A Villain Needs a Good Origin Story, Too: Discussing DOCTOR STRANGE Taking on Marvel Studios' Villain Problem

***This Editorial contains SPOILERS for DOCTOR STRANGE.***

Did DOCTOR STRANGE really solve Marvel Studios' movie villain problem?

Well, no... but also, yes.

You see, whenever a new Marvel Studios film is released two questions are inevitably asked of it: 

  1. Is this the one that's finally going to outright suck and bomb? 
  2. Have they solved the problem with villains being throwaways? 

DOCTOR STRANGE was released earlier this month and wouldn't you know it, it's a hit. Not a perfect movie but certainly entertaining and raking in that box office cash. (Editor Note: $500 million worldwide and counting...) One of the only universal criticisms of the film? That actor Mads Mikkelsen, for as talented as he is, plays yet another underdeveloped villain. But why is this the case? 

Comic books as a medium are serial in nature and though there have always been sequels and spin- offs in cinema, it's only in the last 10 years that Hollywood has cottoned on to the idea of the “Cinematic Universe” and the prospect of serialised storytelling across multiple films. The reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR hit so many people so hard? Because we had come to love these characters throughout many film appearances over the last eight years, an opportunity few villains are offered in the movies. 

Take one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time, the Joker. He was originally meant to die in his first appearance back in Batman No. 1 back in 1940, but thankfully they changed their mind and brought him back. Batman and Joker now have history, a shared canon that transformed their battles for mere 4-colour funny page fodder to something more mythic. 

Is it any wonder that the only real stand out villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Tom Hiddleston's Loki, the one and only villain to have made appearances across multiple films? The answer's always been there – Marvel, don't kill off your villains. 

The problem comes that Marvel Studios doesn't just make movies for comic book fans. It makes movies for as broad an audience as possible and whilst they should be (and are) praised for doing so without compromising what made the characters and source material so beloved, it does come at a cost. General audiences expect certain things from a family friendly action adventure movie. The hero saves the day, gets the girl and the bad guy gets his comeuppance — usually in the form of a satisfyingly gruesome death. 

So as such Marvel, who have been accused of being too “formulaic,” even by me, tend to go about their villains like this: 

  1. The villain's backstory is not shown, only told to us. So even though it is often tragic, audiences can't truly connect with or sympathise with them in any way comparable to the protagonist. 
  2. The villain is a dark mirror of the hero. A “what if the hero went bad” scenario made real. 
  3. The villain dies. Often they are the only character to die other than nameless, faceless creature workshop henchmen. 

How can this formula possibly create iconic villains? Simply put, it can't, because the above three steps are actually just the first step. Imagine if you will, that Loki had just dropped off the Rainbow Bridge at the end of THOR, never to be seen again. Would Tumblr be has hot on Loki as they are today? Loki cemented himself as the first truly great MCU villain when he returned in THE AVENGERS, with new (and glorious) purpose, and the story of Thor and Loki was deepened as they battled for the Earth supposedly under the Thunder God's protection. All of this was helped of course by writer and director Joss Whedon's dialogue and Hiddleston's superlative acting ability. Loki's story didn't even end there, instead continuing in the much maligned but still decent THOR: THE DARK WORLD. In fact, Loki's story across those three films — though somewhat disjointed as he was never the protagonist — were the subject of a 2-hour fan edited Loki movie, which unfortunately has since been taken down from the web — but not before I watched it. That is why Loki is the “best” Marvel villain. We've seen his struggles, his twists and turns. We've seen him grow to the point of heroic self sacrifice and retreat to his old ways once again. 

When CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR came out, a lot of comic book fans felt that the character of Zemo was underdeveloped and hated the fact he looked nothing like his comic book counterpart. Now I am not the biggest Zemo fan, so I wasn't so precious on Zemo wearing his mask or wielding a sword, but I can relate; if Dr. Doom turned up essentially in name only, baring no resemblance to his comic book self you can rest assured I would be very mad (I'm looking at you Fox). But here's the crucial thing; Zemo is still alive and he could come back in future movies. Although it's too early to know if he ever will, we know that if he did return, aside from donning the mask to make comic book fans happy, he wouldn't just be a catalyst as he was in his first appearance, he would be the man who tore the Avengers into two factions.

So how does DOCTOR STRANGE solve this issue? By offering us two villains for the price of one (three if you include Dormammu). Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is offered up as a sort of sacrifice, another one-and-done villain, in service of the greater good, because DOCTOR STRANGE is as much Mordo's origin story as it is Stephen Strange's. 

The thought occurred to me after watching DOCTOR STRANGE with some friends. The lights came back on after the final credits scene, in which Mordo steals the magical power back from Benjamin Bratt's character Pangborn. Having seemingly set himself on the path of some sort of self-loathing sorcerer, Mordo has obviously been set-up to return as a villain in future films. One of my friends turned to me and knowing I was a big comic book fan asked, “Did you know he was going to turn out a villain?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

It hadn't occurred to me that it might be a twist to anyone else. To me Strange and Mordo are as synonymous as Holmes and Moriarty. Now, if, or should I say when, Mordo returns to the silver screen he won't be as hollow as previous Marvel offerings, but instead a fully formed character. Instead of a tragic back story being relayed in passing – ironically the exposition of Kaicelius's background is imparted to us by Mordo himself – we will have already seen it and felt it for ourselves. 

Nothing I've written here might be seen as being especially profound, but it's a simple fact that an antagonist can't always be as interesting as the protagonist given that they only get 30 minutes of screen time in a 2-hour film. However, Marvel's apparent steps to ensure Mordo (and possibly Zemo) as villains who can return to in the future is really just Marvel recognising the criticism in one formula and switching to another that has worked for them before (i.e. Mordo could be the “Loki of Phase 4”). 

How Marvel Studios ultimately reconcile the simple need to keep villains around to establish their mythical status, whilst giving casual fans the catharsis of killing off that bad guy, I don't know. Thankfully they have talented people better suited to resolving that problem. 

All I know is that I cannot wait for the return of Loki in THOR: RAGNORAK, because when they get it right, they get it right. And as someone who has seen both Hiddleston and Chiwetel Ejiofor on stage in addition to following their careers onscreen, I will gladly bet a ticket to opening night of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR that Mordo can hold his own as the next “big bad” in the near future of the MCU.

Written by Nick Whitney, MCU Correspondent -- Click to read Nick's posts

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