For all its successes, there’s always been one stick we could beat the Marvel Cinematic Universe with – the baddies were just no good.
As any James Bond fan knows, in some ways action-adventure movies are only as good as their dastardly villains, and for years Marvel has struggled to find adversaries for our heroes that register with audiences. The series peaked with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the first Thor and Avengers films – but what have we had since?
Ronan. Malekith the Accursed. Yellowjacket. Kaecilius. Ultron. Iron Monger. Whiplash. Zemo. The Mandarin (Guy Pearce version – I actually quite liked Ben Kingsley’s take, though he doesn’t count as he wasn’t actually a villain).
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None of them have exactly electrified audiences in the way that Marvel might have hoped, with similar accusations levelled against each of them. They were boring, transparent, too similar to the hero (a large proportion of Marvel films feature the hero battling someone with the exact some superpowers as them), their motives unclear beyond basically “being evil” and, fundamentally, we didn’t care about them.
Still, we didn’t mind too much – the films were, on the whole, still great fun, and it was endearing for the world-beating Marvel franchise to have a weakness.
But now something’s changing. Just the other day, I looked back on the last few Marvel films and realised all the villains were….quite good. Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture was played with chilling menace by Michael Keaton, while still locating the ruthless Toomes’ humanity. Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela, while a little underused, was gloriously camp, deliciously evil and constant fun to watch onscreen (as well as being Marvel’s first female villain). Kurt Russell’s Ego: The Living Planet, meanwhile, brought a truly monstrous foe to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise that cut to the heart of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord.
And then there’s Killmonger, who audiences can see in Black Panther from early next week. Michael B. Jordan stars as the mysterious mercenary in Marvel’s latest release, and there’s been an incredible amount of (completely justified) buzz around his performance. Killmonger is a livewire, an unpredictable foe whose motives are so threatening to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) because he’s only a hair away from being completely in the right.
It’s an incredibly arresting, muscular performance (literally and figuratively) from Jordan, to the extent that you forgive some of the usual criticisms – the final battle does see him fight T’Challa in a nearly identical Panther suit of his own – and see why people are already saying he’s the best Marvel bad guy since Loki (which they were also saying about Hela a couple of months back, but hey – there’s always a new benchmark).
So has Marvel’s bad-guy curse finally been broken? Will all our heroes now have nemeses worth their salt? Are we in for a new golden age of dastardly scum and devious villainy?
Well, only time will tell. Personally, I’m a little nervous that Josh Brolin’s Thanos won’t live up to his six years of build-up when he finally turns up in Avengers: Infinity War, especially after Marvel seem to have redesigned him to look like Ribena Ron Perlman.
As for Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Ghost, well, it’s always a little dicey when another person’s foe (in the comics, Ghost was an Iron Man baddie) is parachuted into a different hero’s story, even if the casting – changing the male hacker into a character played by Black Mirror’s Hannah John-Kamen – adds an interesting twist to the little-known comic-book version.
But even if there isn’t a new master of disaster to follow in Killmonger’s footsteps, it’s nice to see Marvel break their losing streak in the area of underwhelming antagonists. Maybe they’re finally learning how to be good at being bad.
Black Panther is released in UK cinemas from Tuesday 13th February