Right around the time that Thor: The Dark World was released in theaters, Erik Davis posted a persuasive op-ed here at Movies.com about whether or not Marvel Studios has a "villain problem." The basic thrust of the piece was that Marvel Studios had failed to feature a villain in any of its films that had managed to connect with audiences in the way that Loki had in both Thor films and in The Avengers, and looking back at the slate at that time, it's kind of difficult to argue against his point.
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier released, largely to rave reviews and a record-setting box office take, now is a good time to reexamine the perceived issues with villains since most of Marvel's Phase Two films are in the bag. It's apt to count them down from five, and then see if the problem is still apparent as we head full-steam ahead into Guardians of the Galaxy and ultimately Avengers: Age of Ultron
Please keep in mind that this article will feature spoilers for Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Some being bigger than others.
Here we go.
5) Malekith from Thor: The Dark World
Probably one of the most disappointing aspects of the Thor sequel, beyond Anthony Hopkins' apparent boredom, was the translation of a primary villain from, arguably, the most celebrated comic book run in that character's history. Malekith the Accursed was a truly vindictive and terrifying antagonist for the God of Thunder, but watching the most recent film featuring him, you wouldn't ever really know it.
I seriously doubt that actor Christopher Eccleston is to blame in this instance, since the story for Malekith felt so... generic. His murder of Thor and Loki's mother on Asgard smacked of a rather straightforward attempt to create a more emotional stake in the villain's defeat, but in the end it was a Band-Aid. One of the ways in which the comic book Malekith has been described by fans is as sort of an "Asgardian Joker." He cackles, he has a rather sadistic sense of humor, and revels in creating chaos. Maybe if the screenplay added a maniacal edge for Eccleston to play with, it would've been more interesting -- and fun -- for the audience to truly relish his defeat.
4) Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3
Probably the single most talked about moment of Iron Man 3 was the curveball thrown at audiences right at the very end. Although prerelease materials and the first couple of trailers painted this third solo outing for Tony Stark as a more serious test for the Armored Avenger, the most overriding element of the final film was its humor. From starting the entire affair with Eiffel 65's "Blue," to Tony's creative negotiations with a child about getting a watch and a sandwich, all the way down to the Mandarin, Iron Man 3 brought the laughs in equal standing with its action. As a fan who appreciated the first two solo Iron Man films, I was really hoping that the picture painted by the initial trailers would take the franchise in the entirely other direction to really break Tony down before inevitably building him back up.
It ultimately didn't do that, at least not in the way that the trailers seemed to portray. Case in point: "the Mandarin," played by thespian heavyweight Sir Ben Kingsley, didn't end up being the Mandarin at all. It made for a hilarious moment, no question about it. It also seemed to take some of the dramatic wind out of the sails of the conflict, though. Overall, I enjoyed Iron Man 3 a lot, as most people did. Sometimes, though, even the best intentioned gags can rub people the wrong way, and it would've been nice if it was a little more up front about what it actually was, as opposed to what it said it was trying to be.
But hey, who knew Ben Kingsley could be so damn funny?
3) Aldrich Killian/The Mandarin from Iron Man 3
On the other hand, Guy Pearce's performance as Aldrich Killian, aka the TRUE Mandarin, certainly brought a unique amount of menace to a film that sorely needed it. While there was still a few elements of humor from this character, whether in his behavior at the beginning or in the ways he chooses to mock his enemies, structuring the plot around an evil analogue of Tony himself was a good stroke on the part of the creative team, and helped to create a very clear dichotomy between hero and villain.
Sometimes that dichotomy is an obsession in comic book movies and can create some notable backfires (like Venom in Spider-Man 3), but it can also make for a positive addition if handled properly. Iron Man 3 treated Aldrich Killian, in many ways, as if he was a creation of Tony Stark himself; another in the long line of weapons that were stamped with Tony's name in the past. By using the barest bones of a comic book character in order to create something new, Killian helped show that he was a worthy addition to the lineup of Marvel Studios villains, even if he didn't strike as much of a connection with audiences as someone else I could mention. That someone being...
2) Loki from Thor: The Dark World
In nearly every place the creative team behind Thor: The Dark World dropped the proverbial ball with Malekith, Tom Hiddleston picked it up and ran with it in his third turn as Loki. Probably the biggest bad guy right now in the Marvel cinematic universe, Loki continued his trend by giving audiences their most potent emotional connection in the film. Hiddleston relishes every single second he gets to bring life to the Asgardian God of Mischief, and he continues his devious ways by using the plot by Malekith to gain practically absolute power by the end of the film, at least as far as we're aware.
Loki is still very much the "rock star" when it comes to the villains of the Marvel Studios films. It continues to be an enormously faithful adaptation of the character that's opposed Thor in the comics for so many years, and audiences continue to feel that he is one of the more resonant characters in his films. Up to this point, it may still look like Marvel has Erik's hypothesized "villain problem," but there was one featured very recently that definitely changed the game.
1) Alexander Pierce from Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier himself wasn't so much a villain as he was a puppet (like his comic book counterpart). When we learn who's pulling the puppet's strings, it not only changes the course of the film pretty dramatically, but it also fundamentally alters the course of the entire Marvel cinematic universe. At first glance, Pierce is an effective, if somewhat ruthless senior official at S.H.I.E.L.D. that has a pragmatic world view, but when we get to see how much that devotion to security infects everything he touches, he becomes one of the most formidable, and even terrifying villains that we've seen so far from Marvel Studios.
From killing his maid in cold blood, all the way down to his insane devotion to the ideals of a fascist, messianic madman, Pierce is a red herring in the classic sense, almost matching Loki on the deviousness meter (if there were one). Pierce is also a powerful statement about the kinds of enemies that exist in the modern era: uniforms are relics, enemies hide among us now in plain sight, and who better to challenge that evolved warfare than a man who embodies the best of the "greatest generation?"
So, does Marvel still have a "villain problem?" Maybe, but after the release of The Winter Soldier, I don't think it's nearly as pronounced as it might have been before the new film's release. If both Guardians of the Galaxy and the highly anticipated Avengers sequel continue to give us experiences that are unexpected and engaging, that perceived "problem" that some people see now will be a distant memory come May of 2015.
What do you think? Do you agree with the rankings? Should other characters have been included? Sound off with your thoughts below, and we'll see you next week for an all-new Comics on Film at Movies.com!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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