most of his time deploying the Iron Man armor against terrorists and evil industrialists who use their weapons the wrong way. Even Chris Evans’s Captain America, who pulls off a respectable wholesomeness not seen since Christopher Reeves’s Superman, is never seen rescuing a kitten from a tree or performing any type of community improvement (unless, I guess, you count wartime propaganda).
The superhero’s journey has always involved some sort of tragic event, such as the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents or the destruction of Krypton, and the MCU heroes are no exception: Tony Stark’s life-threatening injury, Captain America frozen out of time, Black Panther losing his father. But these events only serve as the first half of a character’s heroic development. The tragedy opens a character’s eyes, but they only become a proper superhero when a villain – the 10 Rings, Hydra, or the Winter Soldier – forces him to take action. Outside of occasional references to Iron Man’s commitment to clean energy, the MCU narrowly defines heroism as fighting, or defending others from, bad guys. In this cinematic world, then, goodness is a predicate of badness. The heroes here don’t do good, per se; they only react, they avenge.
This point is made particularly clear in 2012’s The Avengers, when Iron Man declares to Loki that if he and his comrades “can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it.” As the first tentpole movie of the MCU, The Avengers establishes the model for the multi-movie franchise, and offers a clear example of the films’ approach to goodness and evil. With the main characters already come into their own in previous solo films, Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon must come up with a new reason for these individual agents to join together. And the reason here is the same as in the other movies: they must work together to fight off a major threat.
In fact, the film’s real dramatic tension stems not from the teams struggle with Loki, but with one another. The cold open establishes Loki as a galactic threat in possession of the all-powerful MacGuffin from the first Captain America movie, but he just serves as the impetus to drive the various characters together on a team. Once assembled, the heroes squabble with one another: Captain America takes issue with Iron Man’s glibness, Thor resents the team’s lack of respect toward his brother, all members doubt the loyalties of super-spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, and several express discomfort with the Hulk’s presence. In scene after scene, the film reminds us that these characters do not like one another.
Part of this disagreement is baked into the Marvel Comics formula, which features characters such as The Thing and the X-Men, whose lives become worse when they get super-powers. But Whedon makes the disagreement between the heroes and its resolution into the central plot. A survey of critical responses to the movie reveal agreement that Whedon’s flat and dull directoral style is the movie’s greatest weakness and his sharp, quip-heavy writing its greatest strength. In other words, we derive our pleasure not from the spectacle of super-hero action, but from watching these beloved characters interact on screen. We worry more, then, that these guys all become friends than we do that they’ll stop Loki and his nondescript Chutari army.
The movie’s most striking narrative moment occurs when Loki kills Phil Coulson, the likable secret agent played by Clark Gregg, whose appearance in all of the preceding MCU movies gave them a relatable connective tissue. Where Coulson’s previous appearances saw him behave more or less like a straight-faced g-man, Whedon changes him into an audience surrogate. We relate to his awkward hero-worship of Captain America, and his giddiness at the prospect of having Cap sign his collection of WWII cards featuring the character, and we share in his desire to see the Avengers put aside their differences and act as a team.
Coulson’s death comes at the end of a set-piece in which the heroes battle each other and allow Loki to escape, making his on-screen demise the last straw for viewers exasperated with their heroes’ refusal to work together. Coulson’s death gives the movie it’s real stakes: no viewer cares about Loki’s magic doo-hickey, but we care very much that he just killed one of our favorites. Whatever enjoyment we viewers have been getting at seeing the heroes fight one another (twice, at this point in the movie) and at hearing them trade one-liners, Coulson’s death focuses our anger against Loki. Whedon even underscores the narrative function of this event with Coulson’s last lines, in which he tells Nick Fury, “It’s okay, boss. This was never going to work if they didn’t have something to avenge.” And then he doubles down even further by having Fury motivate the temporarily defeated heroes by slapping on the table Coulson’s Captain America trading cards, now splattered with their owner’s blood, and delivering sanctimonious lines about Coulson believing in “an idea.”
The reveal that neither the guilt-inducing cards nor the blood actually belonged to Coulson, but were part of Nick Fury’s motivational theatrics, highlights two important aspects of the film’s evil-focused approach to heroism. On a functional level, it signals the end of the real conflict. The final thirty minutes function not as the end of the rising action, but as an extended resolution, a denouement of dull CG monsters punctuated by fun team-work moments (ie, Iron Man reflects his laser beams off of Captain America’s shield to shoot aliens in a neater, if inefficient, manner) and more quippy one-liners. Having eased our worry that our heroes don’t like one another, the final scenes treat fans to victory laps of our heroes buddying up.
More importantly, these scenes show us that MCU villains exist not as threats, but as the guys who give our super-friends something to do. In The Avengers, Loki acts more like a Master of Ceremonies who supplies the team with faces to punch and monsters to smash. This does not meant that Loki serves no purpose; quite the opposite, actually, because with out him and his armies, the movie would just be a long version of the post-credit shawarma bit. The real conflict might not be with Loki, but he is integral to the team-up pay off.
At this point, one might ask, “Who cares? As long as we get to see the heroes having fun fighting bad guys, who cares if the villains don’t drive the conflict? Isn’t that just a formal nit-pick?” It would be, except that the heroes are, well, heroes, and that title implies a moral dimension to their actions. We don’t call someone who overcomes differences and engages in witty banter with other good-looking people a hero. We reserve that title for those who do good things, and we bestow the title as a way of commemorating and admiring the do-gooders.
The Marvel heroes don’t do really do good, outside of fighting bad guys, and so the villains have to appear in the stories to remind us viewers that the people we like are good, not just good-looking. But the goodness they embody is a fairly cheap and perfunctory goodness, with no real stakes outside of the films’ colorful world. The MCU, then, doesn’t have a villain problem, as much as it has a hero problem. We cheer for people who are powerful, fun, and attractive, and justify our enjoyment on the grounds that they punch the right people. We don’t need to remember that those people have outrageous names and reality-altering plans; just that they were bad, they were beaten, and our favorite characters had a good time while doing it.