For all its moments of brilliance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its fair share of villain problems over the years. Now, Phase 4 has brought a new one along entirely; a tiny fraction of antagonists can actually be classed as villains.
The culmination of the Hawkeye series ended an enjoyable show which still managed to contribute to the ongoing problem. With a big few years ahead, it needs to be addressed.
Originally, the biggest issue with the MCU was born from the fact that many of their early villains turned into carbon copies of their superhero counterparts.
Obadiah Stane dawned the Iron Monger suit, giving us an Iron Man vs Iron Man battle; Red Skull took an early version of the same super soldier serum that Steve Rogers did; Ivan Vanko utilizes Stark technology in Iron Man 2. Too many climaxes turned into same vs same battles.
While these characters weren’t necessarily bad (Red Skull is up there with the best comic book recreations out there), they did tend to subtract from their films’ climaxes by taking part in rather repetitive fight scenes.
It’s little wonder that Loki has taken a special place in so many fans’ hearts since his role in the first Avengers film – coupled with Tom Hiddlestone’s brilliant acting, a villain so different to all six main characters offered something fresh.
Things improved drastically in the build-up to the culmination of Phase 3 (save, of course, Justin Hammer, Malekith and Yon-Rogg), and the death of the mad titan Thanos opened the door for a new era of villainous foes for our heroes to face. Very few have come close to taking up the mantle.
To really get to the root of this issue, it’s easier to go through Phase 4’s main antagonists and examine them individually before highlighting the main problems they bring.
We kick off with 2021’s first MCU entry, WandaVision. This series was a piece of genius and was very unique in that its main villain was the protagonist herself, Wanda Maximoff. Suffering from tremendous grief after the death of Vision, Wanda’s mental health issues spiral out of control and she unknowingly begins to create and control an entire town.
The way the show puts this across is brilliant; there are certain scenes where we are led to believe that Wanda truly has succumbed to evil tendencies and is doing all of this willingly. Come the eighth episode, Previously On, we explore her tragedy-ridden past and are given an insight into why she has become her own worst enemy.
And who gives us this insight? Agatha Harkness, of course. While the character is, at most, a 6/10 villain herself, that’s the point; she’s supposed to play second fiddle while Wanda’s inner battle takes centre stage.
Importantly, however, Harkness is an out-and-out villain. She has a somewhat partially redeeming backstory having been cast out centuries ago during the Salem witch trials, but doesn’t make a rash turn to a light side come the end of the series finale. Her arc presses pause, leaving the door open for her to return in the future.
After an excellent start to the year, however, things came crashing back to earth with the horrifically poor Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This show fell a long way short of WandaVision in its own right, but its case was weakened significantly by primary antagonist Karli Morgenthau.
Morgenthau could probably stake a claim to join the top five worst MCU villains. However, she wouldn’t be half as bad if she’d actually stuck to the principles she’d maintained throughout the show’s six episodes.
Seeking to once again disestablish world borders after Blipped humans were granted their old lives back, Morgenthau is, on the surface, similar to Thanos in that her end goal is debatably desirable while her means of achieving it are wrong.
Of course, her goal is pretty boring and isn’t fleshed out nearly enough. Nevertheless, she was at least persistent right until the very end, refusing to concede to anyone. That is, of course, until her dying breath. Lying by the side of the dreadfully depicted Sam Wilson, she apologises with her last words.
Why? In what world did this make sense? There hadn’t been a single clue to suggest Morgenthau regretted a single one of her actions and yet, with death staring her in the face, she says sorry. Talk about unearned.
The character kicked off one of the running issues with Phase 4 villains; it was almost as though the writers wanted to give her some sort of redemption that was completely and utterly unearned. Have they become scared to follow through, petrified that they might offend someone in the audience?
Falcon and the Winter Soldier therefore ends without a true primary villain – even John Walker, who is set up as the villainous US Agent, gets a redeeming moment in the series finale that made no sense to his character development. A dull series was made even worse by its lack of an enthralling villain.
Cue Loki, and we start things off in similar fashion. The original villain setup, much like the first two episodes themselves, had great potential. We are introduced to some sort of interdimensional Loki variant who is slaying Time Variance Authority members left, right and centre.
We have no idea who they are until the end of the second episode, The Variant, when Sylvie’s face is revealed and viewers are left writhing with anticipation for the next episode. Alas, you guessed it, she’s no villain after all – she’s actually a joint-main protagonist. She is a strong character in her own right and adds a lot to the show, but this creative decision led to problems.
Having spent two full sittings of a six-episode series setting up a villain that wasn’t really a villain, the writers faced an uphill task to claw things back. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t able to do so. Loki took a sharp downward turn after that and never really recovered.
In the lead up to the season finale, we criss-cross between various TVA members switching between good and evil at a whim. They are best epitomised by Ravonna Renslayer, who simply can’t seem to make her mind up on which side she wants to serve. That trait can work if it actually suits a character; here, it felt like her turns were simply utilized to create moments of tension out of nowhere.
Finally, we are introduced to ‘He Who Remains’ with under one episode remaining. He does an okay job, serving as an average character with some entertaining lines, but becoming very repetitive very quickly – much like the finale itself.
