By Joe Strange
Age of Ultron is out everywhere now folks! Now that America has finally caught up with us all, the rest of the world can finally talk about all the things we wanted to discuss this time last week.
What? It’s only been a day and I can’t talk spoilers yet? Oh fine.
I’ll just talk about how awesome Ultron is then…
Here’s the thing; Marvel has caught a lot of flak for having less-than-brilliant villains in the past, especially in phase 2: Killian was kind of vanilla in Ironman 3, and we won’t even mention what they chose to do to the Mandarin. In Thor The Dark World Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith was generic as could be, he was just an angry elf with abandonment issues. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the best Marvel films to date, had a really lacklustre villain in Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who acted like a spoilt child with anger management issues, you want to destroy Nova for what reason Ronan? Actually, I don’t care, because this tree can friggin’ talk.
So how does a studio with villains as bland as ‘angry pale leader’ and ‘angry blue leader’ also manage to pull out villains as great and relatable as Loki, or as terrifyingly hilarious as Ultron?
With Loki and Thor, the brothers were two parts of a whole; working off of each other as allies, and turning into enemies as the relationship was strained due to Thor’s rise to power and Loki’s belief that he should have been the true ruler of Asgard. This isn’t a relationship based on hate, as is many in the universe (Killian despises Tony for abandoning him, Malekith hated everything that wasn’t him, I think? He just wanted that ether to… get it into the plot I guess). There is a real relationship here, and when the brothers begin to part there’s not just anger, but a sense of betrayal. You feel connected to Loki, because Thor doesn’t start his journey as that great a guy, he’s arrogant and cocky, but while Loki lusts after power, Thor eventually earns his place, redeeming himself in the eyes of the audience, and while Thor takes the path of redemption, Loki goes off of the deep end. Quite literally.
Of course it helps that Tom Hiddleston is an incredible talent, and that Loki is a great character with whom the writers can do an awful lot with.
Compare this family feud with the Kree-Nova dispute in Guardians of the Galaxy: we don’t see any of this conflict, we’re told about it. We are, however, shown that Ronan is a fundamentalist, and that he’s consorting with the undesirables that we saw in the Avengers. The difference between Thor and Guardians, however, is quite simple; in Thor the main point of conflict in the film was the relationship between the brothers, whereas the entire point of Guardians was to throw this team together, they didn’t need a complex villain, they needed a common enemy, because there was conflict enough within the group.
Ironman 3 was looked upon less than favourably by a lot of people (Not me though, I’ll defend Shane Black till the end of days,) most notably for the mistreatment of one of the most iconic villains in Ironman’s rogues gallery, as well as for the… ‘meh’-ness of Aldrich Killian. Yes, they should have saved The Mandarin for another time, but the real opposing force in Ironman 3 isn’t Killian or the Extremis project, it’s Tony’s coping with his own shortcomings. It’s a film about battling inner demons, which is why a fellow from Tony’s past isn’t that bad a shout to kick off the plot.
At least, it wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t claimed to have been behind the whole damn thing and, while we’re at it, what the hell was with the fire breath? Is he a dragon? No? Then get it out of here.
When you look at Malekith’s role in The Dark World he’s little more than a McGuffin transporter. No one watched The Dark World for the leader of the Dark Elves, they watched it for the further development of the relationship between Thor and Loki and the shared universe that they’d invested in. Malekith is not a great villain, it’s true, but any amazingly developed antagonist would have detracted from the real driving force behind the film; Thor and Loki.
And woe betide anyone who gets in the way of the fans and Loki.
Which is where I think Marvel struck gold in using Loki as the main antagonist for the Avengers; here is a villain we already care about, that we have some sympathy for, and a team of people we need to see work together. By combining the two we get a film with some great character development and a great villain that the audience feels that they know just as well as the protagonists.
We see the reverse of this in Age of Ultron; we have an established team, we see from the opening scene that these characters are comfortable with each other and are still, at their core, the characters we last saw in their respective instalments, the development side of this is with Ultron; a villain who is every bit as snarky and clever as Tony Stark, but would never admit to being anything like his creator. We see Ultron’s literal growth through the film, his evolution from simple (or not so, as it might be) AI to a determined, power crazed lunatic, kind of like a certain man of Iron if he had dropped off of the deep end like Loki.
It’s Ultron’s view on the world, and more importantly, of the established team, that makes him an engaging villain, in the same way that it was our understanding of Loki and his view of himself that makes him a good villain in the Avengers. On the small screen; Wilson Fisk works as a good foil to Daredevil as they’re polar opposites, they both have the same aim, to make Hell’s Kitchen more tolerable, but their methods are completely different.
So, to wrap up, while Marvel’s villains might not always be the greatest, it seems to be that when they are slightly lacking, it’s so the film can shift its focus to more than just the good vs evil conflict. The best villains are the ones that interact with the protagonists on a personal level, and who we have a connection with, whether it be from previous films, in the case of Loki, or through shared characteristics as we see with Ultron.
Now, it’d be nice for film makers to begin to trust audiences with both a complex villain and a higher message that doesn’t rely on the main point of conflict to convey that message, but we have to remember that films are really quite short, and sometimes you have to make compromises.
But, yes, less furious entitled men of various shades and more complex, relatable shades of grey in our villains please and thankyou.