Marvel Studios can be credited with bringing about the golden age (or silver? I forget how this works) of the Superhero film, or at least of cementing it as a viable sub-genre of the action adventure section. However, they’ve been plagued by a constant criticism.
To be fair, Marvel has failed to produce more than one memorable villain primarily because their deals with 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures have left them without access to many of the comics most popular evil-doers. Magneto, Norman Osborn, Dr. Doom, and many others are off-limits.
Perhaps ironically, this may be the reason why no other franchise prior to the Avengers led MCU got off the ground besides X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four (sort of), which inevitably allowed the Avengers to happen in the first place. After all, many argue that a hero is only as strong as their villain. Bond movies suffer when he battles stale mustache-twirlers. Even Batman seems to be most interesting to people only when the Joker shows up. It’s a testament to the characters’ and actors’ charisma that the majority of the Marvel Studio films work at all considering there is rarely a worthwhile conflict.
But it’s still potentially a long-term problem for Marvel, and for the moment, they appear to have figured out a temporary solution – one I think doesn’t need to be temporary.
The new season of Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’, the upcoming ‘Captain America: Civil War’, as well as ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, each have our heroes facing off against a different kind of threat – their friends.
Villains and Antagonists are often synonymous, but there could be a Venn Diagram to show that they aren’t always the same. The Punisher begins ‘Daredevil’ Season 2 as a mass-murderer, a clear threat to society. However, it doesn’t take long before he becomes arguably the most compelling and sympathetic character in the show. Likewise, while we don’t know the specifics of his feud with Captain America, based on the trailer and source material, poor Tony Stark seems to be struggling to promote government regulated accountability for superheroes and/or he wants to bring another mass-murder to justice. Meanwhile, good ol’ boy Steve Rogers is righteously defending freedom for vigilantes and protecting said murder because of familiarity and emotional attachment.
And then there is ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, where misinterpreted dreams, a weird message from the future and manipulation take the place of the comics oft used mind-control trope to get our two characters to duke it out. It only sort of works because at the heart of the conflict there is a debate between the two men on what it means to be a hero, and how far one man should be allowed to go.
For me, I’m happy to see this dichotomy develop between two characters that at any other time the audience would be on the same side with wholesale. My best friend and brother are on Team Cap when it comes to ‘Civil War’, where as I side with Iron man. Most of it just for fun, some of it is because I don’t like half of the characters on Cap’s side and think Iron Man’s team make for better action figures. But whatever the reason, it’s a nice change of pace to be unsure which of our favorite heroes is right and who is wrong.
It’s important when crafting an antagonist, even if they are villainous, to be able to have their goals and ideals test the audiences’ or readers’ own sense of virtue.
One of my favorite examples I’ve found recently to offer people is the difference between ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’s’ Immortan Joe and ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunder Dome’s’ Aunty Entity. The former is a war lord: evil, ugly, a creature without any redeeming qualities. The latter is more akin to a politician: sneaky, a bit two-faced, but ultimately fair to a degree and willing to negotiate to get what she wants. Both are at odds with the protagonist, but there is a reason why the narrative demands one die while the other can simply return home after defeat.
In an old interview with Mad Max creator George Miller, he explains that Aunty may well have been a ‘good-guy’ in her own right when she founded Bartertown, but the nature of ruling over an unruly populace can often force someone to become a tyrannical version of their former self – which may very well be the reason why Max decides to leave after every movie. He recognizes his own darkness and probably doesn’t wish to force it on other people.
But I’d argue walking away is not always noble. I find people like Tony Stark interesting because taking an unpopular stance when the situation demands it is how we mature and test ourselves. Whereas Steve can come across as a lost boy, less willing to concede and bend his morals to public pressure. It’s admirable, but even though he’s been out of ice for years, his curse is that he will forever be frozen in time. Whether deep down he likes it or not.
In ‘The Dark Knight’, Harvey Dent gives the qualifier that ‘one either dies a hero or lives long enough to become the villain’, I feel like this is unfair to those who may come at odds with their younger, more optimistic brethren. Just because one grows up, grows old and chooses to stand for something that our hero inevitably clashes against, doesn’t mean in any way that they are a villain, and I hope that future stories, particularly in this genre, will continue to give voice to these thankless leaders, and that this isn’t just a trend to buy time until the big hulking alien death monsters arrive.
Do you prefer your baddies to be evil? Have any favorite not so bad foes? Sound off in the comments.
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