So how about those Marvel superhero movies? I hear people like them or something. Me, I wound up a hopeless convert, going from, “Man, I just can’t make myself give a shit,” to, “MUST...WATCH...ALL...MARVEL...IN THEATER...(except maybe Ant-Man)!” I’ve seen most of them by now, and will continue to follow the mythos as it wends its way toward...whatever the hell they have planned. So maybe I should do a blog specifically about the Marvel movies, yeah? But simply listing them has already been done to death, and I’m not quite highbrow enough to pen an academic thesis on the changing face of blockbusters and what our infatuation with self-kidding billionaire alcoholic Iron Man says about the current American zeitgeist. Not today, anyway.
So let’s critique all the bad guys!
DANG-BLASTED RANKS THE MARVEL MOVIE VILLAINS
(A Work In Progress)
It’s a work in progress because I will continually add to this blog post as new Marvel films come out. Or if I ever get around to seeing Edward Norton’s Hulk. So for all we know, this list will never end. Also, I’m just doing MAIN villains. Sorry, Zola fans. Here we go!
WARNING: BIG SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Played by Christopher Eccleston
Thor: The Dark World
Let’s immediately address the problem Marvel movies tend to have wherein their villains are bland and cardboard-thin, each Big Bad slotting into the lazy template of “I am evil and therefore I’m gong to use [insert Infinity Stone here] to destroy and/or subjugate this planet/galaxy/plane.” Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Thor 2, which I liked, but which had THE most fucking forgettable baddie of them all. I don’t remember a single one of Malekith’s lines. I barely recall his backstory. I do recall that he had less personality than anybody else onscreen, including the floating bus and Kat Dennings’ doofus boyfriend. You can kinda blame the comics for the character, but...come on. A whole pantheon of Thor villains and they went with “evil Legolas”? Bonus shame points to Eccleston, who is apparently okay with playing this type of role, but not with returning for Doctor Who specials. And I’m not even a Doctor Who fan. Thank Christ Loki was also in this film. We’ll get to him much later.
Played by Sam Rockwell
Iron Man 2
Not to say that having a personality makes a villain any easier to bear. Case in point is Justin Hammer, the most grating Marvel baddie that we will probably ever have to suffer. Hmm, Howard Stark’s rich, reckless playboy persona might make him less sympathetic over time. Let’s give him a sleazy business rival who’s like him but with the weasely douchebag dial cranked up to eleven. GOD, is Hammer annoying. A Marvel villain should inspire at least a little fear, and Hammer only inspires an itching need to give him a hanging wedgie and beat him with a pool noodle. You never get the sense that he’s a match for Howard Stark, or even his hired goon, Ivan Vanko. He’s just...a pile of suck. Everything he does fails. At the end of the film, he’s all whiny and self-pitying, and it’s like, that’s what you get for sucking THAT HARD. I guess what I’m trying to say is that he sucks. Also, he sucks.
RONAN THE ACCUSER
Played by Lee Pace
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ronan is essentially another Malekith, and it’s possible the only reason I’m putting him higher on the list is that I saw GotG more recently. But, yeah, he’s generically evil and he wants to join the Infinity Stone of the Month Club and wreck all the shit, as you do. In this case, he’s a religious zealot who would like to “cleanse” the galaxy, and he sees his own species as a bunch of wishy-washy liberals who don’t have the balls to lay down holy fury on their enemies. Which at least makes him kinda socially relevant. But it doesn’t make him any less boring, especially in a film as zany and comedic as this one. Maybe that’s supposed to be the joke. Eh, well, at least Ronan has a couple different ways to glower and snarl. Malekith couldn’t even half-ass his evilness. But Ronan is scarcely more memorable.
Played by Mickey Rourke
Iron Man 2
He’s Russian. He’s tattooed and bespectacled. He’s built like a dump truck yet he still has time for blonde highlights. And he wants his bird. No, not that other bird. His bird. Anything else? Ivan Vanko is a scattered collection of vague ideas in search of cohesion, which makes him the perfect poster boy for Iron Man 2 in general. Yes, I agree, his car-bifurcating laser whips are pretty damn cool. But Rourke’s choice to play the character as an enigma backfired, resulting in a baddie who doesn’t really seem like a character at all. His motives are jealousy and revenge, I guess, but is that supposed to make him sympathetic? Even at the end, when he tosses Justin Hammer to the wolves (points for that!) and unleashes his remote robo-suits on our heroes, we don’t know what he actually wants or why. And then he lamely commits suicide and...yeah. Head-scratcher. And nobody cared at the time because they just wanted The Avengers to happen already.
