We’re seven years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the franchise just released their twelfth movie, Ant-Man, last Friday. I went and saw it two nights ago, and have been thinking about writing a post like this ever since. Normally when I see a movie, I’ll pop on here and do a review for it. I’m skipping the formal review for Ant-Man, because the film, for me, raises a lot of topics to talk about that would seem superfluous to a simple review. What I really wanted to do was take Ant-Man and use it as a lens to examine the rest of the MCU’s villains, diversity, and storytelling tropes. This first post (of three) is going to focus solely on the villains.
But if you want a brief, spoiler free review, I’ll give it to you: I thought it was excellent. As far as superhero films go, it was in many ways a breath of fresh air. Its smaller scale served to make it one of my favorite MCU movies. Paul Rudd was everything I wanted him to be in the role and more. Go see it.
Alright, now that that’s out of the way, lemme warn you: Spoilers ahead, not just for Ant-Man, but for everything that’s been released so far in the MCU. This includes all twelve movies and its three current television series.
Ant-Man‘s villain is Darren Cross, alter ego: Yellowjacket. Where’s the comic book lore that inspired this villain? Realistically, nowhere to be found. Darren Cross in the comics is nothing like he is on the screen, and Yellowjacket isn’t a supervillain but one of the identities Hank Pym later uses. But really, that’s okay. At this point, comic fanatics everywhere have had to accept that the MCU really won’t be adapting everything from the comics. As Joss Whedon once put it, “This is Marvel cinema, not Marvel comics.”
So what’s with Darren Cross in this movie? Well, he was Hank Pym’s chosen protégé. The two had a falling out because Cross knew Pym was hiding information from him regarding the Pym Particles and the “tall tale” of Ant-Man. He’s driven by a sense of revenge, ambition, and some wonky, poorly described mind alteration courtesy of the shrinking technology. As far as Marvel villains go, Cross is top tier.
If that sounds like it’s a compliment, then you haven’t been watching Marvel movies.
A top tier MCU villain might be a compliment if there was any worthwhile competition. Unfortunately, the MCU is riddled with lackluster villains, whose motivations range from “I want more money” (Iron Man) to “Earth would be better off without you” (Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Incredible Hulk) to “I want to annihilate everything because reasons” (Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy) to “None, really, I’m just here to be bad” (Captain America: The First Avenger). While some of those motivations could actually be quite good if handled properly, more often than not they’re butchered by a complete lack of depth to our villain. It’s often said that a hero is only as good as their villain–I’d have to disagree, if only because if that were true, then most of the movies in the MCU would suck.
Marvel has a bad habit of giving their villains minimal motivation, minimal screen time, and then, in the end, they kill them off. Which, by the way, is absurd. How the hell do you kill the Red Skull off in the first Captain America movie? He’s an Avengers level threat. And “some kid from Brooklyn” beats him before crashing a plane for no reason? C’mon, Marvel! (Note: I really can’t stand Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s the only MCU film that I think is actually a bad movie, so my bias against it will probably show up once in a while.)
Look at Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy: we’ve got an intergalactic badass who’s intent on wiping out an entire fucking planet, just full on genocide, and he’s defeated by a dance battle with Chris Pratt. What?! Are you serious?! And don’t even try and sell me the whole It fits the tone of the movie argument, either, because that’s some bullshit. Earlier in the movie, Ronan is splitting Nova Corps soldiers’ skulls open so their blood can fill up his weird religious symbols. That’s some dark stuff. Ronan is ruthless. The film establishes him as an intimidating, physical, genocidal force, and then in the last act decides, “Ah, fuck it, he ain’t so tough actually.” And, as is typical, they kill him.
By the way, let’s actually look at which villains make it out alive:
Iron MongerThe Incredible Hulk: Abomination, General Ross
Iron Man 2:
Whiplash, Justin Hammer
LaufeyCaptain America: The First Avenger:
Red SkullThe Avengers: Loki
Iron Man 3:
The Mandarin (or whatever the fuck he is)Thor: The Dark World:
MalekithCaptain America: The Winter Soldier:
Alexander Pierce, The Winter Soldier, Crossbones
Guardians of the Galaxy: Nebula,
RonanAvengers: Age of Ultron:
Baron von Strucker, UltronAnt-Man:
So, out of eighteen villains, seven are left alive to conduct more villainy. And that’s being a little generous, because one of those villains isn’t even a villain anymore (The Winter Solider), one of them is almost certainly dying next year (Crossbones), and one of them is never getting used again (Justin Hammer).
