WandaVision and Falcon and Winter Soldier fix Marvel’s villain problem
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.]
The method fans and critics reacted to completion of Disney Plus’ Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and the Winter Season Soldier currently recommends a pattern for the brand-new slate of MCU programs. Simply as with WandaVision, fans and experts hurried to view and examine each episode of Falcon and Winter Season Soldier as rapidly as possible, excitedly breaking down every subtlety and possibility. The cultural discussion around both these programs was dynamic and complex as long as the programs lasted — and after that it waned nearly the 2nd they ended, when there disappeared cameos to wish for or theories to unroll. Apart from the threads leading into upcoming Marvel motion pictures, both programs appear to have actually been far more efficient in drawing extreme short-term attention (and brand-new signups for Disney Plus) than in stimulating enduring discussions.
However something they both share that might possibly have a long-term effect: They both substantially increase the MCU’s future practicality. Both of them take an uncommon action for MCU stories: They leave crucial bad guys alive, and offered for future stories.
The MCU’s bad guy issue has actually been a preferred subject for cultural essays given that Stage 1 of the franchise, with critics grumbling that Marvel motion pictures seldom handle to field villains who are even from another location nuanced or engaging. Especially in the early going of the motion picture series, the bad guys’ inspirations tend to be dull, underdeveloped, and foreseeable, or in many cases simply unrelatable. Marvel has actually course-corrected in the last few years, most especially with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, whose intentions for beating Wakanda’s king and taking his power are rooted in a completely sensible animosity versus the Wakandans who eliminated his dad, rejected him his heritage, and let inactiveness and complacency drive comparable injustice all over the world.
And Thanos was another standout, not since his desire to end resource scarcity by eliminating half deep space was a relatable objective (“Thanos was right” memes aside), however since he existed in several motion pictures, and had time to set out his misdirected beliefs and reveal the depth of his wrongheaded conviction. Bad guys don’t require to be understanding to be remarkable, however they do need to be understandable, and some Marvel bad guys skate by with so little description of their intentions that they seem like straw-man arguments, very finely propped into location so the heroes can feel excellent about withstanding them. (Others simply blur together — the number of Marvel bad guys up until now have been encouraged by feeling mistreated by either Tony or Howard Stark? Have we struck a bakers’ lots yet?)
However the franchise exterminated Thanos and Killmonger, along with a lot of other villains who hardly had a possibility to establish beyond the “Muahahaha eeeeevil” stage of their presence. Which’s constantly appeared like an exceptionally short-sighted choice. The comics market’s most remarkable rogues’ galleries members end up being renowned in time since they return to challenge the heroes once again and once again, attempting brand-new plans and finding out brand-new abilities. Sometimes, they likewise establish brand-new allies, for additional delights. Provided just how much long-term preparation entered into putting together larger and larger Marvel hero team-ups, from the very first crossover in The Avengers to the which-side-will-you-chose face-off in Captain America: Civil War to the full-blown war at the end of Avengers: Endgame, it’s a little impressive that Kevin Feige and the Marvel motion pictures group obviously never ever seriously thought about the power of a comparable bad guy team-up.
WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Season Soldier aren’t precisely fielding Thanos-level villainy, or establishing villains efficient in matching his power. However they are pressing Marvel’s needle back a little bit more in the instructions of in fact keeping bad guys conscious battle another day — and to construct their power, eminence, sense of danger, and connection to the heroes at the same time.
Possibly more importantly, leaving Agatha Harkness, Baron Zemo, and the Power Broker alive to lick their wounds and plan for the future is giving them a chance to become more developed and memorable villains than they were in their initial outing. Agatha in WandaVision got a killer reveal and her own memorable bop, but the show simply didn’t take the time necessary to turn her into more than a glorified fan-service cameo from the comics. Her motives in WandaVision amounted to curiosity, an apparent lust for power, and eventual concern that Wanda Maximoff is “the Scarlet Witch” — a title the show didn’t bother to explain, and shelved for an eventual movie to solve. If Agatha does escape her WandaVision punishment and make it back into an MCU story, though, she’ll have a much more relatable goal: getting even with the woman who stole her agency and enslaved her with a false personality. And if she does come gunning for revenge, she’ll have all the moral power behind her of an entire town that was similarly enslaved and tortured, without getting any kind of apology or closure for being used as tools in someone else’s self-actualization.
The Power Broker in Falcon and Winter Soldier is similarly underdeveloped, with only a hint of her real motivations given — if she really is, as she implies, motivated by rage against the people who wronged her when she backed Captain America back in Captain America: Civil War, and her motives don’t run any deeper at all, she’s going to need significant development to be interesting.
