Superhero Strife: Marvel's Solution for Bland Villains

The publisher's upcoming slate of movies inspired by "crossover events" improves upon a tried-and-true comics adage: It's cool when superheroes fight each other.


The news that the next "phase" of Marvel movies will focus on internal strife among its heroes (with Tony Stark reportedly battling Steve Rogers in Captain America 3) is a logical solution for the hyper-franchise's biggest problem to date. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been printing money for six years now and shows no sign of abating, but after ten films it's only been able to cook up one truly compelling villain: Thor's wicked step-brother Loki. Marvel Comics realized decades ago that it would be compelling to have its own heroes fight each other. The Marvel movies have gotten there even faster, partly by necessity.

Now, Marvel Studios is doing just fine. Its release slate is set through 2019, and producer Kevin Feige told Bloomberg Businessweek that he's mapped out movies through 2028. Marvel’s wildest venture yet, this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy, is the highest-grossing film of the year despite being based on less well-established source material. But if you'd asked a hundred exiting audience members, Family Feud-style, who their favorite Guardians character was, I doubt one of them would have spoken up for its villain, Ronan the Accuser (played by Lee Pace).

Part of the problem is that initial Marvel movies have so much setup to do. Iron Man is introducing us to Tony Stark and essaying his arc from heartless industrialist to world-saving hero. His confrontation with turncoat businessman Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is just a punctuating moment in that arc, and hardly its most memorable. Captain America: The First Avenger had an MVP villain actor in Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, but he's an afterthought in a film that's much more about Cap's character development, going from propaganda tool to war hero to man out of time frozen beneath the ice. Guardians of the Galaxy has a colorful ensemble and a previously unknown cosmic setting to fill us in on, so Ronan particularly sticks out for his uselessness, motivated by a fanatic hatred the audience barely understands and the story doesn't have time to explain.

The other repeating issue is the inevitable status quo that sets in with sequels. It's hard to fear a villain who doesn't really pose a threat; if Avengers 4 and Captain America 3 are already in the pipeline, and every actor is signed to a nine-picture deal, can we really feel threatened by whatever the bad guy of the moment is scheming? The Iron Man sequels particularly suffered here: they lobbed a host of villains at the screen, from nutty henchmen like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley to white collar technocrats played by Sam Rockwell and Guy Pearce, but each film ended in the same way: a pitched battle with a bunch of robots. That's not even to say they're bad (well, Iron Man 2 is really bad), but there's a reason everyone around Robert Downey Jr. feels so disposable: because he's the one actor who isn't.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the glowing exception to this trend, and he's the villain of three MCU films: Thor, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World (where he played more of an anti-hero role; let's forget about those Dark Elves). Hiddleston's wonderfully vaudevillian approach made him stand out from the pack, and his godlike powers made him a credible threat for the Avengers to organize around. It helps that Loki, being a god, can't really be killed off, although Marvel is smart enough to recognize that bringing him back for Avengers: Age of Ultron (coming out next May) would be a foolish gambit.

Until last week, Internet speculation always hinged on the concept that cosmic villain Thanos, always questing for all-powerful Infinity Stones, would be the ultimate big bad for the Avengers—a somewhat worrying thought given his charisma-free appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. Whether this was a misdirect or Marvel is now plotting a course-correction is impossible to know. It strikes me as difficult to swing such a big ship around quickly, so maybe Feige has always intended for "Civil War" to be the next big arc, with Thanos still waiting in the wings. But from every news report about Marvel in the last week, it's pretty clear that Captain America 3 (set to come out in 2016) is going to be about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers facing off in a massive ideological conflict in the aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Stark accidentally unleashes a villainous killer robot on the world.

The film will reportedly be "inspired by" Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Civil War, a 2006-2007 story arc in Marvel Comics that saw Iron Man and Captain America falling on opposite sides of a Superhero Registration Act that seeks to unmask and regulate the super-powered. It'll probably go in vastly different directions, since the concept of secret identity is much less crucial in the Marvel movies, but that's for the best. Civil War tried to engage with the issue of personal liberty clashing with government responsibility, but did a half-assed job of it (it was hard to sympathize with Tony Stark's side of rounding everyone up and turning them into super-cops). Civil War boiled down to a much simpler concept, one Marvel (and all intermingled comic book universes) has gone to time and again: It's cool when superheroes fight each other.

The first major Marvel comics "crossover event" was Secret Wars in 1984, a blockbuster limited series that saw Earth's heroes assembled to duke it out on a "Battleworld" by an omnipotent alien being. It was that straightforward, probably because it served as a merchandising tie-in for Mattel action figures, but set the pattern for decades to come. Secret Wars II followed in 1985, and a series of Thanos-related cosmic battles (Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade) dominated the '90s, with the latter two pitched along the same lines: with the universe's fate hanging in the balance, Earth's heroes start battling each other. The crossover events were always fun, but never very consequential—even when Thanos was threatening to wipe out life across the galaxy, there was little to no impact on Marvel's regular titles. You could pick up an issue of X-Men or Amazing Spider-Man without knowing anything particularly untoward was going on.

Only in the last ten years have things gotten more complicated. The Marvel comics universe is now a rolling series of semi-annual crossover events, and you need to buy dozens of issues a month just to keep up. More often than not, the organizing principle behind the events is comics' most famous heroes turning on each other. In Civil War, it's over government registration. In World War Hulk, the green rage monster puts other heroes on trial for exiling him from Earth. In Secret Invasion, heroes have been replaced by shape-shifting aliens, so no one can be trusted. In Avengers vs. X-Men, well, that one is easy enough to parse from the title alone.

Some of these "events" have been more enjoyable than others; each ends with some cataclysmic shift in the Marvel universe that eventually gets undone, but serves as story fuel for a few months at the very least. That's the advantage the movie equivalent may end up enjoying—it might be able to actually make permanent changes or kill characters off. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are just two actors who have publicly mused about hanging up their costumes at some point. Marvel Studios can actually plan for the most dramatic way to wrap up an actor's contract.

For all the complaints about Marvel movies choking up release schedules, it still comes down to two movies a year. There's no pressure, as there is in the comic book industry, to snap back to the status quo. In comics, dead characters are routinely revived because some new writer has a fun take on them; neither Thor nor the Hulk was present for the comic book Civil War, but everyone knew they'd both be back at some point or another. Not so with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Downey Jr. wants to bid Iron Man farewell someday, why does he need to be replaced with a younger, cheaper actor? Why not just continue evolving? We've seen hints of this approach already—the stifling catch-all government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. was shut down by Captain America in The Winter Soldier, even though Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was airing concurrently on television. As obvious as it might be for Marvel Studios to lean on inter-hero warfare, it can be an opportunity to do something genuinely exciting. Let's see if its future films lean into that.