This week the podcast came out a day early, but I got a new Kindle Fire and don’t know yet how to download the show before going to work to listen during my lunch break. And no, downloading at work isn’t an option. Because reasons. There are some, but I won’t go into them. Anyway, here’s the podcast reaction.
I don’t really have anything else to add to the discussion of The Martian. It’s a great book, and I gave a SPOILER-FREE review for it elsewhere. Like right here.
Instead, let’s talk about how to make a good villain.
First, for Ryan…Mad Men actor John Slattery had played Howard Stark in old movie clips Tony had lying around in Iron Man 2 well before Dominic Cooper played the same character for Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter. So, using Slattery to replay the role of the older Howard Stark in Ant-Man makes perfect sense and actually provides some continuity within the MCU. I didn’t know that was even an issue for anybody.
But I think all three of the podcasters agreed that Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross character was probably the weakest element of Ant-Man. I’d said in my own Ant-Man review that aside from Loki, the MCU hasn’t had a particularly memorable villain in any of the various Marvel movies yet.
Now, as I see it, there are two factors in why Loki stands out amongst the various Marvel movie villains. One is Tom Hiddleston is incredibly charming and playful in the role in a way many other Marvel villains have not been. The other, I would argue, is that Loki is a different breed of villain than the others. Loki is a trickster, who goes for lies and deception to get his way instead of trying to muscle his way to whatever his goals are, and his goals initially were different than most other Marvel movie villains. He does go for world domination in The Avengers, but in his appearance in the first Thor film, he’s looking for acceptance. Heck, his whole plot in the first Thor movie was not to take over Asgard but to prove he was a better potential ruler than his musclebound adopted brother Thor, and a true son of Asgard, regardless of who his birth parents actually were. Factor in also that Thor and Loki have a much more complicated relationship than most any other Marvel hero and villain pair, and you have a much richer potential story to tell with Loki than with most other bad guys. There’s a reason that Loki seems to be the bad guy most likely to reappear.
Now, Marvel Studios has created at least one other compelling bad guy, but that one was on television in the form of Wilson Fisk, main adversary to Daredevil. Vincent D’onofrio gave a very nuanced performance as a man who wasn’t into big bombastic moves, but was also quietly taking things over behind the scenes while being completely unafraid to get his own hands dirty. But Fisk was on a Netflix show, which allowed the showrunners time to really develop him as a character, something a two hour or so movie run time doesn’t allow when the bad guy has to share the screen with who knows how many good guys and various supporting characters.
Consider if you will the following are the villains of the MCU thus far on the Silver Screen: Obadiah Stane, the Abomination, Whiplash, Justin Hammer, Loki, the Red Skull, Loki again, Aldrich Killian, the Mandarin, Malekith, Kurse, Alexander Pierce, Winter Soldier, Nebula, Ronan, Baron VonStrucker, Ultron, and Cross. Some of these characters were played by genuinely talented actors like Jeff Bridges, Guy Pierce, Ben Kingsly, Tim Roth, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Eccleston, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Lee Pace, and James Spader. I had to actually look up the name of Robert Redford’s character from Captain America: Winter Soldier just now, so what does that tell you?
Which of these guys really stands out?
Loki, played by a guy who was relatively unknown at first.
Justin Hammer and the Mandarin are both fairly memorable due to eccentric performances and/or sudden plot twists, though neither was the main bad guy in their respective movies.
The Winter Soldier maybe wasn’t a bad guy depending on how you read the movie, but he certainly was memorable, even if it was more of in a “Terminator” sort of way as an unstoppable killing machine.
Most if not all of the rest of them (Ultron’s weak quipping aside) are rather generic villains mostly there to stomp out the good guy for…reasons.
For what it is worth, DC heroes at the box office have the opposite problem, perhaps owing to their source material. The average DC hero is basically a straight-up good guy. Villains, when they have personalities, tend to be more colorful. As good as Christian Bale was as Batman, the strengths of those movies was often due to the strength of the villain. That’s why The Dark Knight is so good in many ways. Thematically, it isn’t all that different from the other two movies, but Heath Ledger’s Joker really makes the movie special, and in terms of screentime, he isn’t even in the movie all that much. DC heroes in the Silver Age were about the plot and the powers. Marvel heroes were about the personalities. It only makes sense that this situation would be the case.
But some of these Marvel villains have very rich histories and personalities of their own. Ronan the Accuser is a fantastic example of this. Over the past decade or so, Marvel writers have taken the one-time all-purpose Kree judge and made him a noble anti-hero, even an ally to various space-faring heroes. The Ronan who appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy is just an evil genocidal maniac. His one big moment comes when he shows utter confusion to Star-Lord’s dance-off challenge.
It also doesn’t help that a number of Marvel movies seem to have a big battle climax involving a large something coming out of the sky and the hero somehow flying up to beat it. I half expect Captain Marvel to end that way.
What makes a memorable movie villain?
First, charisma. Alfred Hitchcock believed that a good villain should be played by a charming, handsome actor. His reasoning was that an ugly repulsive villain would be spotted from a mile away and would have no chance of success. At worst, you want to make a bad guy the audience will love to hate.
Second, a good plot. Not every villain needs a complicated backstory explaining his or her motivations. The average horror movie creature often doesn’t. But there should be some sort of motivation and rules. Hannibal Lecter has a thing for rude people in many incarnations. Darth Vader is an often silent enforcer for his master who cuts off disrespect and failure with a choking move from across the room. The plot should ideally not be particularly generic and maybe throw in a few twists and turns along the way.
Third, the bad guy should be intelligent and/or threatening. The Sentinels in Days of Future Past may have been redesigned to look too much like the Destroyer, but as nearly unstoppable killing machines, they did what had to be done, and since they were shown multiple times making mincemeat from some rather potent mutants, they definitely were threatening.
Fourth, and this may be the hardest, the bad guy must be creative in some way. This is where the Marvel movies often fail. Their villains are all after either world domination or are just corrupted versions of the good guy. Or both. That’s another thing in Loki’s favor. The first time we saw him, he was neither. And the last time we saw him, he had a moment where he showed sorrow over the death of his mother. That Loki can be an ally as well as an adversary puts him well ahead of most Marvel cinematic villains all by himself.
There have been some memorable villains for Marvel’s heroes to fight. Unfortunately, most of them came from Fox or Sony. Fox managed to strike gold twice with Magneto. That’s rather impressive.
Making a memorable villain can be as tricky as making a memorable hero. Marvel Films has shown they can do the hero part of the equation. The villain angle seems to still be a bit of a challenge.
We may need to be concerned for how Thanos is treated when he finally has to do something.
On one last note, I see the podcast will be doing another book club for Armada. I read and reviewed Armada for this site not that long ago. My review does have some SPOILERS, but after listening to Watson’s thoughts on Ant-Man, I think I might be more “meh” over Armada then he was for Ant-Man. That is all I have to say about that.