Played by Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges is a good actor and in the first Iron Man, he turns in a good performance. The problem is that the role of Tony Stark’s backstabbing mentor is lame and unconvincing. If you’re gonna roll the dice on a third-act twist -- this “good guy” is actually the Big Bad! -- you need to make the character in question believable as an evildoer. Dunno if anyone remembers, or wants to remember, but in Season Three of Heroes, there was a major villain played by Robert Forster who had the same problem: you didn’t ever buy that he was the most evil person onscreen. Obadiah Stane is just so damn twinkle-eyed and kindly-seeming that his evilness feels tacked on. When the big twist comes, his mouth is saying, “I’m going to murder you and use your company to sell arms to terrorists,” but his face and tone of voice are saying, “Let’s go fishing on Saturday, l’il buddy!” Also, he established the really annoying trend of bad guys in robot suits that hangs over the Iron Man films like the reek of old mayonnaise.
Played by Josh Brolin and CGI
The Avengers films (very briefly), Guardians of the Galaxy (slightly less briefly), and...I guess Avengers 3?
High in his asteroid fortress, he sits upon his baroque golden toilet, glowering down at us mere mortals, and waiting....waiting...waiting for a film in which he actually matters. It almost seems unfair to stick Thanos on this list because he hasn’t had a chance to be the main villain yet. We have such a vague impression of the dude, not helped by the overly computer-generated veneer that makes him look like Hellboy’s pedo uncle. At least in GotG, Josh Brolin delivered his three or four lines with decently evil relish. I just worry that when they finally bring Thanos front and center, no one’s gonna care because we’re sick of being teased by cameos. Or it could be the coolest thing ever. Jury’s super hung on this one...so far.
Played by Corey Stoll
Bald equals bad, we know that -- but, man, one look at Corey Stoll’s shit-smeared grin and you instantly know this guy would murder you in a heartbeat if it improved his market share. Just as Ant-Man is not a very important Marvel film, Darren Cross is not a very important villain, but both have a delicious streak of mojo. Stoll is aware he’s just the latest in a string of Evil Marvel Corporate Guys, so he plays up the self-aware bad-guy details -- the grin, the creepy touchy fingers, the bad suits -- and gets us invested, so that when he finally dons his militarized Yellowjacket armor, he is effectively evil and imposing. Sadly, his screen time is limited and they awkwardly tried to cram in some extra depth with Villain Cliches #413 (The Embittered Former Protege) and #1,936 (Driven Insane By His Own Technology). Darren Cross is one hundred percent throwaway. Still, a guy who literally kills baby lambs can’t help but leave an impression.
THE WINTER SOLDIER
Played by Sebastian Stan
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I have to flagellate myself for being a huge nerd. Yes, I admit, I put The Winter Soldier this far up the list mainly because I think he’s really cool-looking and badass. That’s it, honestly. I like his outfit, his weapons, and the fact that he’s actually a match for Captain America, which few non-Avengers can say. That said, he’s more a plot device than a person. The big “twist” about his true identity -- Bucky! NOOOO! -- wasn’t really a twist, because FUCKING EVERYBODY knew about it, even non-comic-readers like myself. The film was left with the task of cramming the entire long, convoluted Winter Soldier backstory into a brief montage, then starting up the “Who am I really?” machinery so he can presumably go from villain to reluctant hero in Cap 3. He would have been way stronger if they’d focused more of the movie upon him, especially since he’s in the damn title. Still, they didn’t mishandle the character too badly, and as I said, he’s super badass with his face mask and cyborg arm and car-exploding frisbee thing. NERRRRRD.
THE MANDARIN (Not Really)
Played by Ben Kingsley
Iron Man 3
I gotta bow to Iron Man 3 for the iron balls they displayed in first taking one of the comic’s most iconic villains, then re-imagining him as a creepy bin Laden-esque terrorist for the YouTube age, and then revealing that he’s actually a drunk, washed-up British actor hired by the real villain to impersonate a bin Laden-esque terrorist. Somehow, this whole clusterfuck sums up modern life: the intangible threat of “Terrorism” that we can’t quite pin down; the idea of villains as pop culture celebs; the twisting of facts by a desperate, attention-seeking media; the notion of a public figure being a prop for a corporate agenda. All of it. The Mandarin may be one huge red herring, but he’s still a really successful Marvel bad guy because of how utterly plausible he feels now, in the age of such bullshit as Kony 2012. Plus, let’s face it, the reveal of the man behind the topknot was a delicious dose of black comedy when you least expected it. Is he a “real” villain? No, but he makes us wonder what’s real at all.