But the series showed exactly what it looks like when an underdeveloped antagonist from a previous story gets some space to flower. Zemo, who was little more than a scheme and a speech back in Civil War, got to step out and explain his philosophy in Falcon and Winter Soldier, and got to show his more human side in the process. And in the process, the character developed his own fandom — a rarity for Marvel villains, who are often largely forgotten after one movie. He’s more of a moral and existential threat than ever now, and viewers have much more of an idea of where he’s coming from and what he’s capable of. He has the capacity to return down the line as a bigger and better threat, in part because he now knows Sam and Bucky well enough to get inside their heads, and well enough to know exactly how to manipulate them.
But Falcon and Winter Soldier also highlighted the shortsighted side of Marvel, the narrative ethos that finds it easier to kill off an antagonist than contend with them. Having the Power Broker kill off Karli Morgenthau was a surprisingly bland and boring solution for the Gordian-knot moral problem facing the series’ heroes. After taking most of the series’ runtime to even make Karli’s beliefs clear, and making it obvious that Sam Wilson in particular sympathizes with her cause and with her personally, the show just shuts down her story in the laziest way possible, both keeping the heroes’ hands clean and resetting the board so they look like they’re taking the high road in learning from her, and in taking minimal steps toward her cause. It’s exactly what Black Panther did, and it’s exactly as unsatisfying. Given what Karli represented, not as a Flag-Smasher, but as a narrative push toward more radical and forceful action than the heroes were comfortable with, taking her out of the picture seems like the most cowardly choice for the story — an excuse to not directly contend with her comparative moral strength as an antagonist.
And it also robs Marvel’s future of a genuinely interesting antagonist, in a franchise that’s eventually going to strain to come up with new ones, even as its heroes become more and more familiar over time. It’s surprising that it’s taken Marvel this long to start conserving its villains, given how much it’s built up its hero roster. The hero army that faced Thanos in Avengers: Endgame suggests that it’s going to be hard to scale up to a really significant threat to Earth in the future. It also suggests that Marvel’s going to be constantly resetting, with films and shows continuing to serve as rushed villain origin stories. Every new story that needs to bring in a new villain also needs to take time to explain them, which keeps the franchise from meaningfully moving forward with the rest of the story, and encourages rushed, apathetic “Oh, just another iteration on a Nazi” or “Another Stark victim? Cool, I guess” character-building.
Why not focus instead on building a rogues’ gallery that can actually continue to challenge the heroes, and build relationships with them in ways that bring up the internal conflicts Marvel loves so much? Marvel’s most successful villain by far is Loki, Thor’s adopted brother and lifetime antagonist, who no longer needs to be introduced and explained in every movie — he’s an icon at this point, capable of supporting his own TV spinoff. Just by keeping him in the mix, the MCU has enabled a rich, engaging, and definitive relationship for one of its key heroes, and allowed its writers a wealth of stories about everybody’s favorite shapeshifting, sulking, larger-than-life backstabbing god.
And Loki is also a good example for anyone concerned that backing away from villain death in Marvel stories would make for less memorable or satisfying endings. Marvel hasn’t shied away from “killing” Loki, any more than Marvel Comics have shied away from killing off and revamping or rebooting their characters. Loki “died” at the end of the first Thor, deliberately dropping himself into a vast wormhole in space. He “died” again in Thor: The Dark World, faking his own stabbing so he could eventually take over Asgard. He maybe no-scare-quotes died at Thanos’ hands in Avengers: Infinity War, though time will tell on that one — it’s still really unclear what death means to his people, no matter how you define that term. But regardless of outcome there, time-travel shenanigans have put him back in the mix again.
Not every villain can support this kind of chicanery long-term. Loki is inhumanly hardy, and he’s an illusionist and a trickster, uniquely set up for “not dead after all” antics. The MCU certainly doesn’t need to make every villain death a fakeout, or engage in the kind of baroque resurrection, revival, and reset plots that so often characterize mainstream superhero comics.
But its creative teams do need to consider how much the Marvel Studios shows are pressing the bar, in terms of taking time to explore heroes’ psychology, relationships, and humanity alongside their beat-’em-up battles. Maybe their willingness to develop bad guys and give them a possibility at another go-round is more a product of “always keep next season in mind” TV thinking, rather than an actual change in Marvel planning. But it’s a positive trend nonetheless. If the franchise is ever going to end up with more villains as remarkable, enjoyable, and narratively versatile as Loki, it requires to spend more time developing them up, and less time eliminating them off.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.