Warning: This post contains MAJOR spoilers for the end of Avengers: Infinity War
Maybe I’m a monster, but the moment I cheered the loudest during Avengers: Infinity War was when all the superheroes disintegrated and the bad guy got his happy ending.
I’m certainly not a fan of genocide (to put it mildly), or even a Thanos groupie. But I do like compelling stories, and a villain-centric arc that refused to let the heroes win was the first time a Marvel movie has surprised me.
So what’s the problem? Well, the ending leaves me itching for a Thanos prequel instead of the next Avengers or even Captain Marvel — which will undoubtedly undo this unhappy ending. And the knowledge that we’ll probably never get that prequel is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is starting to lose me.
Every two-bit comic book fan will tell you heroes are only as great as their villains. Everyone, it seems, except for the folks at Marvel Studios.
I’m not the first to point out Marvel’s “villain problem,” or how evil characters tend to be disposable onscreen. Many had high hopes that the introduction of Thanos would fix this problem, but he’s only shined a spotlight on it. Marvel’s villain problem runs deep, requiring a total shift in the MCU franchise formula.
But it won’t be fixed until Marvel actually admits it’s a problem. Head of studio Kevin Feige told io9 that he recognizes the issue with their villains — yet he feels pretty OK about it. “It always starts with what serves the story the most and what serves the hero the most,” he said.
But by failing to see how villains are as integral as heroes, the MCU fundamentally misunderstands what makes a good superhero story.
At first, the MCU got away with wasting great superheroes on forgettable villains who were plot devices disguised as characters. But Avengers: Infinity War showed how short-sighted that was. And it ain’t gonna cut it anymore.
I’m tired of paint-by-numbers movies introducing hordes of new bad guys that the hero can Hulk-smash until the next round and round and around we go, ad infinitum. Infinity War’s ending was powerful because it finally broke from that cycle … until the end credits, at which point Nick Fury reminds us it’ll be business as usual soon enough.
What’s next for the MCU once it wraps on the biggest bad’s inevitable defeat in Avengers 4? I hope investing in villains is a top priority. From the looks of Venom, it just might be (though don’t put all your eggs in that basket).
Once the Infinity Gauntlet conflict ends, villains will be key to keeping audiences engaged in this increasingly expansive crossover machine. Here’s why, and how.
Villains need their own arcs, developed over multiple movies
The first step is to invest time and effort into establishing villains who evolve throughout the franchise. Marvel was so careful about slowly introducing and incorporating its heroes into the larger MCU. Why don’t villains get half as much thought?
This shift toward villains would set the stage for more meaningful conflicts, and allow for experimentation with the kind of stories Marvel tells. Why not bring Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan back for a prequel? Or zoom in on Thanos and Gamora’s backstory?
There’s a reason Loki was crowned “best Marvel villain” for so long. It’s because the first Thor movie was as much his origin story as Thor’s. Loki’s reappearances across the franchise made us as attached to him as we were to any Avenger.
Then there’s Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War, which succeeded because the original Captain America established the foundation of Bucky’s character — and then twisted it and his relationship to Cap in a gut-wrenching way.
And don’t forget Erik Killmonger, who captivated our hearts and minds in about 30 minutes of screen time. Black Panther started with Killmonger, as J’Bou tells his son the story of Wakanda, leading to an entire opening scene establishing Erik’s motivations.
Thanos had the best Infinity War arc, but it was still wasted
Sure, Thanos was better than, say, Ultron.
But many comic book fans felt the movie squandered his story. Our own Adam Rosenberg wrote an explainer on the character’s comic book iteration, showing moviegoers just how many missed opportunities there were in Infinity War. Like how “the sight of a rough-skinned, misshapen Baby Thanos was too much for his mother to bear. It drove her instantly mad, and she tried to kill her newborn.”
It’s a detail that would have given much more depth to his and Gamora’s story.
For general audiences, Thanos came across as, at first, laughable. So much so that Peter Quill feels the need to speak roast Thanos, almost as if the movie anticipated the criticism. Marvel probably did anticipate it, because despite 10 years and 19 movies of carefully fitting superheroes into the Infinity War puzzle, it’s never really been about the villain. When the time came, they were like, “Shit — no one even knows why this big dumb purple gummy bear even matters.”
Thanos was basically relegated to after-credits scenes for 10 years, only being more prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1. as a disembodied giant stone monster.
