Why aren’t Marvel villains more memorable?

by Michael Cavna

Why don’t most of Marvel Studios’ villains make much of an impression?

It really is quite striking: Besides Thor’s brother, Loki, most of the studio’s cinematic baddies don’t rise to the memorable epic levels of those from DC (Joker, Bane, Lex 1.0 or Zod) or Sony (Doc Ock or Green Goblin) or Fox (Magneto, most gloriously).

Hugo Weaving makes an early strong impression as the Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and Robert Redford has a certain gravitas in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and yet neither elevates to the top tier of film villains.

Still, we had high hopes last week for Mads Mikkelsen in the new “Doctor Strange.” He has shined as Hannibal Lecter, after all, as well as Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.” The man can do intelligent menace with the best of them.

Yet though “Doctor Strange” is a visually arresting film that has several strong performances, Mikkelsen’s gifts go untapped. He plays Kaecilius, a rogue disciple with Dark Dimension dreams and glam-rock eyes – yet except for one scene, the villain gets too little chance to grandstand through dialogue.

That applies to so many Marvel Studios movies, where on some occasions, the nominative “villain” is even just a mind-controlled good guy, such as Bucky Barnes in the Captain America films, and Hawkeye in “The Avengers.”

Just what is going on here? It’s not as if the Marvel comic books can’t rival DC with a rich catalogue of sociopaths, sickos and evil masterminds.

Well, going back through the past eight years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we find one constant: Besides Loki, Marvel films under guiding executive Kevin Feige rarely let their villains chew scenery.

Sure, an Ultron (from the second Avengers film) can go broad, and yes, a Whiplash (“Iron Man 2”) can get a bit silly. But Marvel villains typically aren’t cinematically bad, either; they are generally safe, and middle of the road. They frequently seem to be there foremost as narrative functionaries, which works fine because Marvel’s heroes are so often so brilliant.

Scenery chewing, after all, can backfire big-time. For every memorable villain, other studios risk producing a Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Batman & Robin”) or a highly uneven Lex the Younger (“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), a Bullseye (“Daredevil”) or Two-Face (“Batman Forever”). Such performances distract to the point of becoming major drawbacks.

Marvel, by contrast, often bets heavy on top actors to carry the heroism – with charisma and chemistry to spare. The heavies need not do the heavy lifting.

Still, we hold out hope for a great Marvel Studios villain – and put our promise in Thanos. The Jim Starlin-created Mad Titan has been seen, in a scaled-back role, in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” of course, and glimpsed in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” mid-credit moment.

Come 2018, Josh Brolin’s Thanos should take center stage in “Avengers: Infinity War,” followed by its sequel a year later.

And if the Russo brothers decide to let Thanos chew scenery with a Galactus-like appetite, the results could prove memorable. Because sometimes we want more than by-the-book from our comic-book bad guys.

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