Click here to check out ‘The MCU “Villain Problem”- Part One’.
Here we are again, fandom feeders!
Having traversed Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in our Commen-tables and just got our teeth stuck into Captain America: Civil War, I thought that now might be the time to shine a light on the villains of the MCU’s second phase to see if the “Marvel Villain Problem” is a genuine cinematic disorder, or a fabrication propagated by hard to please fans.
Let’s find out…
- As great as the villains in the televisual 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.
Trevor Slattery & Aldrich Killian / The Mandarin-Iron Man 3 (2013)
Played by: Sir Ben Kingsley & Guy Pearce
Tricky one this. Here I’ll be analysing the two performances as one as combined they form the iconic Iron Man villain re-imagined as a ‘custom made terror threat’.
On paper, it’s a phenomenal idea. A terrorist created by a think-tank with the propagandist delivery of a southern baptist preacher, the military tactics of a South American guerrilla and the name of a Chinese Imperial bureaucrat. Sir Ben Kingsley’s slumming luvvie Trevor Slattery is the face of The Mandarin while Guy Pearce’s Killian is the brains behind the operation.
Whether or not it works for you depends entirely on how willingly you buy into the reveal.
Like it or not, The Mandarin is a very tricky character to communicate to a modern international audience, synonymous as he is (along with so many Iron Man villains) with Cold War Red Menace paranoia. With this dual characterisation Shane Black and co. tried to have their cake and eat it too; with Slattery representing the character’s theatrical aesthetic and Killian representing basically every other aspect of the character bar the unfortunate racial demonisation.
It’s a shame that this interpretation proved so divisive because both actors are right on the money.
Indeed, it’s because Sir Ben crushes the portrayal of The Mandarin so completely that I believe some fans were genuinely upset that this characterisation had been taken away from them. As Trevor Slattery, Kingsley is genuinely funny and watching him ‘turn on’ his Mandarin character med-sentence is utterly chilling.
Likewise, Pearce sells the transition of Killian from socially inept Tony Stark fanboy to millionaire sociopath with Bond-villain swagger. He’s a plausible ‘dark mirror’ counterpart to Stark while the Extremis in his system makes him a more than adequate physical threat for Iron Man.
Malekith- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Played by: Christopher Eccleston
Yeah, okay haters, I’ll grant you this one. Eccleston’s Malekith is a waste of a great actor (and one of the best Doctors for my money). Re-watching the film it’s possible to discern little nuggets of acting gold from his performance but they’re insufficient to hold together a flimsy characterisation from a script that had other things on its mind.
The character’s motivations are thinly defined and his interactions with the principal characters never rise beyond the level of casual disdain.
There are some redeeming features, though. Eccleston’s charisma gives the character the necessary gravitas and menace that befits a villain of Thor’s power level, and the visual of the character is a production design triumph.
The end result, however, is a bland character that never quite amounts to the sum of his uneven parts.
The Winter Soldier- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Played by: Sebastian Stan
Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents quite a distinct tonal shift for the MCU, aiming squarely for a political spy thriller in the vein of Three Days of the Condor (1975) and The Day of the Jackal (1973). As a result, the film plays on a smaller and more intimate scale (albeit with the action set pieces befitting a big blockbuster.
Pulling from the legendary comics story of the same name by Ed Brubaker, the film establishes The Winter Soldier as a creature of espionage folklore, an enigma identified only by the string of covert kills left in his wake. When Cap learns that this mysterious assassin is none other than his old friend Bucky Barnes, the stage is set for a maelstrom of emotions that could fall slat in the hands of lesser actors.
The affable Sebastian Stan won our hearts as Bucky in The First Avenger with his earnest performance but the hearts of fans the world over leapt when it was announced that the films would be taking this step with the character.
Stan plays The Winter Soldier with the singularity of purpose akin to The Terminator but when flickers of his past start to return and disrupt his ‘programming’ we get a glimpse of his tortured soul in his eyes.
When Bucky’s conscience wins out against his brainwashed alter-ego in Civil War he is a very different character to the Bucky we saw in the first film and we see him wear the guilt of his every kill on his face, even in the character’s lighter moments.
It’s a subtle, nuanced and densely layered performance that earns Stan a spot at the top of the MCU villain pile.
Ronan The Accuser- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Played by: Lee Pace
Much like Malekith, Ronan’s characterisation is a good example of an actor doing the very best they can with sparse material.
The main reason that Lee Pace’s Ronan is elevated above Eccleston’s Malekith is less about who gave the better performance (a strong argument could be made for either), it’s more about who better serves the needs of the story.
No attempts are made to give Ronan nuance or pathos but, to be fair, the narrative doesn’t require it of him. Ronan is an implement of brute force and a catalyst to bring the Guardians together. And that he does very well. His imposing stature (6’5″) and permanent scowl establish him as a more than plausible threat and while his roaring threats get a bit histrionic at times they’re fairly congruous with the operatic scope of the film.
Plus, the look of disgust and outrage in response to Star Lord’s attempted dance off?
Ultron- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Played by: James Spader
Of all the MCU villains, Ultron is second only to The Mandarin in terms of how binary the reaction to his portrayal has been. While some heavy-hitting villains have been presented in the MCU, Ultron brings possibly the most baggage.
Many fans (myself included) went in with a strong idea of how they expected Ultron to look, sound, move and speak, and for most of us this wasn’t it.
But, let’s not let that blind us to the depth of James Spader’s performance or the technical brilliance of the performance capture (even if the aesthetic isn’t to everyone’s taste).
Most of us were expecting Ultron to be a dispassionate and indomitable force of nature; The Terminator with a malicious and sadistic streak. That would have made him more imposing and in that sense more ‘effective’ as a villain, sure, but as we mentioned in our commen-table here and here, the film has more than that on its agenda.
The film does its best to explore Ultron’s persona as an emerging conscience that is infinite in its knowledge yet immature and even childish in his flights of anger and destruction. Borrowing elements of Robert Downey Jr’s vocal cadence and timbre, Ultron is an interesting allegory for wayward youth and the assignation of parental blame for the sins of the son.
Moreover, what makes Ultron so terrifying a prospect is his quite astute assessment of humanity’s relationship with our planet. He looks at our entire contribution to history and decides within a few seconds that sorry but this won’t do at all, we have to go.
And, given that we’ll likely have exhausted all of our natural resources within a generation, he’s probably right.
Darren Cross/ Yellowjacket- Ant-Man (2015)
Played by: Corey Stoll
When a tall handsome, athletic bald actor is cast as a brilliant but dangerously unstable scientist and industrialist, it’s a bitter pill to a DC fan that he’s not playing Lex Luthor (though Lexenberg continues to grow on me).
Darren Cross is kind of an oddity in the pantheon of MCU villains, in that he’s neither poorly conceived nor poorly acted nor even short-changed by the script yet he fails to impress on almost every level.
He’s not bad. He’s just kind of… there.
He’s not as egregious a waste of a fine actor as Malekith or Ronan but for all intents and purposes he comes across as a very much less impressive Obadiah Stain. While he gets more screen time in his cool tech suit than Ironmonger Stoll’s histrionic supervillain cackling is no match for Jeff Bridges’ quiet grumbling menace.
Yellowjacket is a perfectly serviceable villain with a cool aesthetic but there a few too many moments of maniacal excess in the characterisation to lend the character any real sense of threat.
Whether it’s a matter of performance, script or direction maybe a little would have gone a long way.
See what I did there?