How Phase 3 fixed Marvel's cinematic villain problem

Contributed by
Mar 8, 2018

Going into its fourth weekend in theaters, people still can't stop talking about Black Panther, with the antagonist Killmonger leading a lot of the discussion.

Michael B. Jordan's antagonist succeeds for several reasons. He is presented as the hero of his own story rather than the villain of T'Challa's, with the opening monologue detailing the history of Wakanda being narrated by Killmonger's father N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) to him as a young boy. His plan is methodical, and as a viewer you find yourself siding with his logic on more than one occasion. But most importantly, Killmonger ultimately changes T'Challa as a character and his views on being a ruler.

For many, Eric Killmonger is a breath of fresh air compared to what Marvel usually tries to pass as a villain. In the past, Marvel has taken incredible talent like Lee Pace and Christopher Eccleston and completely wasted them on characters such as Ronin (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Malekith (Thor: The Dark World), respectively. To add insult to injury, these villains are actually thought provoking and complex in the comics.

To herald Killmonger as the only good Marvel villain, however, is disingenuous. Black Panther actually caps off Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with great villains. Killmonger is arguably the most well-written of the bunch, but every single other nemesis has acted as a narrative stepping stone to his success. Let's go through them one by one.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Colonel Helmet Zemo in Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Whilst the merits of Avengers: Age of Ultron are up for debate, one its accomplishments is the fallout from the events of the film. The team facing off against the titular villain in Sokovia laid the groundwork for Captain America: Civil War (aka Avengers 2.5). The world saw first hand the wrath wrought by a cataclysmic A.I. invented by everyone's favorite hero, Tony Stark. The team was sitting on tinder, and the man to light the spark was Helmet Zemo (Daniel Bruhl).

In the comics, Zemo was actually the son a Nazi/Hydra scientist that clashed with Captain America during World War II. He is perhaps most well known for having a purple mask permanently affixed to his face, which is just one of the many things the cinematic version did away with. Zemo in the film is the definition of grounded: literally on the ground in Sokovia looking up at the sky as gods and monsters did battle as his people, and most importantly his family, suffered. Zemo, using his extensive military and espionage expertise, manipulates events to cause a rift in the Avengers, specifically with Tony and Steve Rogers.

Even when it seems like the pair has come to a mutual agreement in the third act of the film, and think they've cornered Zemo, the most incredible twist occurs. Zemo was attempting to get into the hidden Soviet base not to recruit the squad of 2.0 Winter Soldiers, but to eliminate them. He says so perfectly himself: "Why would I want more of you?" to Tony and Steve. This is followed by the icing on the cake, something we had been teased in the second Cap film, but was now made expressly clear to both the audience and the characters: Bucky killed Tony's parents, and Steve knew about it.

The brilliance of Zemo is how little actual involvement and interaction he has with the characters. He simply sits on the sidelines, tipping the scales in his favor, and watches as the heroes do the bulk of the damage. Steve and co. aren't even aware of his existence until the end of the second act, with him being literally untouchable as he's confronted with an impenetrable glass shield protecting him. The only hero to actually interact with him is T'Challa, whom is also the only hero to let go of his anger in favor of the greater good. Black Panther finds Zemo outside, listening to a voicemail from his deceased wife we now realize isn't a recent message but one he listens to on repeat to fuel his vengeance.

"I realized I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other..." Whilst Zemo is ultimately detained, his plot has a lasting impact on the team, which is still unresolved to this day. It'll be interesting to see how Tony and Steve unite in Infinity War after so much damage was dealt to their relationship in Civil War.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Kaecilius in Doctor Strange (2016)

Mads Mikkelsen, the critically lauded Danish actor, was originally booked to play Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, but scheduling conflicts with Hannibal forced him to drop the project. And thank God, as he escaped the doom of playing a truly forgettable villain to becoming a sincerely great one.

Kaecilius is a sorcerer of Kamar-Taj who discovers his master the Ancient One has utilized the dark magic of Dormammu to selfishly grant herself everlasting life. He leaves the order, along with his disciples, to harness the forbidden power himself in hopes of gifting the world with immortality. Whilst on the face of it his plan might seem to be misguided, his emotionally eloquent mid-movie monologue explaining his thought process gives viewers a reason to pause and think.

"People think in terms of good and evil, but really, time is the true enemy of us all. Time kills everything. The world is not what it ought to be. Humanity longs for the eternal; for a world beyond time, because time is what enslaves us. Time is an insult. Death is an insult. We don't seek to rule this world. We seek to save it; to hand it to Dormammu who is the intent of all evolution, the why of all existence."

It's hinted earlier in the film that Kaecilius sought to study under the Ancient One when his family met an untimely demise. For you to discover that there was a power that might have saved your family, and that your tutor was hiding it whilst simultaneously harvesting it, might turn you into a zealot as well. The excellent dialogue combined with Mads' powerful performance makes for an excellent villain.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The biggest question from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film was who was Peter Quill's dad? In the comics, he is J'Son: the ruler of the Spartax Empire. Instead of opening that can of worms, James Gunn decided to make Star-Lord's father another character in the Marvel Universe: Ego, the Living Planet. Portrayed by the ever-charming Kurt Russell, Ego is a celestial and the embodiment of his namesake.