Played by Hugo Weaving
What’s missing from most of the weaker Marvel villains is a sense of fun. Think about the really entertaining baddies, the Emperor Palpatines and Khan Noonien Singhs. They all relish their own badness. Enter Red Skull, played by one of the best evil-relishers we’ve got, Hugo Weaving. Watch him devour the role. He knows he’s not gonna win any awards for portraying a crazed Nazi occultist, so he just goes for broke, eyes blazing, mouth contorting, the works. He even rocks the maraschino cherry face, a makeup job which would break lesser actors. I imagine diehard comic fans were saddened that Cap’s most tenacious and defining foe was reduced to a single film that’s basically just a feature-length prologue. They could have done more with Red Skull. But what they did is pretty damn entertaining; some evil archetypes never get old.
Played by Guy Pearce
Iron Man 3
I dunno why it took Team Iron Man so long to get villainy right. But did they ever. Aldrich Killian is just a blast. He combines the backstabbing charisma of Obadiah Stane with the sleazy business rival factor of Justin Hammer, but he’s miles beyond either one. Again, he adores being evil, but unlike Red Skull, he has a personal vendetta: hey, Tony Stark, if you act like a giant asshole and treat people like shit, it comes back to bite you later! Surprise! Finally, someone who’s a real threat to Iron Man, and who hits all the right villainous beats (killing off your own accomplice when they start having second thoughts? Check!). Also, he turns traumatized war veterans into volatile super-soldiers, knowing full well he’s dooming them. BOO HISS! True, the ending bit with the tattoos was a tad goofy, but Killian never lost his charisma even when he bugged out. Last but not least, Killian came closer than any other Iron Man villain to A) boinking and B) murdering Gwyneth Paltrow. Hand him a freaking award.
Played by James Spader and CGI
Avengers: Age of Ultron
In the grand scheme of things, Ultron is not a villain who matters much. That said, it’s hard to imagine him being more entertaining. In a way, he’s one of the most dangerous: a rogue A.I. with a messiah complex who can cyber-surf anywhere, fuck up anything, and thinks our planet’s due for a good, refreshing sterilization. He’s got limitless knowledge and the mindset of a sociopathic teenage boy. And, being born from Tony Stark’s bottomless, insouciant ego, he’s a natural comedian! With the amused malevolence of Spader’s voice and that weirdly hunky vibranium bod (is it creepy to be attracted to an evil robot? Yeah? Don’t care), Ultron makes each scene hum. I do wish he had a better origin story (it felt rushed), less murky motives (was he predestined to be evil due to Infinity Stone mojo, or did the toxins of the Internet and media circus swiftly derange him?), and a cooler death scene (i.e., not upstaged by a talking grape in a cape). You could tell Ultron was a placeholder bad guy. Still, they took the killer-robot concept to its limits, including that cheerfully ridiculous ultimate evil plan of his. He’s elegance and id. Supervillain as self-aware pop art. I love it.
Played by Robert Redford
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Why is a wise, mild-mannered politico like Pierce so scary? Not just because he’s a good guy who turns out to be evil. Not just because he’s secretly involved with HYDRA, or that he coldly murders innocents when he needs to. He’s scary because he’s real. Nazi conspiracies aside, you just know that our government has plenty of Alexander Pierces right now: men who have perfected the art of seeming to be on your side, while secretly going to any lengths to push their own agendas. I’m no paranoid radical type, but I appreciated Winter Soldier because it taps into our very modern fear that we can’t trust the people in charge of our own safety. As played by Redford -- the most venerable actor on this list -- Pierce never seems like he wants to rule the world or tap into some kooky cosmic power. No...he just wants to make us afraid. To make us suspect our friends. To tear our society apart, and to claim he’s doing it in the name of order and security. He’s real-world evil, rare in comic book movies, but that’s why he’s scary. And a great villain. But not the greatest. We all know who’s coming...
Played by Tom Hiddleston
Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, presumably Thor 3
Least surprising thing ever. No way am I some hipster who tries to be controversial by not picking Loki as the top Marvel movie villain. America loves Loki. The world loves Loki. A pissy god with major parental issues, played by an actor no one had ever heard of, with a really dumb helmet, and he walked away with the whole damn franchise. Again, he really loves being evil and craving power, but he also packs a well-rounded personality and a dose of personal conflict. Loki is riveting to watch because, even when he’s at his most dastardly, he still can’t help but allow a smidgen of compassion to guide his hand. It’s both strength and weakness, and it means we never know what he’ll do next. Like an evil Iron Man, Loki also has the wit and snark to deflate the arch seriousness of heroes like Thor and Cap. People adore Loki so much that Thor 2 made him into a quasi-hero, but they did it without rendering him toothless. No sappy change of heart here; he’s still happy to impersonate Odin so he can rule Asgard, spoiler alert. I can’t wait for whichever film he pops up in next. It’s gonna happen. Loki rules Marvel villaindom and anyone who disagrees is a mewling quim.