Despite working with decades of material, the Marvel film continuity is – so far – almost void of bad guys who are anything but, well, bad. While cardboard, power-hungry world destroyers can be fun, they certainly aren’t enough to carry the antagonistic side of an entire franchise.
Iron Man was unveiled to the world in 1963. The Vietnam War had wide television coverage, with the horrors of war brought to the eyes and ears of the average western family, and they didn’t like what they saw. Flower power was kicking off, with peace and love taking over American counter-culture.
It wasn’t an accident that this is when Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby put together the first Iron Man story, featuring a superhero who made his millions off weapons. War – the very thing that more than ever was seen to be an ugly, horrible thing – was Tony Stark’s raison d’être and Stan Lee was going to make this guy likable.
Just like he applied vices to his heroes, Stan Lee also applied much more distasteful character flaws. One could feel pity on Stark for his alcoholism or Peter Parker for his awkward, puberty-blues; but it was a lot harder to be okay with a war monger, or a cocky brat.
As his heroes were sometimes unworthy of the title, so were Lee’s villains of theirs. Joe Simon’s Captain America fought absolute-evils (Nazis), but Stan Lee’s went up against patriots on the other side of the fence.
Perhaps two of the greatest examples of this are Magneto and Dr. Doom. The characters – now having been handled by more authors than can be counted – both attempt to achieve their goals through some pretty heinous means, but their goals are generally geared towards what they feel is a greater good. In Magneto’s case, it is mutantkind, and for Dr. Doom it is the humble servants of Latveria.
Okay, Dr. Doom is a really terrible leader of his country, but if you want to call every shitty world leader ‘evil’, then we’d have to start with [REDACTED] and work our way down to Doom, ya know?
In essence, the heroes and villains of Marvel are suited for more measured films than many other characters that have bore the ‘super’ prefix; they often feature more layers and nuances than those from Marvel’s competitors.
Granted, it isn’t always like this – you certainly can’t look at the first few appearances of Magneto and see him for anything other than a generic super-villain, one monocle and top-hat away from tying Jean Grey to the train tracks. But just as these characters have evolved in the comics, shouldn’t they do the same in the films?
With Thor: The Dark World, the creative team dealt with Malekith, whose motivation is, quite literally, “darkness and chaos”. That being said, there is actually a lot of room to explore here when you really think about that.
Malekith and his dark elf legions yearn for a return to a time before the universe, cosmos and gods. This is a stance that has popped up in a number of different fictional worlds, with a comparative real life example being the Temple of the Black Cult. To give you an example, here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article for the TotBC:
“They believe that Chaos is the pan-dimensional plane and/or power with infinite amounts of space and time, in contrast to cosmos, which only has three spatial dimensions and one linear time dimension. They also believe that in comparison with the linear time of cosmos, that chaos can be described timeless in the way that it is not contained nor limited by one-dimensional time, and formless, because of its ever changing and infinite amounts of space dimensions.”
Mind-bending stuff, right? This is the kind of shit progressive death metal bands wish they could write.
What is Malekith’s reasoning? What does he see as wrong with the realms? Is it simply the fact that they exist, or does it have to do with their features? What is so utterly repulsive to him about existence that he must destroy it? These questions have the potential to make for some heavy scenes.
I didn’t even ask for much, just a few character building conversations. Maybe a history of the universe from Malekith’s perspective? Maybe a bit of a monologue? Something? Instead, the super-out-of-this-world and philosophically-charged nihilism was watered down to “because darkness and evil”, with Eccelston looking like Ivan Ooze from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.
Oh, he head-bumped one of his evil bros at one point to show honour. So there’s that.
And speaking of bros, how about that missed opportunity with Loki? While Tom Hiddleston put on a fantastic performance as the God of Mischief, the Loki I was expecting to see just wasn’t there. The character is just a few steps away from actually being a well defined character, and definitely has his moments, but drops back into a cackling, power-hungry evil dude way too easily. In some ways, it does really work – he is an extremely intelligent guy who is somewhat short-sighted, and gets too side-tracked by his own desire for power to really be the force he could be. Still, he just isn’t quite what an evil brother could be.
So, while Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender are absolutely kicking arse with Magneto in the X-Men films, and The Amazing Spider-Man actually got what The Lizard was all about, the “proper” Marvel cinemaverse – sans the first Thor – has given us the following motivations:
Iron Monger (Iron Man): Corporate greed/power.
Abomination (The Incredible Hulk): Power.
General Ross (The Incredible Hulk): ‘Murica/power.
Whiplash (Iron Man 2): Fairly nondescript revenge…actually, this guy was almost interesting. But that was mainly because of Mickey Rourke.
Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2): Maybe corporate greed/power? At best. It was more like “I like being a dick”.
The Red Skull (Captain America): Nazi-stuff.
Loki (Avengers): Evil/power.
Thanos (Avengers): SO MUCH EVIL AND POWER.
The Mandarin (Iron Man 3): Hates America. Possibly because of all these corporate greed/power guys that seem to running around, I dunno…
Aldrin Killian (Iron Man 3): Corporate greed/power.
Malekith (Thor: The Dark World): Darkness and evil.
So, with Loki the only bad guy an audience can remotely see the side of, we are basically sitting at 1/10. This really isn’t looking good for a franchise that is slated to go on for a fair while longer.
While I’m not saying super-evil bad guys don’t have their place in these films, a lack of variation can mean these movies will dry up pretty fast. I’m down for good-guys-fighting-bad-guys, but if you are making your films and their heroes layered, the cardboard villains are going to look pretty flat and nonthreatening in comparison.