So over the weekend, I got to go see Spider Man: Far From Home. Like Endgame, it’s another Marvel movie that’s really hard to review without spoiling anything, so here’s my thoughts before we get into this post, which is going to be about the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you want a more detailed but still spoiler free review, here’s one I recommend.
It’s a good movie overall. I definitely recommend watching it. It has a twist, but the twist is executed well enough that the massive problems it caused didn’t bother me until after the movie. The action scenes are the best they’ve ever been in a Spider-Man film, hands down. The dialogue was mostly top notch. Peter Parker and his cast of secondary characters shone wonderfully. The on screen chemistry between MJ and Peter was phenomenal, and those two are now literally the first and only MCU couple I actually give a damn about.
Oh, and the villain is the worst the MCU has yet offered. Worse than Malekith the Accursed, more forgettable than Aldrich Killian, blander than Laufey, and with more confusing motivation than Kaecilius. And just to prove my point about how bad that is – be honest, how many of those villains did you actually remember?
Far From Home’s antagonist is more memorable than any of them, but after Homecoming gave us one of the best Marvel villains – Vulture was on par with Killmonger, Loki, and Thanos – it’s even more frustrating to have such a terrible antagonist, and such a strong reminder that for all that Marvel does well, it rarely gets the antagonist right.
Let’s look into why. Oh, and everything I complain about here? Yeah, they’re all flaws for Far From Home’s bad guy. I don’t get into specifics because spoilers, but just know everything I point out here? Applies in Far From Home.
They Refuse to Let the Bad Guy Breathe
It’s not hard to establish what makes someone want to put on a colorful costume and fight to protect people. “I have the power to do good so I want to do good” is one of the most straightforward motives there is. In some cases – the death of Uncle Ben for Spider-Man, being shot with his own weapons for Iron Man – we have a few extra steps to strengthen that motivation.
Yet, overall, we as people can understand the motivation of good people doing good things. It fits comfortably in our idea of how the world works, at least ideally.
It’s much harder to understand why people turn evil. Most people aren’t monsters. Unless you’re a cop or prosecutor or criminal psychologist, it’s very unlikely you’ve ever met the kind of person who, when granted power, would consider their options carefully and decide “You know what? I’m going to take over New York.” Hell, even if you are in those categories, most of the bad people you’ve met wouldn’t try something on that large a scale because that kind of person is rare.
The first movie of a superhero franchise needs to focus on the hero and establishing who they are and what they are about. That’s why most superhero films go with a straightforward or well-established villain for the first part of their franchise – Obadiah Stane wasn’t a great villain, but his motive was simple. He wanted to own Stark Industries and wanted to make a ton of money without ethics constraining him. I loved the Red Skull because I have a soft spot for over-the-top scenery-chewing villains, but “Nazi with a skull face” is about as straightforward as villains can get.
The problem with the MCU is it’s really, really good with the whole “establishing the hero” bit. Their protagonists are well rounded and likable, and they know that we come into the film to see what the title character or ensemble cast is doing this time. Which means they let the hero crowd out the villain.
And superhero films are the one movie genre where this is the most damaging. In a spy film, we just need to know the bad guy’s goal and that they have disposable henchmen. In a science fiction film, we don’t even need to know the antagonists goals because they can be alien and unknowable. In a fantasy film, the bad guy can literally be evil incarnate and we will say ‘story checks out.’
But in a superhero film, the villains are colorful and interesting and dramatic.
That’s not to say you can’t develop both your hero and villain in a superhero film. The Dark Knight did a phenomenal job with this – Heath Ledger’s Joker is one of the greatest comic book movie villains of all time. Homecoming also did a great job here – the Vulture was nuanced and believable, a blue collar worker screwed over by the government one too many times so decides to get back what they believe to be theirs.
But Marvel often doesn’t. So in a film where Tony is dealing with his alcoholism and growing as a character, we get Whiplash who hates Tony because mutual daddy issues and Justin Hammer, the CEO of a rival company who seems to be a bad guy because…he’s trying to replicate the Iron Man suit? Man, I loved Iron Man 2 more than most, but the bad guys are forgettable. Aside from the “drones better” and “I want my bird” moments, of course.
I pick this example specifically because in Iron Man 2, we also get a ton of development for James Rhoades, Iron Man’s best friend, and Pepper Potts, Iron Man’s love interest, and even some for Happy Hogan, Iron Man’s platonic life partner. This movie managed to grow and develop the secondary cast, but forgot to do it with the villain.
