Marvel Studios Countdown is a biweekly column focusing on all things related to Marvel Studios and its movies, past, present and future.
By now, movie audiences are pretty familiar with Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. They’re probably not as familiar with Mandarin, Malekith and Crossbones - the villains of Marvel’s “Phase Two.” Let’s face it, Malekith and Crossbones, however formidable, aren’t A-list archenemies, and the Mandarin has had too many different visual incarnations to become as iconic as a Magneto, Dr. Doom or Red Skull.
So, before we see these dudes plastered on our 7 Up cans, let’s at least get a little primer about these heavies out of the way first. All three are played by talented actors, and all three are different enough from each other to promise that Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier should all have their own distinct flavor as superhero films.
The Mandarin - Iron Man 3, played by Ben Kingsley
First Comic Book Appearance: Tales of Suspense #50, created by Stan Lee and Don Heck
There was an unnecessary amount of denial going on until the Mandarin was confirmed in the first full Iron Man 3 trailer. Though the character was born from “yellow peril” stereotypes, over the years he’s settled into a position as one of the most ruthless villains of the Marvel Universe without his race being a part of his threat. Marvel Studios didn’t have to worry about race being part of the conversation until they cast Ben Kingsley as someone inarguably Chinese.
Regardless, this is the baddie that Iron Man fans have been waiting for. Though the seeds of the character were planted in the first Iron Man film (through the “Ten Rings” organization), there was some early concern that audiences would recoil against any mystical elements that might be introduced into Iron Man’s more sci-fi world. Now that we’ve seen Tony Stark rub elbows with Norse gods in The Avengers, we’re more acclimated to accept Mandarin’s deadly rings as magical artifacts that exist right alongside Stark’s high-tech armor.
Those rings have some standard comic book elemental powers like fire and ice, but also some doozies like the ability to control minds or rearrange the molecular structure of objects. We’re not sure at this point, if or how his rings figure into the plot of Iron Man 3, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see it introduce the concept of the Infinity Gems in some way.
Malekith the Accursed - Thor: The Dark World, played by Christopher Eccleston
First Comic Book Appearance: Thor #344, created by Walter Simonson
Don’t worry Hiddlestoners, Loki returns in the Thor sequel, but the god of mischief takes a backseat to Malekith, the ruler of the Dark Elves. Marvel’s been quiet about The Dark World’s storyline, but if the villain is any tip-off, we’ll see Malekith doing what he does best -- trying to get his mitts on the Casket of Ancient Winters to blanket Midgard (Earth) in a thick, frosty layer of ice.
Malekith has some magical powers, most notably to change his appearance, and strength on the level of a typical Dark Elf (meaning he can take a punch from a god). He’s an unlikely choice for a sequel villain -- he’s not wholly dissimilar from Loki, and isn’t as easily identifiable as someone like Enchantress or Surtur. It will be interesting to see how The Dark World handles the character.
Crossbones - Captain America: The Winter Soldier, played by Frank Grillo
First Comic Book Appearance: Captain America #359, created by Mark Gruenwald and Keiron Dwyer
Crossbones, despite no superpowers, is a total badass. Often used in the comics as Red Skull’s hired muscle, this lifelong thug has the skill to really put the hurt on Captain America. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises, Crossbones isn’t too different from Bane - he’s a skilled tactician and a punishing hand-to-hand combatant with nothing to lose.
Actor Frank Grillo is leaner and smaller than the character as he’s depicted in the comics, but that’s not as important to the film as showing how intimidating he can be. You need to be able to buy that this guy without powers isn’t just a good fighter, but that he’s scary enough to make Cap sweat. Though not a big player in the original Winter Soldier storyline, he shows up immediately afterward to carry out an assassination plot on Captain America. That story is outlined in detail here, where we even speculated at the time that they could include more Crossbones to provide a more action-ready antagonist. Glad to see Marvel took our advice!