After a few tedious scenes where he seems to go in circles For All Time. Always, this particular variant is killed. Great – the season’s main villain lasted just a few scenes before being easily disposed of.
Naturally, we will be introduced to his other variants moving forwards. It’s just a shame that a show with such early promise failed to deliver on so many levels and, once again, its lack of a primary threatening villain contributed to that.
Natasha Romanoff was finally granted a solo movie more than a decade after her MCU introduction, but Black Widow failed on so many levels. A major spanner in the works was, of course, brought on by its villains.
Ivan Dreykov is actually barely worth speaking about – he is a stereotypical male villain with no real objective in the storyline other than to anger crowds by abusing women. He is a dreadfully boring character and is given no development, and gifts Romanoff everything she needs to save the day in a blatant abuse of exposition depositing from the writers. How lazy can you get?
At least Dreykov was a true villain and stayed that way until his predictable demise, but that’s about all he had going for him.
Enter Taskmaster, who quite simply could have been up there with the best MCU villains if the writers worked to their full potential. A sleek-suited, icy-natured foe that could master the fighting styles of every hero we know to date? That could have been a cool showdown.
Don’t forget, though, that this is 2021 Marvel. They had to squeeze at least one villain redemption into the film’s finale, and it appears Taskmaster’s name was drawn from the hat.
Revealed very late on to be Dreykov’s surviving daughter, she immediately turns from a ruthless machine into a boring plot device. Tugging at Romanoff’s heartstrings without even saying a word, she is saved by a magically bad CGI antidote that reveals she’s been under chemical control all these years.
In the blink of an eye, everything is undone. The character has no way of coming back now, and is given the lazy kind of redemption that no one wants and yet Marvel seem intent on pumping out. Why did we need another villain unearningly redeemed? Wasted.
In Shang Chi and the legend of the Ten Rings, the titular character’s father Xu Wenwu is handed the mantle of primary antagonist – and he actually performs relatively well throughout.
He is a formidable opponent throughout the film and his ambitions are clear; while once simply power hungry and willing to sacrifice anything for his own gain, he is now a deluded mourner who believes he can reach out to his dead wife.
Wenwu doesn’t waver from this mantra for the entire movie, rarely showing anything close to emotion when it comes to his two children. In his dying moments, however, he seems to take a leaf from Karli Morgenthau’s book and performs a good deed in handing over the legendary rings to Shang-Chi.
Where did this come from? Moments before, he was willing to kill his own son if it bettered his cause; now, trapped in death’s embrace, he undoes everything. Why are Marvel writers so intent on forcing these characters back to the side of the heroes? Can’t any of them die evil?
His death opened a Pandora’s Box of CGI villains that crept into the next movie, too. For the rest of Shang-Chi’s finale, we are treated to a battle with large dragon-like creatures that simply don’t fit in with the MCU’s aesthetic whatsoever. Did anyone really go along to see that? I doubt it.
Another of Phase 4’s projects ended with no villain sticking to their principles until the end – aside from an animated creature. This was unfortunate, as Shang-Chi is actually a relatively enjoyable film.
Those CGI creatures crept into the crime of a film that was Eternals. This is the MCU’s worst film yet and it’s not even close; if Thor: The Dark World is classed as bottom tier, then Eternals is six feet under – and that’s being very, very kind.
By no coincidence whatsoever, this movie’s villains are what highlight it’s flaws – or its lack of villains, to be more precise.
The fact that the CGI Deviants managed to make it past the planning stage for the film is absolutely astonishing – and that’s before you find out they’ve actually been on earth for as long as intelligent life itself. Watching a boring set of heroes battle a boring group of computer-generated aliens meant the film got off to a disastrous start.
The film’s primary villain is then revealed to be a Celestial who wants to emerge from the centre of the planet. On paper that idea sounds abysmal, and it’s translation to screen was even worse. We have no affiliation with the cosmic being and therefore struggle to have any investment in the film.
Things then take a turn that could have been interesting if they made any sense at all. Ikaris’ betrayal was, once again, given no foreshadowing whatsoever and therefore came completely out of the blue. If that was bad, however, Sprite choosing to join his side was even worse.
Sprite’s apparent love for Ikaris quite literally came out of nowhere. The pair didn’t have a single scene alone together, no meaningful conversation, and we didn’t even get a shot of her looking longingly at him. All of a sudden, she has confessed her undying love for him and begins trying to kill her century-long friends in a bid to help him out.
Mere seconds after she tries to murder them, however, our other main characters instantly forgive Sprite and are willing to grant her a wish of becoming a human. What happened to repercussions for our actions? Attempted murder cannot be glossed over with a vain love and sob story.
This was Marvel’s worst yet, and it summed up their issues in 2021. Why are all of these characters being gifted reprieval? While some are afforded lazily written redemptions, Sprite didn’t even have to say a word in order to come back to the heroes’ side.
Of course, that summed up Eternals in a nutshell. The film was blatantly an attempt at major inclusivity, and the writers will have been petrified at offending anyone. How dare a character have realistic motivations and stick to them until the end of their story arc! The writers clearly tried too hard to please everyone, and that resulted in them creating one of the worst films in recent memory.
