How to Solve the Marvel Movies Villain Problem

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now a pop-culture phenomenon, entertaining legions of fans all over the world with a massive shared universe superhero saga, which extends from the movie theater to the TV screen.

In building the MCU through Phases I and II, Marvel Studios has found a format and tone that has come to be known as "The Marvel Movie Formula," and while it in large part works (to the tune of some huge box office returns), there has been some unfortunate byproduct that fans are not happy with.

The biggest of these unintended flaws is no doubt the pattern of Marvel movies offering weak, one-off versions of some of the more popular villains from Marvel Comics canon. As the MCU moves forward into Phase III, it's time for Marvel movies to provide fans with better depictions of villains that are Yang to our heroes Yin, and we have suggestions how to do it right.

Stop Killing Them All

This is an easy-breezy one. It's kind of weird that the DCEU gets labeled as the darker and more violent superhero movie universe, when Marvel superheroes have killed off virtually every one of the supervillains they've come up against on the big screen. Ironically, it's Hulk who's shown the most restraint by showing mercy to the Abomination, who's still locked away somewhere (and ready to fight again one day).

If Marvel wants a chance to make big villains have a bigger presence in their shared universe, then said villains need to be breathing in order to do so. There really is no benefit to taking characters like Red Skull, Baron von Strucker, or Ronan the Accuser and killing them off (seemingly or otherwise) after just one movie. Their characters each have extensive Marvel Comics canon to follow as a path of development - so why not invest?

Red Skull Marvel Movie Villains Death

Sure, maybe it's easier behind-the-scenes to have costly big-name actors (Jeff Daniels, Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Robert Redford) doing one-and-done performances. But given the makeup work needed for characters like Red Skull, Ronan, Malekith, there are quite a few villains that could easily be recast for their second appearance. So let's make a few more 'second appearances' happen, shall we?

Give Them Deeper Motivations

Marvel Movie villains have (for the most part) been painfully thin in their motivations. Most MCU films revolve around "villain X" competing with the hero for "MacGuffin Y," which he wants to use to blow up or annihilate "Z." It's about as arch and "comic bookie" as you can get with a supervillain, and it's something the MCU desperately needs to improve upon.

...And thankfully, the minds at Marvel Studios are already realizing as much and making changes. Captain America: Civil War's version of Zemo blew stuff up and sought a big MacGuffin, but his origin and motivations were designed with enough depth and complexity to make many fans overlook the absurd intricacy of his plan.

Marvel Movie Villains The Winter Soldier

The Winter Soldier has obviously evolved into a much more interesting and rounded MCU character from the mindless killer we first met. Baron Mordo will get a more complex arc in the Doctor Strange franchise, and thankfully, more three-dimensional foes like General "Thunderbolt" Ross and Ulysses Klaw are being featured in small roles that could grow into great villain roles down the line.

There are still some potential foes that we worry could be wasted (see: Cate Blanchette in Thor: Ragnarok and Mads Mikkelsen in Doctor Strange), but on the whole, there's reason to be hopeful that Marvel will start looking at their villains as long-term investments, and therefore build them with deeper, more complex, motivations that can be explored and developed over time. I mean, we waited this long for Josh Brolin's Thanos, so he better than another cosmic MacGuffin-chaser when he finally gets here, right? (Absolutely.)

Show More of Their World

The DCEU has (for once) beaten the MCU to the punch on this one, but Marvel needs to follow suit.

Don't just keep showing us individual villains - show us an entire Marvel Underworld. Marvel TV has been great about not just creating villains, but creating entire (under)worlds for them to inhabit. There are Secret societies like HYDRA, or The Hand; not to mention te shadowy world of espionage agents and assassins that stretches from the WWII formation of the SSR to the Cold War days of Soviet plots involving the Black Widow and Winter Soldier programs.

The Hood Masters of Evil Marvel Comics
(Photo: Marvel Comics)

Marvel TV has made a foundation, but Marvel movies need to find a better way to make the villain underworld a major presence and factor. They don't need to go the exact same route as, say, a Suicide Squad or Sinister Six movie - but just tossing around names like AIM and Roxxon as Easter eggs isn't going to cut it anymore. The connections and partnerships between the MCU's evil organizations and figureheads needs to be established, as does a general centerpiece to the Marvel Cinematic Underworld. In the Marvel Comics' "Civil War I" era, The Hood was a villain who emerged to unite the street-level villains into an organized syndicate. Maybe the MCU needs to follow that path? `

Use All Platforms

As we've pointed out: Marvel TV has actually done a great job using its long-form storytelling to make great villains out of the likes of Grant Ward, Kilgrave, Wilson Fisk and others. However, it's also become clear that Marvel TV is looked at as the redheaded stepchild of the MCU, so there's not a lot of motivation for the movie actors to appear on the TV series (or vice a versa). But in the case of Marvel villains, their presence can be felt across all platforms, even if the characters themselves don't make the jump.

Instead of just name-dropping Red Skull during HYDRA's schemes on Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., maybe pit the SHIELD heroes against a nefarious plan put in place by Red Skull himself. Have Zemo and/or Thunderbolt Ross influencing events that unfold on the fhow (sight unseen), or have Wilson Fisk's name and/or machinations pop up to influence any Marvel movie set in NYC (like Spider-Man: Homecoming).

Wilson Fisk Daredevil

The point is that with multiple platforms to work on (an advantage the DCEU doesn't have), Marvel villains can all expand their presence and influence across the entire MCU; especially the movie villains who don't have much time to shine in individual films. With TV there to give a platform to long-term schemes, a Marvel movie villain can live on through entire story arcs dedicated to his/her evil plans in action, or examing the deeper effects of his/her influence (like AoS did wonderfully with its HYDRA reveal in season 1).

With so much sandbox to play in, why limit a villain to a particular corner? Let's spread that evil around!

NEXT: How to Solve the DC Movie Villain Problem

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Those are our recomendations for how to solve this Marvel Movie Villain Problem - what would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @ComicBookNOW or @KofiOutlaw

Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming– July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; and Captain Marvel on March 8, 2019.