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Comic books are generally focused on the good guys saving the day, especially in the superhero genre, but that altruism is only as interesting as the villains trying to destroy things. Marvel Comics has been delivering indelible baddies for decades upon decades, and it’s only been in the past eight years or so that those villains have been given a serious shot at winning over audiences in the live-action realm. But that’s more than enough time for everyone in their right mind to come to the conclusion that the TV side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing far better in the villain department than the film side.
I’ll wait for all the screaming to stop.
This burgeoning opinion was only strengthened this past weekend during binge-viewings of Netflix’s latest series Jessica Jones, which introduced the world at large to Kilgrave (or Kevin, if you’re his mum and dad), the mind-controlling sociopath played with personality to spare by David Tennant. I didn’t think this series could possibly offer up a nemesis more captivating and domineering than Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk, but Kilgrave was the threat that kept on threatening, and easily stands above the majority of Marvel’s big screen foes. He’s a morally-bankrupt character that by merely speaking can turn anyone else in the show into a villain, which expands his influence immensely, especially when combined with him looming over Jessica’s thoughts. He’s basically always there, even when Tennant himself is nowhere to be found.
So yes, Jessica Jones has Kilgrave, while Daredevil has the imposing Wilson Fisk, played with sympathetic menace by Vincent D’Onofrio. Like many complex villains, Fisk had a terrible childhood that played a big part in influencing his criminal upbringing, and the show allowed viewers to understand him just as much as Matt Murdock. (Who also didn’t have the best childhood, for those keeping score.) Hell, even Toby Leonard Moore’s Wesley was a standout right hand man, and Scott Glenn was surprisingly solid as Stick, who was barely in the show at all. Then we’ve got The Punisher coming next year as a semi-antagonist, as well as Elektra and whatever other major villain comes into it. No shortage of quality there.
Outside of the Netflix shows, we have Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that doesn’t revolve so heavily around season-long villains, and Agent Carter, which is kind of in the same boat but on a smaller scale. Even if those shows don’t dedicate an overwhelming amount of time to their antagonists, though, we still got characters like Calvin Zabo, someone that Kyle MacLachlan should be able to play in every Marvel project, and John Garrett, the Bill Paxton character that (along with a turn from Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward) played a huge role in turning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s slow-moving first season into must-watch TV. And the Inhumans arc is really starting to pick up, so the rest of Season 3 should be quite exciting.
“But Nick,” you’re saying through clenched teeth while holding me against a wall by my lapel, “what about Loki?” Yeah, of course I know that Loki is a badass, and Tom Hiddleston’s performances as the Norse god are something all future Marvel actors should pay attention to, as he exudes a genial evil that makes viewers not entirely angry when he starts doing awful things. But once you get past Loki, what other movie villains from the MCU are really all that memorable?
As good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes is basically just silent and personality-free as he causes havoc. (Maybe that will change in Civil War, maybe it won’t.) Guardians of the Galaxy is a whole lot of fun, but Ronan the Accuser is boresville without much of a peek into his past to earn him sympathy, and don’t get me started on Thanos the Do-Nothinger. Ultron should have been way better, even knowing how hard it can be to add humanistic elements to an evil robot. Iron Man 3’s Ben Kingsley had personality for days, but the reveal that he wasn’t even the real villain just cheapened things. And I prefer not to even mention Whiplash beyond that.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that TV villains are allowed to become more unforgettable by being offered more time and story for their characters to be developed. Time definitely plays a huge part in getting Fisk and Kilgrave into the upper echelon of enemies, and Loki’s own impact is strengthened by having him appear in multiple movies. But if at least 10 episodes or three movies were needed to make a villain iconic, then there wouldn’t be any iconic villains in cinema. And we all know that’s not the case.
Part of this also plays into the street-level approach to Netflix’s Marvel shows, which keeps the humanity intact regardless of what superpowered folks are walking around and saving things. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter get this right as well, even though the former is getting far more fantastical with its characters and plotting. Still, the villains don’t have to be actual humans in order to keep our interest, but they should envelop different elements of the human experience, such as emotions, morals , empathy and personality. And there is far too little of that happening in the MCU outside of our TVs.
This could always change in the future, as not everything can be as amazing right out of the gate as Netflix's Marvel shows have been. Also, it's entirely possible that the TV side of the MCU will introduce some real clunkers for bad guys in the future. But in the here and now, the pressure is definitely on the movie side of things to play catch up in the nemesis quality department.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the overwhelming urge to start a campaign to get Tennant nominated for all the Emmys next year, and I have to call someone about my computer letting off this purple glow all of a sudden. Let us know if you agree with me or not below, and go watch Jessica Jones.
Which Of Marvel's Villains Do You Prefer?