There was a time when one of the top criticisms the Marvel Cinematic Universe faced was that the films had a “villain problem.” This wasn’t entirely inaccurate, because unlike with well-known heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, the earliest MCU films were about establishing who our long-term protagonists would be, more than establishing who would be their foils.
But as the quality of the offerings have improved, so too has Marvel’s ability to introduce heroes and progress their stories in the projects of others, leaving the films with more real estate to give their antagonists room to flourish. Add in the way that some villains’ stories intertwined with those of the heroes, and that has provided the ingredients for the introduction of villains who leave an impression on audiences even after they’re vanquished. And in a storytelling form that thrives on characters returning and resurfacing, that has been invaluable.
But what if someone were to scour the first 4 phases of the MCU and create a new and formidable villain, stitched together from antagonists past? From which five villains would you take component parts for this unholy union, and which parts would you use? This piece purports to answer that question. Behold, our Villain Frankenstein!
The Commitment of Thanos
For most fans, Thanos is either #1 or #1A on their list of favorite MCU villains. And why wouldn’t he? In Avengers: Infinity War he defeated the Avengers handily while throwing timeless verbal barbs in their direction — not to mention fragments of nearby moons. He humbled the Hulk, victimized the Vision, and laid waste to worlds, all in the name of balancing the universe through the eradication of half its sentient life. So thorough was his victory, and so committed was he to achieve that victory, that audiences couldn’t help but begrudgingly give him respect.
But beyond the respect for how formidable he was, audiences also considered, because of Thanos’ commitment to his vision for the universe, and his willingness to sacrifice and risk everything for it, the possibility that just maybe he had a point. Does the world warrant a biblical-style purge? Indeed, sometimes it feels like it does. Can the idea of killing half of everyone indiscriminately and leaving survivors to make a better universe in its aftermath seem oddly plausible? Yes! So we can understand a villain who takes years, stretched across multiple films, acquiring the MacGuffins and putting the pieces into place, doing so in service of a victory of that scale. That his Snap was ultimately reversed is immaterial; his impact is still being felt. Thanos showed that it was possible for the villain to win, and because it took five years for that win to be overcome, the MCU, and its audience, was forced to marinate in his message.
The Righteousness of Killmonger
Before “Thanos Was Right,” it was Erik “Killmonger” Stevens in Black Panther who articulated a worldview that resonated with audiences, despite being ultimately villainous. Colonization and oppression, particularly at the hands of Europeans, have ravaged the Global Majority, marginalizing them, and creating an underclass throughout the world who need to rise up and achieve liberation by striking back. And in the utopian nation of Wakanda reside the tools that could make this global revolution possible. By sitting back and letting all the horrors be visited on people of color throughout the world by imperial powers, Wakanda abdicated a responsibility that should have been a moral imperative. And if Killmonger led them, the formerly powerless would rise up worldwide and become a new power, a new empire, that would strike fear in the hearts of any that opposed them.
Yes, of course, that goes too far. But up until the point that it goes too far, we find ourselves nodding our heads in condemnation for the “comfortable” who sit idly by while others are oppressed. We admire the fact that a young boy left orphaned in an Oakland housing project was able to mold himself into a fierce fighter, a tactical genius, and an engineering wunderkind, with nary a Bat insignia to speak of. Instead, he wears on his body the scars of all the killing he had to do to put himself on the Wakandan throne — even the killing of his own people. And he scoffs at the fact that Wakandans debate intervention while innocents suffer and die in the imperial yoke. It’s a message that continues to resonate today, as the masses cry out for someone who will do whatever is necessary to defeat tyranny, including getting their hands dirty.
In our hearts, we know that Erik honed himself into something sharp and hard because his world wouldn’t let him be anything different, and when he does die in Black Panther, it’s tragic. But we also know that there are billions subjected to that same world, many making similar choices, because sharp and hard is what makes survival more likely than not. So villain or no, there’s something to the idea of the Wakandan spear that strikes at the heart of the powers that be in order to liberate the powerless. At times, we wanted to believe Killmonger could be that spear of righteousness, and it’s an epic villain whose cause is so sympathetic that you almost want to take it up alongside them.