He was a god with a god complex that since the dawn of creation sought out other forms of life to combat his loneliness. What he discovered, however, utterly bored him — mortal creatures didn't live up to his standards of existence. To him, life was better if it became him. In order to absorb other worlds, he traveled across the galaxy, planting pieces of himself on every planet he visited. This is how he came to Earth, and this is how he met Peter's mother Meredith.

Some mind-blowing twists are dropped in the second act of the film. Firstly, Ego didn't just procreate with Meredith, but with a whole host of aliens. He alone wasn't strong enough to power what he called "the Expansion", and therefore hoped to bare offspring that could help him shoulder the load. He murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of his own progeny in his attempt to achieve his desires, with Gamora and Nebula stumbling across the graveyard of remains that lies under his planet's surface.

When Ego discovers Peter is the only one of his children to carry his celestial abilities, he has hopes that the two of them can carry out the Expansion together. It isn't until it's revealed with the second twist, that Ego gave Meredith cancer since he deemed her a distraction to his cause, that Peter turns on his father. At this point, Ego venomously declares "I wanted to do this together... but I suppose you'll have to learn by spending the next thousand years as a battery!"

Ego's maniacal plot is certainly one of the more outlandish ones, but it's one that carried weight due to his personal connection with Peter. Peter looked up to his father as some kind of god, telling the other kids in school that his dad was David Hasselhoff. Well, it turns out his father was actually a deity of sorts (didn't drive a talking car, but still) and with that came a whole host of messed up thought processes. Kurt Russell's charisma blends beautifully with his ultimately monstrous turn at the end of the film, with the movie taking a ludicrous comic book character and turning him into a real villain. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives the tired absent father storyline a unique, cosmic spin that felt worthy of its set up.

Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

The Vulture is a villain that has been attempted once before on the big screen with Sam Raimi's ill-fated, never-made Spider-Man 4. It was looking as if the actor John Malkovich was lining up to don the wing suit with Anne Hathaway potentially playing Felicia Hardy, but instead of being the Black Cat, serving as an evil sidekick known as the Vulturess... for some reason? Maybe it's fortunate Sony rebooted the franchise rather than continue it, as I'm fairly confident the Vulture we did get in Homecoming is better than what Raimi had in store.

Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is a blue-collar worker whose company is initially tasked with helping clean up the Battle of New York. When the government, with the assistance of Tony Stark, shuts down Toomes' operation in favor of a new Department of Damage Control, Adrian spends the proceeding years creating tech out of the alien weaponry they found. His crew, which once thought it was down on their luck, now has a lucrative business in stealing and selling weapons. All Toomes wanted to do was make an honest living, but when Iron Man made that impossible, he got inventive. What's brilliant about this narrative is that his team has been running their operation for years without incident or injury. It isn't until Spider-Man gets involved that the villainy came to fruition.

To make matters worse, Toomes is the father of Peter Parker's high school crush, Liz. There are enough seeds planted throughout the story for this to make sense, and it justifies his motivations even further. He wanted to provide for his family, and in a world that has continuously taken away chances at doing so, he planted his feet firmly on the ground (or wings in the sky, if you will) and made a clear decision: it's us vs them.

At the end of an unbelievably tense scene, in which Toomes slowly realizes Peter is the one that's been getting in his way as Spider-Man, he has this to say: "Don't interfere with my business again, because if you do, I'll kill you and everybody you love. I'll kill you dead. That's what I'll do to protect my family, Pete. You understand?" Michael Keaton works so well in the role because he simply looks and acts like a dad, one that at the drop of a hat can turn from kind and loving to fiercely dominant. Homecoming was a film about returning to the "friendly neighborhood" and came with a villain that fit that mold.

Credit: Marvel Studios

Hela the Goddess of Death in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

After 17 films, it was past due that Marvel got itself a villainess, and Cate Blanchett's Hela was a great effort. Though the movie spends most of its creative energy with Thor and Hulk on Sakaar, this transcendent actress gave 110 percent to the role.

Hela is the long-lost sibling of Thor and Loki and the eldest of Odin's children. Millenia before the movie, she served as Odin's right hand as Asgard expanded its empire. When Hela's strength and ambition grew beyond Odin's control, he banished her and decided to cover up the sordid history of his people. In the film, a mural depicting the warmongering ways of Asgard is literally covered up by a tapestry that paints a more diplomatic history.

"Look at these lies! Goblets and garden parties? Peace treaties? Odin. Proud to have it... shamed of how he got it!" Hela declares to Skurge as she tears down the ceiling. Hela in a sense is an amalgamation of the previous four villains. She yearns for vengeance like Zemo, she wishes to bring prosperity to her people like Kaecilius, she believes her cause to be just and above reproach like Ego, and she will do anything to keep her legacy alive like Toomes.

Her narrative arc is fitting with the entire Thor trilogy, which largely deals with the fallout of Odin's mistakes and hubris. The way she moves and handles herself is unlike anything we've seen in a Marvel villain, aided by her femininity, and it seems as if her touch is enough to kill you. Fitting for the Goddess of Death.

All of these great villains, including Killmonger, are fitting rungs of a ladder that leads to the MCU's big bad: Thanos. We don't have to wait much longer to find out if Josh Brolin's cosmic tyrant can live up to this legacy of antagonists with Avengers: Infinity War dropping on April 27.