As Doctor Strange (2016) strides triumphantly toward the end of its cinematic run, I made an effort to catch it last week for the third time. Naturally as the proprietor of a nerdy website and podcast I’m prone to more consumption, digestion and analysis than most.
While I’m delighted that such a relatively tough sell (I mean, really, who would have imagined way back in 2008 that we’d one day be here?) has enjoyed such commercial success and critical acclaim, there’s one common criticism of the film that really sticks in my craw.
With each viewing my appreciation for Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as the film’s villain, Kaecilius grows. While I acknowledged in my review that the character’s development was somewhat lacking (something I’m less sure about after subsequent re-watches) it leads back to a consensus that I feel may be a bit harsh.
With each entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many geeky news outlets and podcasts appear to bemoan the “fact” that while Marvel continues to work wonders with their heroes, their villains are typically lacking. This article by ScreenRant, while wonderfully written, highlights a number of apparently universally acknowledged shortcomings.
Veteran listeners of our podcast will no doubt be aware that we have been recording Commen-tables (part commentary track, part round table discussions) of MCU films from the outset. In these tracks it’s our tendency to analyse the films with far greater intensity than the average audience member and as actors (it’s how we met) Danny B, Josh and I spend a lot of time analysing the actors’ performances.
In this light, I thought it might be fun to analyse the performances and characterisation of the MCU’s villains in order to determine whether or not the villain “problem” is indeed really a problem at all…
- As great as the villains in the tevevisual realms are, I shan’t be discussing the likes of Wilson Fisk, Killgrave, Cottonmouth etc. here.
- As his appearances have been limited to fleeting appearances in the Avengers films and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) there’s too little of Josh Brolin’s Thanos to properly analyse. Likewise as great as Andy Serkis’ performance was as Ulysses Klaw was, he really was more of a cameo than a functioning narrative villain.
- Since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is widely regarded as the exception to the rule, there won’t be any Loki discussion here.
- Spoilers… Obviously.
Are we ready? Let’s get chronological!
Obidiah Stane / IronMonger- Iron Man (2008)
Played by: Jeff Bridges
Right out of the gate Marvel has always gone right to the top shelf when it came to putting celebrated actors in the villain roles. Jon Favreau was (and is) smart enough to realise that visual effects wizardry can only get you so far and that jaw dropping action set pieces are essentially hollow when not paired with character and performance. As such, Favreau worked closely with his principal actors,particularly Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jr. and the relationship between Tony and Obediah is one of the strongest elements in the film.
Fans often criticise the fact that Ironmonger was only in the film for a few scant minutes and while it’s fair to say that he didn’t get much screen time in the suit, we got plenty of Machiavellian scheming, corporate greed and clandestine operations. The reveal that the avuncular and charming Stane was behind Tony Stark’s kidnapping and attempted murder is a far more satisfying reveal than watching Ironmonger throw Audis around a highway.
Bridges plays Stane as a quintessential cigar-chomping tycoon, a charming psychopath for whom personal gain is an end that justifies all means. As a contemporary of Howard Stark he serves as a reminder to Tony of what he was always an inch away from becoming.
It’s a suitable match for a hero who also happens to be a billionaire industrialist and one that still speaks to our times.
Emil Blonsky / The Abomination- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Played by: Tim Roth
I’ll declare my bias unabashedly here, I’m a huge fan of Tim Roth. A veteran stage and screen actor who’s worked with a host of influential directors from Steven Berkoff on stage in his production of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1991) and Pulp Fiction (1994). In the hands of a lesser actor, Blonsky could be a dull but necessary plot device; someone who’s screen time we wish away so we can get to the GCI monster smackdown.
Fortunately Roth’s performance and the material are better than that!
Blonsky is presented as a veteran soldier who is becoming increasingly impatient that his body is unable to keep up with his military ambitions. He respects only power and military might and his obsession with the Hulk and the opportunity that he represents is genuinely compelling.
As he becomes exposed to a lesser version of the Super Soldier Serum that gave Captain America his powers and eventually gamma radiation Roth plays Blonsky as a junky for whom the next hit will never be enough.
Unlike Ironmonger, The Abomination gets a little more time to breathe in his final digital form and its quite terrifying to see the destruction that a creature like the Hulk, when combined with a malicious intelligence, can wreak. Moreover, the design is genuinely menacing, eschewing the reptilian look of the comics for an exoskeleton of bony protuberances.
All of these elements come together to form a terrific and hugely under-appreciated villain. Rumours have long abounded that The Abomination may make a return to the MCU, especially since William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross made a sizeable contribution to Captain America: Civil War (2016).
This fan certainly has his fingers crossed.
Ivan Vanko / Whiplash- Iron Man 2 (2010)
Played by: Mickey Rourke
Okay, I’ll admit that here’s where the cracks start to show a little. It’s not so much that Vanko / Whiplash is a bad villain, it’s more that he’s a casualty of the busy nature of the film a fact that we were quick to lament in our commen-table).
Coming off the back of his savagely honest performance in The Wrestler (2008) fans rightly expected something particularly special from Mickey Rourke. I won’t say that the film wastes the talents of the celebrated character actor but he’s clearly doing a lot with a little. Bear in mind, after all, that the character of Whiplash (suffused liberally with that of the Crimson Dynamo in the film) comes from the early Iron Man comics, written in an era (and comic book) plagued by two dimensional communist bogey-men.
There’s not a great deal of emotional depth to the comic book character but its fair to say Rourke does his best.
A staunch Method actor, he obsessively researched the subculture of Russian prisons, even co-designing the many tattoos the character sports in the film.
While former boxer Rourke has little trouble selling the violent jailbird element of Vanko, he’s less palatable as an engineer and physicist to rival Tony Stark.
Even more than his predecessor, Ironmonger, Whiplash’s final form suffers from an unfortunately short-lived third act reveal followed by an enjoyable but insubstantial final skirmish with Iron Man and War Machine.
Serving as a neat microcosm of the film itself, Whiplash’s characterisation is composed of a number of elements that are perfectly fine in isolation but just don’t quite hang together satisfactorily.
Johann Schmidt / the Red Skull- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Played by: Hugo Weaving
When your main villain is a super powered Nazi, you’d better deliver something truly atrocious. Hugo Weaving is an actor with a long and storied career but he came to the attention of most as the malevolent program Agent Smith in The Matrix (1999), a facist piece of source code whose malignancy is matched only by his genteel restraint.
Top the delight of many, Weaving brings these same qualities to one of the Marvel Universe’s most important villains. His clipped, measured delivery and economy of movement and gesture are combined with an accent modelled on German auteur Werner Herzog.
The first Captain America film borrowed heavily from the Indiana Jones films, with a tone inspired by the two-fisted serials of the 1940s that always teetered on the brink of camp. Weaving, thankfully, realised the importance of restraint to communicate the superhuman arrogance and superiority of the character yet while he can scarcely be accused of chewing the scenery it’s clear from the outset that he’s having some fun with the role.
The characters striking and terrifying appearance is done justice here for the first time on film (no heavily reconstructed faces here) with a superb augmentation of makeup, prosthetics and visual effects that manage to enhance the performance rather than smothering it.
Initially, Weaving was open about his reticence to return to the role but he’s recently been on record as saying that he wouldn’t necessarily rule out a return to the MCU.
And all I can say to that is…
“Ich bin ein Hydra!”
TO BE CONTINUED