The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a whole lot of right over its almost 8-year run in Hollywood. It proved the earning potential for the superhero genre, spurred a lively competition with DC/Warner, and gave us some of the most entertaining sci-fi/fantasy of the last decade. But one thing the MCU has yet to provide us with in spades: quality villains. You could make the argument that a superhero movie is only as good as its big bad. The Dark Knight was driven by the Joker. The highlight of The Avengers was Loki. It’s not hard to see that a well-rounded adversary for our heroes is what truly makes the movie.
So why hasn’t Marvel been able to give us a villain on par with Loki since he first appeared in Thor? The studio’s revolving door of sub-par baddies has given us offerings like Whiplash (Iron Man 2), the Mandarin (Iron Man 3), Malekith (Thor: The Dark World), and for the latest Avengers movie, Ultron. None of them quite measured up, and few (if any) are worthy of a repeat appearance in the MCU. But because this problem hasn’t hurt Marvel’s bottom line, it’s largely gone unaddressed … until now.
As disappointing as the studio’s recent movie villains have been, Marvel’s managed to find a modicum of redemption with its fledgling Netflix empire. It began just this year with Daredevil, the noir-esque series showing off Vincent D’Onofrio as the iconic Kingpin, Wilson Fisk. D’Onofrio’s chilling performance stole the spotlight for the better part of Daredevil‘s debut season and put the character in an elite class of on-screen Marvel villains over just a few episodes.
Daredevil‘s stellar first season was successful for a number of reasons, and Wilson Fisk is at the top of the list. A truly great villain makes us question our definition of good and evil, and Fisk used every second of his screen-time to do just that. By the time we see the Kingpin vanquished by our hero, we feel a sense of pity and sympathy for him, having seen his brutal upbringing, as well as his try at romance with the woman he loved. He was well-rounded, intriguing, and just multi-faceted enough to almost have us rooting for him in the end.
Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones offered a similarly intriguing villain with Zebediah Killgrave, played by David Tennant. In the series, we see the immediate effect Killgrave has on our hero, as well as the havoc he wreaks on her life. Here we see a big bad not as concerned with taking over the world as he is with making the life of Jessica Jones miserable, which in and of itself is an intriguingly sinister motivation. Between this and Daredevil, it’s obvious that Marvel’s villain problem may very well have found its solution in an unlikely place in the world of streaming.
Why has Netflix managed to be the best venue for entertaining bad guys? Good writing and talented creative minds certainly play a role, but there’s something to really be said for the ability to flesh out a villain over 10-plus episodes instead of a much briefer two-hour film. Where Marvel’s movies have struggled, its streaming series have flourished, and we see no reason why that won’t continue on with Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. If Daredevil and Jessica Jones are any indicator, it’s clear the best villains in the MCU exist on Netflix.
Updates by Nathanael Arnold
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