You can do both character development for the hero and the villain, Marvel. Just give the villain some more room to breathe. Maybe cut down an action set piece or two. Or, if that doesn’t work for you and you want to tell a story with a ton of focus on the hero, make the villain uncomplicated.
Keep that last point in mind, we’ll be coming back to it later.
Oh, and also? Don’t sacrifice villain development for the sake of a twist. Yes, the reveal that the Mandarin was actually an actor and Killain was the real villain all along was very clever. I hated it, but I’ll grant it was clever. It also made Killain bland and uninteresting because we didn’t know anything about him as a bad guy until halfway through act II. Captain Marvel had the same problem, and that was even worse, because if you’ve been watching the MCU up until this point you know the Kree are a bunch of assholes. Its fine Carol doesn’t know, but there’s no reason to hide it from the audience. Stop it.
Poorly Placed Monologues
Remember 2004? Good year, overall. Although it was fifteen years ago and holy shit what happened to time?
Anyway, 2004. Facebook was founded and hadn’t gone evil yet, Cassini-Huygens reached Saturn and sent back some mind-blowing photos, and a little film called The Incredibles came out and claimed the title of “Greatest Animated Superhero Film” and “Greatest Superhero Film not Starring a Marvel or DC Character.” Those titles are scientifically proven facts, proven in science labs by scientists wearing lab coats. Do not look it up. Trust me on this.
There’s a lot of great moments in The Incredibles, but one of the absolute best was this one:
That’s right. Back in 2004, super villains monologuing was such a trope that a movie aimed at kids could include a joke about how stupid that trope was and have it be one of the best parts of the entire film.
The MCU started in 2008. Four years later. Had a ton of monologues early on. I thought they were done with it after The Avengers because they made a point of mocking monologues during another amazing scene. Remember it? Sure you do – it’s the Puny God moment.
So in 2004, we got definitive proof that monologues can be weak. In The Avengers, Marvel acknowledged that they know this. And yet…and yet the villains are still monologuing all the damn time.
Now, overall, a villain monologue is not an inherently bad thing. As TV Tropes is fond of pointing out, Tropes are Tools and therefore can be done well and can be done poorly. The MCU has done good villain monologues before. Killmonger explaining what he was doing to the Wakandan assembled royalty, the “hey Auntie” speech, was gloriously handled and made sense, because he needed to get them to agree with him enough to allow for the fight with T’Challa. Thanos explaining why he wanted to wipe out half the universe to Doctor Strange was chilling, and it made sense because he honestly seemed to believe reason could persuade Strange to hand over the time stone.
Aside from those rare exceptions, however, Marvel’s monologues are poorly handled.
The worst offender in this instance was Ant-Man and the Wasp. Remember when they ground the movie to a halt in act II so the bad guys could explain their plans to the heroes? You might have blocked it from you mind, but if you did – Ant-Man and the Wasp put the brakes on the entire film so the villains could monologue to the heroes. Goliath had Ant-Man, Pym, and Wasp captured. He breaks down who he is, what is motivation is, and why he’s the bad guy while being interrupted hilariously by Ant-Man’s cell phone going off repeatedly.
Aside – it wasn’t hilarious.
Now, part of the reason this was so bad ties back into the last point on my list – his monologue was part of the twist, that he was actually a bad guy. Up until that point, Goliath had been acting like an ally to the heroes. Hell, in the comics, Goliath is an outright hero, so this one was completely unexpected. Yet when it came time for him to reveal he was the bad guy, he had to monologue because the movie hadn’t developed him as a villain.
The other reason it’s a problem?
Because it didn’t make any sense. There was no need for him to reveal he was the antagonist. Everything he wanted to accomplish here, Ghost could have accomplished without Goliath having to reveal himself. This scene literally only exists, both on a meta level and in universe, is to tell the audience that Goliath is a bad guy.
It ruins immersion and ruins the villain’s believability. Think of the assholes you know in real life. Did the customer screaming at you stop mid rant to explain that she’s not actually angry at you, but has unresolved frustrations stemming from feelings of powerlessness stretching back to childhood? Did the boss that made your life hell pause his campaign of terror to tell you that he honestly believes that you can accomplish more but doesn’t know any more effective motivational techniques? Did the school bully pull you behind the dumpster but instead of beating your ass, tell you that he has a shitty home life and so he’s acting out that aggression?
