Tomorrow, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of nerds from around the country will open their doors for the UPS man or flock their way to the nearest Best Buy to get their hands on Avengers: Age of Ultron. Age of Ultron will mark the second time some of our favorite Marvel heroes have banded together to face another threat facing our world, and for many it will mark the end of Marvel’s phase 2 (with Ant-Man acting as more of an epilogue to the last two years of Marvel movies). This movie, just like every other Marvel movie, has only shown us that the superhero movie isn’t leaving anytime soon, and there is still plenty of fun to go around. But one complaint still rings out amongst fans and critics alike: Marvel has a villain problem.
While many people praise Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, many more complain about every other Marvel cinematic villain. Every single one of them has come across has stale, two-dimensional, and even sometimes comically so. I had such high hopes knowing that the man who made me a whovian was playing a villain to Thor, only to be disappointed that he came across as boring and under developed. The same can be said about just about every other villain. My one excitement for Iron Man 3 was watching Ben Kingsly act out the famous mandarin. All of the trailers made me giddy watching this mashup between a terrorists and southern baptist preacher take down the seemingly impervious Tony Stark. I then left the theater disappointed that he was only a decoy for the real (once again two-dimensional) “mandarin,” Aldrich Killian. I had even higher hopes with James Spader playing Ultron, only to leave the theater feeling that Ultron’s plan seemed really convoluted, and his motives like that of a stereotypical teenager found on any MTV show.
While Marvel’s villains suffer, the movies themselves are still relatively fun and enjoyable. I have not yet regretted spending the $20+ to take my wife and I to see these movies on opening night. I would however suggest that Marvel’s cinematic villain problem is not necessarily a problem, it is simply an extension of their comic book universe.
I wish I could remember where I had read it, but in an article I had read a long time ago the writer suggested that the major difference between DC comics and Marvel comics doesn’t lie in what heroes or villains either one has, it lies in how each one interprets worldly struggles and how they chose to emphasize it. The writer said Marvel chooses to focus on the internal struggles their heroes experience, while DC focuses on the external struggles that their heroes experience. For example: Peter Parker is an intelligent kid, bitten by a radioactive spider, trying to juggle responsibilities of every day life, protect his secret identity to protect his loved ones, and be a hero. Tony Stark struggled (struggles?) with alcoholism. Where is Batman’s alcoholism? Where is Flash’s struggle to protect those he loves and balance work and saving lives (I will admit the new show does a pretty decent job on showing some of his struggle of balancing various aspects of life)? We all know that Batman lost his parents and that is why he does what he does, but all of that is secondary when he is fighting crime. He spends more time hunting the Joker and the Court of Owls than he does trying to balance the responsibilities of a job and saving Gotham.
By extension, I believe the MCU is only following the same formula is since the 1960’s. The entirety of Ant-Man focused on the relationships between Hank Pym and his Daughter, as well has Scott Lang and his daughter. In all of this Darren Cross is painting as some two-dimensional scientific sell-out looking for fame and money. The Winter Soldier focused on Captain America’s belief’s about government safety and surveillance. Iron Man 3 examined Tony Stark’s PTSD after the first Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy saw a bunch of thieves, outcasts, and loners find family. We aren’t supposed to care about the villains. While it would be more enjoyable to get more Loki’s with every new Marvel movie, I don’t think we have the time in a 2.5 hour movie to delve into the intricacies of what motivates both our heroes and our villains without forcing one of those to be static. Did we want a better Ultron? Yes. Did we want a better Mandarin? Yes. Maybe Marvel’s villain problem isn’t necessarily a villain problem, but a writing problem.