Last weekend my father’s side of the family went on our 18th annual reunion, and while sitting around the table on the first night I discussed a few movies with my younger cousin. He asked me if I’d liked Infinity War, and I told him I had really loved it. He seemed shocked. “But they didn’t get any stronger,” he explained, speaking of course of The Avengers, Guardians, et. all. I laughed. “That’s not really why I watch those movies,” I said. “I don’t need to see them get stronger.” In fact, the weaknesses they displayed in Infinity War are what made me enjoy the movie so much. But the conversation reminded me of an article I meant to write after Infinity War and put off because I had already written about a zillion Infinity War articles. What makes a good villain for a Marvel movie, or an action movie in general? Because in a lot of ways my cousin isn’t wrong. The movies have taught us to expect some sort of “leveling up” of the heroes. It’s an unsustainable model, and not necessarily good storytelling, but upon reflection it’s definitely been baked into the model so far. And, with my deep fascination of the weird uniqueness of the Marvel phonemonom, I think it’s worth checking out.
Basically, the movies have to present a bigger threat each time, because of… well, because of obvious reasons. If Iron Man has already beat an army of Ultrons throwing a single goon at him in the next movie isn’t going to be believable. It creates a sort of power creep, which Marvel has solved in two ways – either by upping the abilities of the hero so that they can now beat the villain (think Iron Man and Iron Man 3) or upping the number of heroes facing off against the villain (think Iron Man 2). And, as I said before, the villains must respond in kind – either they must grow in number (which has led to the CGI armies I so adamantly despise) or they must somehow grow in skill. It’s an arms race, effectively – hero advances, villain advances, hero, villain, etc.
As I said it’s sort of a deal with the devil – there’s no way to get around it. The larger issue is that Marvel, and I’d say action movies in general, only views “advancement” through a single prism: strength. So my cousin wasn’t wrong to say the heroes didn’t get “stronger” (though, of course they did – Thor and Iron Man both “powered up” and furthermore the film went the “fire power by numbers” route) because the movies have trained us to expect more strength as a measure of progress. It’s a narrow concept of what it means to advance. What about learning about forgiveness? Kindness? Mediation? Knowing your limits? Intelligence? Skepticism? Peace? These would all be some form of “progress” for the heroes, but Marvel only occasionally employs them. Think of Korra, who in her final season must learn that violence doesn’t solve all her issues. That’s never how Marvel movies end. Usually, Iron Man has just built an even better suit.
The problem is particularly egregious with the villains, who seem to have two significant ways of “advancement”: resolve, and physical prowess. Thanos is the end of the line for both of these practices: he is simply physically stronger than any other foe they’ve faced (established quickly in his thrashing of the Hulk) and, as about every single character in the movie articulates, he really really wants to accomplish his goal. But both traits are, in order, boring and pretty dumb. In a series that has the money to create pretty much any power set they want “really strong” is just about the most boring power set you could pick. There are so many better options – one of which is evidenced in the movie itself. Three out of Thanos’ four henchfolk are also just “good at physical fighting”, while one of them appears to be able to warp materials with his mind. Guess which of them has the most interesting action sequences (spoiler: it’s the mind warping dude). Thanos does admittedly become more powerful in more interesting ways as the movie progresses and he gets more gems, but his most important original trait seems to be his physical prowess and the army he commands. Which raises again the question why he didn’t just go do this himself in the first place? Why’d he sit around so long waiting for the others to also get more powerful? (This is, admittedly, more of a peccadillo than a serious issue with the movie).
The second is for me more damning, which is that Thanos cares more and that somehow makes him a larger threat. Does this imply that the other villains simply didn’t want it enough? Loki just didn’t feel strongly enough about invading Earth. Ronan the Accuser wanted to wipe out a planet, but he failed because he only really wanted it, whereas Thanos really really wants it? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s goofy and nonsensical and is, in my opinion, one of the key reasons Marvel villains are so frequently boring. Instead of focusing on what they want and why they want it and giving them a myriad of techniques to achieve it, Marvel gives them some macguffin want and then gives them one way to achieve it: sheer force of will aka sheer force. In the rare instances where Marvel breaks this mold (Loki uses trickery to get his brother to respect him, Zemo uses manipulation to turn the Avengers against each other in order to enact revenge, Killmonger uses politicking to work his way to reforming Wakanda) they end up with some of their only memorable villains. It’s the rare moments that Thanos is presented with moments like this that he shines (sacrificing Gamora, explaining why he feels motivated to do this terrible thing). When he’s punching the Hulk really hard because he really really wants this thing he wants, I could just care less.
It’s a great lesson to blockbusters/action movies in general. It’s why killing Snoke (who wanted something ethereal [“power”] and wanted it with a lot of force) and replacing him with Ren (who is a mix of guilt, pettiness, and desperate yearning for validation from just about anyone) was a smart choice. It’s why the part where Hans Gruber tries to cozy up to John McClane through role playing is so compelling. Making the villains wants more human, and then allowing them to cycle through a variety of techniques to try to achieve those wants makes movies both more personal and dynamic. But Marvel has built expectations to just make people more and more “powerful”, and I don’t know how they can easily break that mold.