The Resources of Wenwu
The Ten Rings organization was introduced to fans in the very first MCU movie, Iron Man as a shadowy terrorist network, yet we learn years later in Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings that their roots stretch back millennia, and their origins lie in ten mystical artifacts of immense power, wielded by Xu Wenwu. With these Rings, Wenwu is able to take down kingdoms and annihilate armies singlehandedly and is granted near-immortality, inspiring the devoted and fanatical following which provides the foundation for his international criminal empire.
In the Ten Rings, Wenwu established a clandestine organization with the resources to rival Hydra, which for the most part had been able to prosper despite the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D., the emergence of the Avengers, and the rampage of the Ronin. And his identity as the head of the organization was secret enough that an actor could be installed as a figurehead with no one in law enforcement having a clue.
Although by the end of Shang-Chi, leadership of the Ten Rings organization has passed from Wenwu to his daughter Xu Xialing, and custody of the Rings themselves has passed to his son Shang-Chi, it should not be forgotten that for thousands of years, this martial arts master and criminal mastermind possessed ten of Earth’s most powerful weapons, and had an army of operatives at his disposal all over the world. It’s certainly disappointing that we mostly got to see the fall of Wenwu, rather than his rise and reign. But the glimpses we did see were of a formidable man who built an empire that was not to be trifled with. And there is a certain irony to the fact that his other defining characteristic, family man — exemplified by his desire to see his children extend his legacy — ended up being fulfilled in his death. He was a cruel and overbearing dad, and yet, he still managed to get his way. How villainous is that?
The Sex Appeal of Hela
Does a great villain have to be sexy? Of course not. However, great villains are often charismatic, confident, graceful, and lithe, and there’s something sensually appealing about a character who is uninhibited and unabashedly bad. From the moment she first steps out of the portal in Thor: Ragnarok like some kind of goth goddess, Hela was capable of stealing the spotlight from both the hunky and handsome Thor and the devilishly charming Loki, chewing scenery, smashing Mjolnir, and establishing her dominance. She laid waste to Asgard and looked fabulous doing it. Whether you’re male or female, a villain who can make you swoon, despite knowing that their intentions are far from pure…well, let’s just say that Tumblr exists for a reason.
The MCU was reluctant to have female villains for a long time, and I suspect part of the issue was presenting an antagonist who could convincingly present a physical threat to male heroes. Well in the Goddess of Death, Taika Waititi was able to give us all of that, as Hela stepped on the necks of every male character and dared them to beg for more. When she instructs them to take to their knees and submit to her will, we as an audience are kind of hoping she gets to do her worst. Every moment she strokes her hair, tilts her head back, and unleashes her thorny antlers becomes instantly iconic because she’s about to do Very Bad Things that we can’t wait to see.
There have been a lot of formidable villains in the MCU, but none other than Hela have served such looks while also serving up so much death and destruction. This goddess deserves her spot in the pantheon.
The Gravitas of the Kingpin
Wilson Fisk’s physical stature certainly looms large, and so does his influence. Whether he’s the Big Bad of Daredevil willing to bash a head in for embarrassing him in front of Vanessa, or on Hawkeye tearing a car door off the hinges, the unbridled rage of the Kingpin is intimidating. However, even more intimidating is his soft-spoken, measured approach to getting his point across the other 90% of the time. As portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio, Wilson Fisk is a man capable of conveying menace in an anecdote, inspiring fear in even the pauses between his words. You cross him at your peril, and Fisk speaks like a man who knows that, and most importantly, knows that you know it.
Kingpin is a villain that commands both our attention and our respect, even though he isn’t the most charismatic in his oratory. He isn’t going to drop a smooth one-liner or dazzle us with his charm. He is, however, going to be riveting in his determined and deliberate delivery of a dramatic monologue. And monologues are a great villain’s stock in trade.
Villainy is a complex stew. There’s not an exact formula that can be relied upon to create a timeless villain. But if you were trying to create a blueprint, so that you could build an elite supervillain in a lab, this would be a great starting point. We’ve got some great villains coming down the pipeline in the months and years ahead. Let’s see how they measure up.