These days, the phrase “villain problem” is pretty much synonymous with a certain perceived anemic quality of the villains populating the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the most part, this isn’t an ungrounded perception. Tom Hiddleston’s magnificent Loki aside, the MCU’s choices for villains have been notably small in stature (B- and C-tier characters, at best) and/or portrayal (e.g., the Mandarin sleight of hand in Iron Man 3). Given some of the early restrictions faced by Kevin Feige and company, this blandness is understandable—rights issues ruled out some of Marvel’s juiciest villains from the start, as Magneto and Doctor Doom belonged to Fox (which in turn did right by one on them, at least). The Green Goblin/Norman Osborne belonged to Sony. And regardless of what one thinks of the logic or execution, Marvel’s risk-averse approach to portraying the Mandarin, a foe sporting 10 alien rings of supreme, protagonist-threatening power, makes sense when one considers the importance of the China market and that the character’s initial design was pure Fu Manchu/yellow menace.
Still, as frustrating as the MCU’s decade-long shell game might be for some, it’s nothing compared to a larger problem afflicting the genre pretty much from its “birth.”
Stop Killing the Villain
Even though its influence and popularity have understandably waned a good deal since its release, it’s difficult to overstate how exciting it was to be a comic book fan in 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman hit the theaters. At the time, when it came to big screen superheroic bombast, Christopher Reeve’s Superman was about it, and the last decent entry in that series had been nine years prior. Sure, there had also been The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman on television, but late-’70s, early-’80s TV special effects and budgets didn’t come close to capturing the wonder of it all. Batman, however, did. And no matter where one ranks Jack Nicholson’s Joker on a list of best portrayals of the clown prince of crime, it was a big deal that an A-list actor was playing an A-list villain. This was Batman’s arch-nemesis. His perfect foil. The most established, most effective recurring thorn in the — oh, wait, he’s dead.
There was no ambiguity—Nicholson’s Joker, hanging from a helicopter ladder with a stone gargoyle tied to a foot, at the elevation of an Empire State Building-sized building, had plummeted to the cold hard embrace of the asphalt. (He even left a Looney Tunes-esque body-shaped crater.) Now, obviously, fantasy in general and comic books in particular are the places where phrases likes “suspension of disbelief” are born, but that suspension is in part possible because all those radioactive spiders, lightning-infused chemical baths and other origin stories take place within an established, more mundane reality—our reality. The Joker’s real superpower may well be his ability to pull off incredibly elaborate schemes that would fail 50 times over in the real world, but physically, he’s a slave to physics like the rest of us. Moreover, the camerawork itself made sure there was no doubt. Mistuh Joker—he dead.
It’s not too difficult to see how this particular ending happened. In 1989, to the minds of studio execs (and plenty of moviegoers), Jack Nicholson was a much bigger deal than some pasty-faced comic book villain. Even at the time, I assumed this was Nicholson’s way of dropping the mic. “I’ve done my version of this character. I’m done. The Joker’s done.” For the studio, there were plenty of iconic Batman foes remaining, and the idea of casting lesser-known actors who would play a role for 5+ films probably seemed pretty unlikely. I understood why, but, man, did it piss me off.
Op-Stay Illingkay the Illainvay
On the most fundamental level, there was the implied (overt?) disrespect for both the comic book tradition from which this movie came as well as the characters themselves. Horrible ends for dastardly villains is comic book 101, but so is unlikely survival and triumphant returns. Buildings may collapse upon them (air pocket!), water engulf them (washes up on shore somewhere!) and strange beams disintegrate them (actually teleported!) all the time, but villains survive. Even better, often the villain just escapes. This isn’t just some quaint trait of the medium—recurring villains are just as important to a comic book as its heroes. It’s how worlds are built and more complex, fascinating story arcs layered during the life of a series, and not just for the heroes. Ronan the Accuser wasn’t really that interesting his first appearance or two (or 12?). By the time of the Annihilation Wave story arc, the character was much more compelling.
Yet decades removed from ego-heavy A-listers deigning to play a role, and from studios not fully grasping the box office potential of the genre, villains still routinely get the short end of the mortality stick.
Consider the MCU—Early on, C-listers like Jeff Bridges’ Ironmonger and Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash get pretty exploded. In later films, Ronan the Accuser gets reduced to space dust, Ego the Living Planet gets his brain detonated and Crossbones, in the least Crossbones move ever, blows himself up. (The MCU is pretty fond of blowing up its villains.) After a brief lull in Spiderman: Homecoming in which Michael Keaton’s Vulture was actually allowed to survive, Black Panther manages to kill off both Ulysses Klaue (actually one of the Black Panther’s main recurring villains in the comic books) and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.
The MCU isn’t the only culprit. Sony let Alfred Molina’s amazing portrayal of Dr. Octopus become a one-shot. (They get a source material-legit pass for the demise of Dafoe’s Green Goblin in the first film.) Warner Bros. let Zack Snyder make Superman a murderer in Man of Steel. And though Fox has done a much, much better job than most at realizing how valuable their roster of villains are, they still managed to disintegrate Apocalypse in the climax of their latest film, despite the fact he’s one of the merry mutants’ defining villains and the central player in one of their most compelling storylines).
Yes, we live in a time of remakes, reboots and ret-cons, but especially within the constraints of cinema, it’s foolish to waste time re-launching, explaining and otherwise re-routing story development just to undo something that was unnecessary—and so untrue to the source material—in the first place. Granted, Killmonger’s demise is made all the more poignant by his final refusal to be healed by the country he’d spent so long trying to reach. But it also removed from the world a fascinating antagonist, one whose presence in later films would provide depth and resonance no matter the onscreen presence. But his death also would have had more weight if the demise of the antagonist were a rarer event in the MCU. After all, living antagonists are healthy antagonists. (Though if we see a Phase 5 Avengers film where they face off against the Legion of the Unliving, I will gladly retract larges swathes of this piece.)
So, please. Marvel. DC. Valiant. Conserve your villains. Care for them with almost the same care and concern as your heroes. Realize that some story arcs require maturation of hero, villain and audiences alike. (Logan doesn’t happen without Hugh Jackman’s long residency in the role, after all.) Some villains are so big their presence after they first appear and are defeated can loom as large as their initial threat. (Galactus and Thanos are two prime examples.)
Don’t. Kill. The. Villain.