The MCU currently only has two truly compelling villains, in my mind: Loki and Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin.
You could try and say that these characters are so compelling because the actors portraying them are so good at their craft, and that’s partly true. Tom Hiddleston and Vincent D’Onofrio absolutely nail their characters, and their portrayals are both examples of the kind of great acting often unnoticed in the superhero genre. But I’ll tell you what: these characters are more than just the actors that play them. Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Ben Kingsley, Lee Pace, William Hurt, and Hugo Weaving are all excellent actors, and each of their villains fall flat.
Loki and the Kingpin break the mold set by other villains in the MCU because they have depth. Loki has clear motivations, and we’re given a good understanding of why it is he’s the villain. Kingpin’s so compelling he damn near steals the focus of Daredevil away from the title character. Kingpin is the villain who thinks he’s the hero, and those villains are the most compelling of all to me. There’s a scene in the season finale where Kingpin realizes he actually is the villain of the story, and it’s one of the greatest scenes in the entire MCU. I’ve embedded it below:
If you want to make the argument that Kingpin shouldn’t count because he’s given thirteen hours to be fleshed out as opposed to two hours, I won’t disagree with you. He definitely has that advantage, and I think a larger argument could be made about how superheros lend themselves to the medium of serialized television more than they do movies. However, I’ll also say this: Loki is introduced in Thor, and by the end of the film, he’s a fully fleshed out character. Looking outside of the MCU, X-Men: First Class gives a truly compelling Magneto, without sacrificing the development of Charles, Raven, or Hank. When Magneto kills Shaw and turns those missiles back at the humans, you’re never questioning just why the fuck he’s doing it–the movie has made it clear this is who he is, and you’ve known the whole movie it had to end this way. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 gives depth to Dr. Octopus and fleshes out our hero further, all in one movie. So, again, does Kingpin’s screen time definitely affect how much more character development he receives than his villainous peers in the MCU? Yes. But I don’t think that means we discredit the criticism of their lack of depth altogether. Other films have managed to pull it off.
I’ve read a lot that people think the Winter Solider is one of Marvel’s best villains, and I’ve always had some trouble with that opinion. It’s clear the Winter Soldier is an antagonist to Cap, but after the Bucky reveal and the brain washing mumbo jumbo it’s really hard to view him as the “villain”. I can see how some would disagree, and you’re entitled to that opinion, certainly. But for me, the Winter Soldier was never anything more than Bucky acting misguided for an hour and a half or so.
So why does Darren Cross work as a villain? For me, this is where the smaller scale of the movie comes into play. Cross wants to get over on his former mentor, Hank Pym. If he gets rich doing it, that’s great. If he becomes the most powerful man in the world? Sure, he’ll take it. But not because those were his goals, but because they further his goals of revenge on Pym. His money and his power serve as gloating mechanisms against Pym. Cross is dangerous, because his threat level is immediate and, to my mind, attainable. When he’s got that gun to Hank’s head near the end of the movie, I genuinely felt like Hank Pym might die. (Note: Death in the MCU? Yeah right! We’ll talk about that later, though.)
I think that the rest of the Marvel movies could learn from Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross. We have a clear sense of motivation, a threatening presence, and the sense that he could actually do some damage. It’s hard to care about Malekith destroying the world when we know there’s no way the world gets destroyed. Ultron’s not destroying the world. Red Skull is not destroying the world, etc, etc. Yellowjacket comes in and there are actual stakes: Hank Pym seems disposable (how naive I am), and the idea that HYDRA might get this technology is plausible, too. The world wouldn’t end; instead, a larger threat would be set up for our heroes to deal with.
That’s all I’ve got to say on the subject of the MCU and its mostly lackluster villains. What do you think? Drop a comment, send a tweet, whatever you want. Part Two of this “Ant-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe” series of posts will use Ant-Man as a springboard to discuss diversity in the MCU. Look for it to be up by the end of the weekend!