“When was a kid, I wanted to be a Batman villain when I grew up.”
– Jello Biafra
By now you’ve probably heard about Marvel’s villain problem. After 12 movies and counting, Marvel studios has, despite its outrageous critical and commercial success, been pilloried across the internet for its perceived failure to establish more than one villain as compelling as recent favorites like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellan’s Magneto, or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus.
It’s worth noting that this “villain problem” isn’t a result of a lack of acting talent—after all, Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley have nice statues of a little golden bald man sitting somewhere in their homes, to name just two. And somehow, the movies have succeeded in spite of this supposed problem, or perhaps in part because of it. With Captain America: Civil War seemingly abandoning villains entirely and letting the heroes beat up on one another, it’s time to reexamine Marvel’s villain problem. Why does Marvel Studios not consider their villains important enough to develop, and what does this say about the story they’re telling?
Good villains are a staple of the superhero genre. A villain is in many ways the measuring stick by which the hero is defined—the greater the trial the hero has to undergo, the greater the hero themself is.
Similarly, the traditional villain challenges and opposes their corresponding hero not only physically, but symbolically. Dr. Doom, when not resembling the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, is egotism personified. He’s opposed by the Fantastic Four, who represent family, and their conflicts generally play out in a similarly symbolic manner: in order to defeat Doom, the FF are forced to utilize the discordant love that makes them a family. Spider-Man represents a regular person with a (relatively) small amount of power who goes to great lengths to use it responsibly; the Green Goblin has a tremendous amount of power and is completely irresponsible with it.
The danger, however, is that in developing compelling and charismatic villains, those of us in the audience are invited to sympathize with the villains over the heroes. After watching The Dark Knight Rises, one of my best friends related so much to Bane’s deep love and loyalty towards Talia that he became her favorite character—certainly more relatable than the self-important, bourgeois Bruce Wayne. And punk legend Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys confides on his bio that, when he was a child, he wanted to grow up to be a Batman villain, not Batman himself.
For a multimedia company like Marvel, letting their fans identify with the villains is a bad thing. Villains are expected to lose, their toys don’t sell nearly as well, and they’re rarely spun off into their own movies, shows, and video games. So instead of developing villains, Marvel seems to be populating its universe with more and more and more heroes. The classic ideological conflicts between hero and villain pay out between hero and hero instead. Captain America’s toughest physical and ideological test isn’t the Red Skull or Ultron, but Tony Stark.
It’s a sort of Disney Princess strategy—just like young girls are encouraged to imprint on and identify with their favorite princess, Marvel fans are presented with a bevy of heroes and encouraged to pick their favorite. On the plus side, this gives us a (slightly) more diverse range of who can be considered a hero—both in terms of race and gender and in terms of personality, priorities, background, and motivations. That friend of mine who went nuts for Bane? Her favorite MCU character is the Hulk. She’s also a formerly homeless genderqueer gutter punk, and it’s not often she gets to see herself as the good guy.
A story with all heroes and no villains makes a novel statement about our world: that we all have good intentions, despite our differences. It says that good is not only more powerful than evil but far more common. This is nothing new from Marvel, either—the Fantastic Four took shots at one another before they ever fought Doctor Doom, and the classic Marvel team-up formula sees two heroes punching each other for 10 pages before resolving their differences and uniting against a common threat. It’s a story structure that can teach us to practice empathy, to look for the good in others, and trust each others’ intentions—whether they’re an alcoholic supergenius, a morally inflexible soldier, a duplicitous spy, or they occasionally transform into a giant green monster.
But I think we lose something important when we miss out on the villains, too. Heroes, though they quarrel, never truly oppose one another. Eventually, they’ll always team back up and join forces to save the day. But sometimes the world needs real opposition. To take the example of Jello Biafra, his biting lyrics were truly aimed at destroying the hypocrisy, viciousness, and elitism of 1980s America. Even beyond cyberpunk, I consider Jello the strongest, most prophetic dystopian of his moment—the only mind demented enough to imagine that Reaganomics might survive for another 30+ years and counting, and what horror it might inflict on the world. No amount of understanding and common-good moralizing can give his art that neoliberal wash back into heroism, either. He’s a threat, a villain, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Steve Stormoen is a writer/community organizer/publisher/punk. He writes The Pros, a comic about insurance spies and dick guns. Issue #2 coming soon on http://moreweight.net !