A frequent complaint leveled against superhero movies is that the villains are bad. It’s a complaint lobbed at Marvel so often they have a widely acknowledged villain problem, but if we’re being honest DC hasn’t launched a good movie villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. The default state of villains as characters in superhero movies is “bad,” but the villain problem is not really about characterization, it’s that within a superhero narrative, villains are stupid and designed to lose, and their almost superfluous nature within a superhero movie goes against decades of action movie language that dictates the villain drive the conflict within the story. But in a superhero movie, villains are just window dressing for the hero’s drama.
Superhero movies share a lot of similarities with action movies and frequently riff on sci-fi and fantasy, as well as touching on other genres, like political thrillers. But “superhero” is a genre unto itself, and it’s essentially an extension of classical mythology. In mythology, villains come in two flavors: big scary monsters and antiheroes. The minotaur, the hydra, Scylla and Charybdis—just big scary monsters. Then there are figures like Ares and Hera, or Loki and the international cavalcade of trickster-gods, who have more depth and humanity as they’re meant to represent the conflicting nature of the people listening to these stories around the campfire.
But for the most part, a villain is just a big scary monster that takes a little effort to defeat. All you need is to understand the villain’s motivation. They’re not required to be complex characters, because that’s not their purpose in the narrative. As in a myth, in a superhero movie the heroes themselves are the source of drama and the creators of conflict. It’s the heroes’ own flaws and mistakes that drive the narrative. The villain is just there to provide shape to the story, to give the hero a challenge—a quest. Because just like a classical hero like Odysseus, a superhero is defined by his or her quest.
As Riley Silverman aptly notes, by giving villains such as The Vulture and Zemo relatively simple, personal motivations, Marvel movies have gotten sharper and stronger narratively. Personalized stakes make for smaller, more manageable stories, which gives a better shape to the hero’s quest, providing a clearer, more concise outline for their goal. Consider Heath Ledger’s Joker, one of the all-time best villains. He’s a very simple character, underneath Ledger’s wild performance, with no proper backstory and no motivation beyond “create chaos.” But that single-minded determination gives Bruce Wayne/Batman a clear and definite goal of stopping the Joker. The Dark Knight is so memorable because the story—Batman’s quest—is simple, so every element can drive toward that singular narrative goal.
There is that other category, though, the antiheroes, the bad guys who get more screen time and stick around for several movies. Magneto, Loki, Catwoman—these characters get treated the same as the heroes and are given backstories and motivation to rival their heroic foes. (One of the disappointments of Wonder Woman is botching the chance to develop Ares into the sort of antihero he is in classical Greek mythology.) Antiheroes can be villainous, but it’s important to note that they are not interchangeable with villains. A villain is just one of mythology’s monsters, there to be big and scary and defeated at the end. If their motivation can be tied back to the hero in some personal way, great, it makes the story stronger, but it isn’t strictly necessary.
An antihero, however, is a mirror. Loki is Thor, if Thor clings to his pride and entitlement. Magneto is Professor X, if the professor gives up on his own humanity. Catwoman could be a hero like Bruce Wayne, but for her selfish streak. Antiheroes highlight the flaws and shortcomings of heroes, and provide for longer-form storytelling in which a hero is continually pushed to be better. That makes them an important part of mythology because they challenge the gods to examine their own motivations and power structures. In Norse mythology, Loki takes the gods to task, warning the human audience of such tales against corruption and vice. And almost all of Hera’s stories boil down to: Don’t be an ass to your wife, she has to put up with you and should be respected.
The villain problem in superhero movies is partly expecting something out of the archetype the story doesn’t actually require, but mostly it’s a failure of the narrative. A bad villain in a superhero movie means the storytelling itself isn’t working. The bar for creating a good villain could not be lower—just define why they’re up to no good, and put them in the hero’s way. But if the story fails to clear that most basic of hurdles, then the whole movie is going to feel off, and since the failure is in the conflict, it’s going to be pinned on the villain. Take Ant-Man, in which the narrative works very hard to put hero Scott Lang into conflict with villain Darren Cross, and can’t manage it without the machinations of numerous third parties. Hope Van Dyne, however, is immediately in conflict with Cross over her father’s legacy, and is therefore the hero better suited to fight him. The villain problem in Ant-Man is not that Cross is just a bad guy in a business suit, it’s that he’s fighting the wrong hero.
Superhero stories are stories of gods and monsters, and what happens, for better or worse, when gods meddle in the world of men. Villains are just there to serve as obstacles for the hero on his or her way to their next personal crisis. A charismatic actor can make a villain memorable, a defined motivation can make them effective, but nothing in the world will stop them from being stupid and designed to lose. They’re always going to do some dumb shit thing in the third act, giving the hero the opening they need to win the day, and a villain is never going to walk away from the fight. (Unless your name is Helmut Zemo, in which case, hello archnemesis and another essay for another day.) The “villain problem” isn’t really about the villains, it’s about the stories, and whether or not they’re working. Villains just make a great litmus test.