Every hero needs an opposing villain. They go together. Plus you can’t get more heroic or iconic than the notion of a SUPER hero!
There have always been stories of these special kinds of hero, in every culture. There’s always talk of ‘superhero fatigue’ online, but the reality is audiences can’t get enough.
It’s no accident that studios like Marvel have been doing so well with superheroes. Marvel knows what entertains their target audience and they have provided it. AVENGERS ENDGAME finally usurped TITANIC at second place on the biggest box office smashes of all time recently. Love or loathe superheroes, Marvel have been absolutely smashing it.
What’s more, Marvel have adapted with the times. They have realised audiences want not only greater diversity, but better writing too. There have been radical changes in its character representation over the years. Nowhere is it more obvious than with its villains.
‘Comic Book Villain’ used to be the descriptor applied to non-comic book characters when antagonists were two-dimensional. Yet in recent years, Marvel has demonstrated even comic book villains needn’t be 2D. Here’s three examples of Marvel villains and what we can learn from them.
1) Erik Killmonger, Black Panther
‘You know, where I’m from… when black folks started revolutions, they never had the firepower… or the resources to fight their oppressors. Where was Wakanda? Hmm? Yeah, all that ends today.’
Make no mistake, Erik Killmonger is a monster. He’s a sadistic murderer who has spent years as a mercenary, consumed with bloodshed. But he is RIGHT. Wakanda hides its resources and gifts from the world. It stands by and does not act whilst its brothers and sisters are oppressed world-wide. How can that be a good thing? Thematically, BLACK PANTHER shows us, in the shape of Erik Killmonger, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’
What’s more, Wakanda not only deserted Erik’s people, it deserted him. It made him that monster. The trauma he goes through as a boy shaped him to become the man who comes home seeking revenge.
MARVEL TIP: Villains may not be bad people, just as heroes may behave in less noble ways. But even when they are bad people like Killmonger, that doesn’t mean antagonists are necessarily WRONG, either.
2) Hela, Thor Ragnorak
‘I’m not a queen or a monster. I’m the Goddess of Death.’
Everyone knows a protagonist needs a motivation, goal or need to power the story. What a lot of writers underestimate is the fact antagonists need a COUNTER motivation. This lead to a plethora of antagonists (particularly female ones) having reductive traumatic back stories to ‘explain’ why they are bad people.
What makes Hela so great then is she ‘just’ wants to destroy everything. She is The Goddess of Death. It is quite literally her job. What do you expect her to do, bake cookies and go horse riding? Le duh!
Add to that the fact Dad Odin used Hela to gain power, then discarded and imprisoned her. He didn’t even tell Thor or Loki they had an older sister! You can see why she’s pissed. This was genius, because many in the audience felt they would want revenge in her place, too (I know I did). Go girl!
MARVEL TIP: Antagonists can be villains simply because that’s just what they do. Just make sure we can relate to the ‘why’ of that being their way of life.
3) Thanos, Avengers Infinity War & Endgame
‘You were going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.’
Thanos is a villain because his crusade – killing half of humanity across the cosmos – is monstrous. But like Erik Killmonger, he is technically correct. We DON’T have enough resources to go around. It DOES make sense that we take away some of those mouths to feed. It would help stop deforestation, pollution, you name it.
But wait! Don’t forget it’s also an absolutely monstrous thing to do. For all his talk of ‘fairness’, Thanos is a genocidal maniac. Whilst his theory might be sound, the practice is not. The people Thanos kills or makes disappear are sentient beings with their own place in the world and loved ones. No one has a right to take that away on the basis of ‘logic’.
Also, don’t forget Thanos is a hypocrite too. After all, he doesn’t offer to sacrifice himself (being as giant, he would be taking up A LOT of resources!) … Nor does he disappear when he snaps his fingers in the Infinity gauntlet! Funny, that.
MARVEL TIP: Antagonists are ABERRANT. They are odds with the prevailing logic of their story world. If the characters prize emotion and morality, like superheroes do, then the villain must be cold and logical.
BONUS!!! (Beware, spoilers below)
Dr. Bill Foster, Ant-man And The Wasp
‘Don’t think badly of Ava, she’s just scared’.
A secondary character, Dr. Bill Foster performs an antagonistic function bumping up against his old colleague, Dr. Hank Pym. But he’s more than that. He facilitates and helps the main antagonist of the piece, ‘Ghost’ aka Ava Starr (seen in the pic above).
In the course of the movie, Ava’s story turns out to be a tragic one. She doesn’t want to destroy Ant-man (though she will if he gets in her way). She does not want to steal Pym technology to sell it to arms dealers. She’s only trying to save herself. The way her body phases isn’t really under her control, so she’ll die if she doesn’t stabilise soon. She is frightened and does not want to die. We understand her actions, though we don’t condone them.
By the way, this Vox article Ant-Man And The Wasp’s True Villain Is Not Who It Appears To Be makes a great case for who is really to blame. Check it out!
MARVEL TIP: Make your villain’s motivation relatable to your target audience by having them afraid of something scary we ALL must face, such as death. Alternatively, pose a difficult moral question in the villain’s actions … ie. they do something terrible to protect their children.