Marvel’s run out of heroes — but there are plenty of great villains left
Marvel’s done such a good job of establishing a wide array of heroes that it’s basically run out of top tier IP for more franchises. Ant-Man should be indication enough that we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, and it only gets Hawkeye levels of mediocre from here.
You know what Marvel Studios hasn’t capitalized on? Its fantastic villain-centric comics.
We’ve already mentioned the wasted material of Thanos Rising. But in the comicverse, there’s also a whole run after Civil War where Green Goblin takes control of S.H.I.E.L.D. and assembles a “Dark Avengers,” re-appropriating our favorite hero costumes as villains: Bullseye becomes Daredevil and Venom takes over for Spider-Man. That’s just two relevant examples.
Fix Marvel’s arms race for bigger, badder threats with better villains
Ever since the first Avengers, Marvel’s been chasing bigger catastrophes than the attack on New York — but that’s the wrong way to go about it.
The result is a franchise stuck in a disaster-porn arms race. The cost of this increasingly enormous and ridiculous scale is personal stakes (and apartment buildings). Infinity War kept needing to remind us that the risk of Thanos winning was universal genocide, because we’re that desensitized to world-ending threats.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, on the other hand, is a great example of how villains can ground the whole story, introducing personal stakes on a smaller scale. Yes, that’s kinda Spidey’s thing, while the Avengers deal with universe-ending stuff. But actually, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Civil War, Black Panther, and even Logan all took similar approaches to villains and scale.
Just look at some of the biggest pop culture phenomenons over the past few years: Breaking Bad,Dexter,Mad Men. Or, if you want to go closer to home, Marvel’s own Jessica Jones or Deadpool.
No one is wholly good or wholly bad. That’s why we adore Game of Thrones, with its heroes who commit villainous act and its villains who have undeniable humanity. Blurring the lines between good and evil is the point of George R.R. Martin’s series, which deconstructs the common fantasy genre trope.
Marvel movies almost always fail at making even the heroes relatable. Save for Black Panther, Marvel stories are usually irrelevant to the real world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Superheroes inherently engage with our society’s ideals, morals, and struggle to be good. Shouldn’t Marvel reflect how difficult that question is to answer?
Which reminds me…
This sanctimonious heroic bullshit is getting old
Show of hands: How many times did you yell at the heroes of Infinity War for repeatedly losing stone after stone to Thanos because of an aggressively simple-minded and selfish moral compass?
Yes, I know Cap: “We don’t trade lives.” That’s the summary of this entire movie’s conflict. Thanos believes in sacrificing half the universe’s population for a greater good, while the Avengers think they shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything at all to save half of the universe’s population.
That’s not only a really narrow definition of heroism, but also astoundingly unsophisticated ethics.
The Avengers could use some lessons from The Good Place, namely the trolley problem. Because the idea of sacrificing one to save the lives of many isn’t a rosy concept, but there’s enough ethical grounds to warrant some debate!
But no. Cap grunts, everyone agrees. Ultimately, we have their moral high horses to thank for saving Vision (not even) at the cost of half a universe full of lives. Hope that clean conscience is worth it!
Avengers’ morality is tired, outdated, and underdeveloped. Sacrifice is part of the superhero job description. Heroes do trade lives. Just ask 9/11 first responders, or other everyday people risking their lives for others. Hell, ask Groot! Or Peter Quill! Even annoyingly uncompromising heroes like Batman are willing to sacrifice reputation and love for the greater good of Gotham.
This Care Bear heroism plagues the Marvel franchise, preventing fresh, original storytelling. Black Panther was the first movie in a long time to complicate the Marvel moral ethos. We can’t just keep relying on Cap and Iron Man’s creative differences.
It’ll be increasingly hard for us to care about another two hours of dudes in tights fighting when we know the good guy wins, almost always without consequence. Infinity War dared to break that mold, and we hope Avengers 4 genuinely wrestles with the mistakes the heroes made in it. But I’ll eat my laptop if the Infinity Gauntlet story doesn’t end with most of the heroes being revived.
I’m not arguing the bad guys should take over the MCU. But the MCU needs to let bad guys do what they do best: Force us and our heroes to complicate our understanding of what it means to fight for good.
If it doesn’t, we’re just going to keep getting superhero movies where the good guys win — because that’s how the MCU business model works. And that’s not ultimately very entertaining.