Marvel Studios has endured its share of criticisms over the course of 14 films, but there is one criticism that has popped up more than any other for the past nine years. Marvel, it’s been argued on several occasions, has a villain problem. Studio president Kevin Feige understands the arguments against Marvel’s villains and even agrees with the logic. He just doesn’t quite see it as a problem.
Feige addressed the issue when asked about it by reporters who were visiting the set of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last year. For the studio boss, it all comes down to what Marvel chooses to focus on.
“It always starts with what serves the story the most and what serves the hero the most. A big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true.”
In the spirit of the set visit, Feige turned to the first Guardians of the Galaxy—and a couple other examples—to elaborate.
“Ronan’s great, Lee Pace did an awesome job, absolutely serves it, but certainly was there to go up against our heroes and to give our heroes a reason for coming together. Loki, a great character, serves, in a lot of ways, Thor. Zemo served that conflict between Cap and Iron Man [in Captain America: Civil War].”
This is, in part, why I’ve largely disagreed with the notion that Marvel has a villain problem. As much as it’s been argued that heroes are only as great as their villains, that simply isn’t true when the heroes are developed properly.
There’s not much to remember about the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark—other than the fact that they’re Nazis—and yet we remain all-in with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). In Back to the Future, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) has little characterization beyond that of a bully and an idiot, and that’s fine. Biff serves his purpose as an obstacle we want to see our heroes, Marty (Michael J. Fox) and George McFly (Crispin Clover), overcome.
General audiences and critics have thus far embraced Marvel’s approach to focusing on heroes. The Marvel movies have all been massive hits or at least generally well-liked. They’ve all received more positive reviews than they have negative ones. Feige is comfortable enough with his studio’s philosophy to continue it in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
“Taserface and Ayesha are less grandiose in their ambitions than Ronan was, for instance. Ayesha just wants to kill [the Guardians] for slighting her, and Taserface wants to lead the Ravagers and thinks that Yondu got soft.”
Things will be a little different next year, though, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest baddie finally takes centerstage. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is going to get his due in Avengers: Infinity War, according to Feige.
“In a movie that has a lot of characters, you could almost go so far as to say he is the main character. That’s a bit of a departure from what we’ve done before, but that was appropriate for a movie called Infinity War.”
Making Thanos the main character, or almost the main character, makes sense in a movie where he is greatly outnumbered by several heroes whose backstories and motivations we all know so well. Thanos is the mystery that still needs to be solved and an appropriate choice to put right in the middle of the story.
Just don’t expect Avengers: Infinity War to kickoff a new trend of villain-focused movies for Marvel Studios. Despite the occasional departure, Feige and company know what has served them so well since the studio’s very first film—Iron Man.
“In 2008, two superhero movies that came out. One focused on the villain, one focused on the hero, and we at Marvel looked at them, like ‘Yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.’”
There were actually more than two superhero movies in 2008. Marvel Studios had two of its own in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but it’s obvious Feige was referring to the two biggest superhero hits of the year. Having quickly realized that this quote could be misinterpreted as a shot at The Dark Knight, Feige clarified that he wasn’t trying to bash anyone else or start a fight, just illustrating Marvel’s method.
“Please don’t start a flame war. Nobody wants that. We don’t do that. But, again, it really always is what serves the story.”
I have always disagreed with the argument, which has been made by many and not just Feige, that The Dark Knight focuses on The Joker. He got most of the attention from people talking about the film, but that had more to do with Heath Ledger’s transcendent performance than The Joker actually getting more focus than Batman (Christian Bale) in the story. The Joker serves Batman’s story by testing the hero’s entire reason for being.
With apologies for the brief digression, Feige’s greater point is still well taken. The Joker works in The Dark Knight because he serves the story and there are different ways to do that. It all depends on what a given story requires of its villain, which will inevitably vary based on what is going on with the main characters—the heroes—at that time.
It’s about balance and Marvel Studios has been pretty good at finding its footing.