Sprite was diabolical, Ikaris was subject to poor acting and poor scripting, the Deviants were more boring than Malekith and a Celestial provided a perfect opportunity for a faceless villain that offended no one. I honestly wish I’d never watched this film, and I’m already pretending it’s not part of the MCU.
Thank the Lord that Spider-Man: No Way Home came next. This nostalgia-filled masterpiece was everything MCU fans could have hoped for, and it came as no surprise that it’s strongest villain contributed to that.
Norman Osborn’s Green Goblin needs no introduction; he’s up there with the best comic book character iterations of all time and steals the show every time he graces the screen. His Jekyll and Hyde-style inner battle was obviously boosted by his appearance in the original Spider-Man film, but the chaos he causes is unmatched and endears him to the MCU very well.
Doctor Octopus’ original villainous return did little to ease fears that his Spider-Man 2 redemption would be undone, but his switch back to Peter Parker’s side works well overall. Electro is pretty cool to watch and was a major upgrade on his Amazing Spider-Man 2 counterpart, too.
The Lizard and Sandman were both boring additions, but that worked well as it provided breathing room for the main villains to steal the show. No Way Home was the first Marvel project since WandaVision to have villains that really worked.
The only real issue with the antagonists in this film comes when Tom Holland’s Parker begins his bid to cure them all – and ends up succeeding. It works relatively well in he plot, but it did serve as a metaphor for Marvel’s new problem; they want their villains to be cured, to find the good in them all. That isn’t always how life works.
While Hawkeye was an enjoyable watch overall and brought the 2021 curtain down in easy-watching and exciting fashion, it did struggle with its villains too.
Echo took on the role of a deaf and mute gangster seeking revenge for her father’s death, and appeared likely to be Clint Barton and Kate Bishop’s most tricky adversary. She was an exciting character for the first few episodes, offering something different to the norm.
However, just as things are coming to a climax, she is revealed to have a soft centre and ends up leaving our heroes be. Instead, she pursues her own crew – killing one of them and seemingly killing her leader, Kingpin (although we’ll have to wait and see on that one).
Again, we have a character primed as a main villain given a quick and unneeded redemption. Echo looks as though she’ll now be on the run from the New York crime world and is unlikely to return in any important capacity – and that’s if it wasn’t her being shot at the end of So This Is Christmas? She was a good addition, but ended up slowing the storyline down.
Speaking of Kingpin, he was the one tasked with taking up the mantle after Echo’s misgivings. Unsurprisingly, with so little time to impress, he was nothing but a disappointment for such a big character.
He was built up and built up throughout the final few episodes, and his first appearance was promising. However, he appeared to be killed off with relative ease after what was amongst the most repetitive fight scenes in history; cut after cut showed him throwing Bishop around a shop with very little resistance.
We didn’t have any real reason to hate Kingpin, and his apparent death therefore felt incredibly underwhelming. Why bring in such a big character just to have them killed off after around five minutes of screen time?
Hawkeye was a safe and fun installment, but its lack of a primary villain harmed its credentials.
Hopefully by now, you’ll have seen what the key issue is with Phase 4 of the MCU so far; barely any of Marvel’s antagonists are given the chance to be true villains. Too many characters start off on the opposite side from our heroes before being handed undeserved or pointless redemptions, with plenty handed easy ways out – even in death.
Importantly, this harms them as characters. It simply doesn’t work when a villain changes their mind on their life’s work seconds before they die. Think about Thanos and why he is now recognised as one of the best cinema villains in recent years; he is relentless in his task and doesn’t waver from it, and he is afforded time to showcase his character development so the audience understands his reasoning – even if he isn’t right.
We understand him, and he is killed while sticking up for his beliefs. On the other hand, Karli Morgenthau apologised with her dying breath. Xu Wenwu’s life ambitions evaporate in the space of ten seconds. Echo makes the quick switch from passionate fighter to understanding peace maker. Sprite tried to murder her friends in the name of love and is instantly forgiven. It’s not hard to see why these villains don’t work.
Having these characters change their motivations late on means their replacements aren’t afforded enough time to make a meaningful impact, and a number of them have even been replaced by CGI creatures for climaxes. Nobody wants that. It feels cheap.
It feels as though Marvel writers are trying too hard to cater for everybody in the audience and are scared witless of offending anyone. It’s fair game if they want to ramp up the inclusivity (Echo’s deafness and bionic leg are cool additions, for example), but that doesn’t mean they can be scared of having these characters face repercussions. Not all villains need to be handed a redemption arc on a silver platter.
All in all, there were probably around about 12 primary human (or human form) villains in the MCU in 2021. In my book, only three of them can hold their head high with any real conviction; Wanda Maximoff’s grief and mental health issues, Xu Wenwu and Norman Osborn. Even Wenwu’s last-second change of heart means he was a borderline case.
If Marvel are to return to the heights of previous Phases, they need to make sure they sort out their new villain problem as quickly as possible. Hopefully, Wanda’s return in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness will be a good place for them to start.