Before I enact my plan, let me tell you my companion’s entire life story.
Of course not. Because that would be stupid.
If your villain is going to monologue, make sure it makes sense. If it can’t make sense, maybe you should consider there are other ways to bring across their motivation.
Trying to Shoot for the Middle
My favorite comic book villain of all time is Doctor Doom. I choose him because he is also the greatest comic book villain of all time. Again, this is a science fact science people have done science to prove. You can argue with me, but you can’t argue with science. Which makes sense, because Doctor Doom is a mad scientist and an evil wizard and a dictator of a made up country. He’s the three greatest types of comic book villains rolled up into one. He’s so perfect that I’m not even mad that Disney has taken one step further to total dominance over Hollywood by buying Fox, because it means we might get Doctor goddamn Doom done properly.
Hold on, someone left this fan on.
You know what else Doctor Doom is? A fairly simple villain. He wants to rule the world because he believes he’d be best at it, he wants to beat Reed Richards because beneath his arrogance and imperiousness he’s a petty man, and he cares about the citizens of Latveria because being an outright tyrant would lead to revolution, which would distract him from goals A and B. In fact, everything he does ties into goals A and B. So much so that the few times he’s actually managed to take over the world, he’s lost it because he needed to show Richards that he had lost to Doom.
Goddamn, Doom is awesome. I might do a whole post about him at some point.
But this post is about MCU villains, and I just spent about two-hundred and fifty words rambling about Doctor Doom. Why? Because the Marvel films don’t have a Doctor Doom. They don’t have a Joker, another one of the comic book greats. They don’t have a Lex Luthor, they lack a Green Goblin.
In short, they lack a villain who is evil for simple, straightforward reasons. Greed. Lust for power. Outright sadism. Because it amuses them. Writing 101 often says that such bad guys are examples of poor writing, yet the majority of the iconic villains in fiction adhere to this, even outside of comic books. Darth Vader, Megatron, Voldemort, Shredder, Blofield, Hans Gruber, Sauron – think of a villain that has achieved “iconic” status, and you’re probably thinking of a straightforward villain.
The thing is, the MCU has simple villains, straightforward villains, but it never chooses to allow them to actually indulge in pure villainy.
Malekith the Accursed, from Thor: The Dark World is the biggest failure here. He’s a dark elf who wants to plunge the universe into eternal darkness because it’s literally in his name. Simple. Oh, and the dark elves don’t survive well in light so he’s actually trying to kind of secure a future for his people and they were locked away by Odin back in the day so really you can kind of understand where he’s coming from and urgh.
Why does he need to be sympathetic? He’s an evil elf who wants to plunge the universe into darkness. What else do you need? He should have been free to run around, loving life, chewing the scenery, and having fun. He should have been allowed to take full advantage of Christopher Eccleston’s dramatic range to show the full spectrum of villainy. Instead the attempt to be kind of complex but also outright evil made him bland and uninteresting.
This also hit Doctor Strange’s Kaecilius. He served an evil god and wanted to bring said evil god into our world. Hooray! Well, not hooray, but understandable! He was doing this because he wanted to undo death which he hoped would allow him to bring back his…wife? Child? I honestly can’t remember which family member was part of Stock Villain Motivation C-27, Subtype G – The Grieving Monster. Oh and also he felt justified in doing so because he found out the Ancient One was already manipulating time so argleblargl.
Worst of all, this one broke immersion. It made the audience think “Wow, would your missing family member really want you to plunge the world into literal Hell to bring them back? And even if they would, do you really trust Dormammu? A being that is worse than a demon and rules a place called “The Dark Dimension? Are you really that stupid?”
Let your bad guys be bad guys, Marvel. If they’re complex, give us time to explore that complexity. If they’re simple, don’t try to complicate them. Let them ham it up, have fun being evil, and we will love them for it. Don’t believe me? Pre-The Dark World, Loki was a simple and straightforward bad guy – he felt cheated out of his throne, he had daddy issues from his toes all the way up to his perfect hair, and he had fun being a dick. And we loved him so much that audiences forgave him for invading New York and killed thousands.
And for the love of God, only have them monologue when it’s absolutely needed.
If you want to see how I handle villains, check out Weird Theology! Sequel is coming out later this summer!