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WandaVision and Falcon and Winter Soldier fix Marvel’s villain problem

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[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.]

The way fans and critics responded to the end of Disney Plus’ Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier already suggests a pattern for the new slate of MCU shows. Just as with WandaVision, fans and pundits rushed to watch and analyze each episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier as quickly as possible, eagerly breaking down every nuance and possibility. The cultural conversation around both these shows was lively and complicated as long as the shows lasted — and then it died down almost the second they ended, once there were no more cameos to hope for or theories to unroll. Apart from the threads leading into upcoming Marvel movies, both shows seem to have been much more effective in drawing intense short-term attention (and new signups for Disney Plus) than in sparking lasting conversations.

But one thing they both share that could potentially have a long-term impact: They both significantly boost the MCU’s future viability. Both of them take an unusual step for MCU stories: They leave key villains alive, and available for future stories.

The MCU’s villain problem has been a favorite topic for cultural essays since Phase 1 of the franchise, with critics complaining that Marvel movies rarely manage to field antagonists who are even remotely nuanced or compelling. Particularly in the early going of the movie series, the villains’ motivations tend to be boring, underdeveloped, and predictable, or in some cases just unrelatable. Marvel has course-corrected in recent years, most notably with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, whose motives for beating Wakanda’s king and taking his power are rooted in an entirely reasonable grudge against the Wakandans who killed his father, denied him his heritage, and let inaction and complacency drive similar inequity around the world.

Photo: Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

And Thanos was another standout, not because his desire to end resource shortage by killing half the universe was a relatable goal (“Thanos was right” memes aside), but because he was present in multiple movies, and had time to lay out his misguided beliefs and show the depth of his wrongheaded conviction. Villains don’t need to be sympathetic to be fascinating, but they do have to be comprehensible, and some Marvel villains skate by with so little explanation of their motives that they feel like straw-man arguments, thinly propped into place so the heroes can feel good about standing up against them. (Others just blur together — how many Marvel villains so far have been motivated by feeling wronged by either Tony or Howard Stark? Have we hit a bakers’ dozen yet?)

But the franchise killed off Thanos and Killmonger, along with so many other antagonists who barely had a chance to develop beyond the “Muahahaha eeeeevil” phase of their existence. And that’s always seemed like a profoundly short-sighted decision. The comics industry’s most memorable rogues’ galleries members become iconic over time because they come back to challenge the heroes again and again, trying new schemes and learning new skills. In some cases, they also develop new allies, for extra thrills. Given how much long-term planning went into assembling bigger and bigger Marvel hero team-ups, from the first crossover in The Avengers to the which-side-will-you-chose face-off in Captain America: Civil War to the full-scale war at the end of Avengers: Endgame, it’s a little astonishing that Kevin Feige and the Marvel movies team apparently never seriously considered the power of a similar villain team-up.

WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier aren’t exactly fielding Thanos-level villainy, or developing antagonists capable of matching his power. But they are pushing Marvel’s needle back a little more in the direction of actually keeping villains alive to fight another day — and to build their power, prestige, sense of threat, and connection to the heroes in the process.

Possibly more importantly, leaving Agatha Harkness, Baron Zemo, and the Power Broker alive to lick their wounds and plan for the future is giving them a chance to become more developed and memorable villains than they were in their initial outing. Agatha in WandaVision got a killer reveal and her own memorable bop, but the show simply didn’t take the time necessary to turn her into more than a glorified fan-service cameo from the comics. Her motives in WandaVision amounted to curiosity, an apparent lust for power, and eventual concern that Wanda Maximoff is “the Scarlet Witch” — a title the show didn’t bother to explain, and shelved for an eventual movie to solve. If Agatha does escape her WandaVision punishment and make it back into an MCU story, though, she’ll have a much more relatable goal: getting even with the woman who stole her agency and enslaved her with a false personality. And if she does come gunning for revenge, she’ll have all the moral power behind her of an entire town that was similarly enslaved and tortured, without getting any kind of apology or closure for being used as tools in someone else’s self-actualization.

Kathryn Hahn in full Agatha costume in the finale of WandaVision

Photo: Disney Plus

The Power Broker in Falcon and Winter Soldier is similarly underdeveloped, with only a hint of her real motivations given — if she really is, as she implies, motivated by rage against the people who wronged her when she backed Captain America back in Captain America: Civil War, and her motives don’t run any deeper at all, she’s going to need significant development to be interesting.

But the series showed exactly what it looks like when an underdeveloped antagonist from a previous story gets some space to flower. Zemo, who was little more than a scheme and a speech back in Civil War, got to step out and explain his philosophy in Falcon and Winter Soldier, and got to show his more human side in the process. And in the process, the character developed his own fandom — a rarity for Marvel villains, who are often largely forgotten after one movie. He’s more of a moral and existential threat than ever now, and viewers have much more of an idea of where he’s coming from and what he’s capable of. He has the capacity to return down the line as a bigger and better threat, in part because he now knows Sam and Bucky well enough to get inside their heads, and well enough to know exactly how to manipulate them.

But Falcon and Winter Soldier also highlighted the shortsighted side of Marvel, the narrative ethos that finds it easier to kill off an antagonist than contend with them. Having the Power Broker kill off Karli Morgenthau was a surprisingly bland and boring solution for the Gordian-knot moral problem facing the series’ heroes. After taking most of the series’ runtime to even make Karli’s beliefs clear, and making it obvious that Sam Wilson in particular sympathizes with her cause and with her personally, the show just shuts down her story in the laziest way possible, both keeping the heroes’ hands clean and resetting the board so they look like they’re taking the high road in learning from her, and in taking minimal steps toward her cause. It’s exactly what Black Panther did, and it’s exactly as unsatisfying. Given what Karli represented, not as a Flag-Smasher, but as a narrative push toward more radical and forceful action than the heroes were comfortable with, taking her out of the picture seems like the most cowardly choice for the story — an excuse to not directly contend with her comparative moral strength as an antagonist.

Baron Zemo in full boring purple balaclava evil-dude costume in Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Photo: Disney Plus

And it also robs Marvel’s future of a genuinely interesting antagonist, in a franchise that’s eventually going to strain to come up with new ones, even as its heroes become more and more familiar over time. It’s surprising that it’s taken Marvel this long to start conserving its villains, given how much it’s built up its hero roster. The hero army that faced Thanos in Avengers: Endgame suggests that it’s going to be hard to scale up to a really significant threat to Earth in the future. It also suggests that Marvel’s going to be constantly resetting, with films and shows continuing to serve as rushed villain origin stories. Every new story that needs to bring in a new villain also needs to take time to explain them, which keeps the franchise from meaningfully moving forward with the rest of the story, and encourages rushed, apathetic “Oh, just another iteration on a Nazi” or “Another Stark victim? Cool, I guess” character-building.

Why not focus instead on building a rogues’ gallery that can actually continue to challenge the heroes, and build relationships with them in ways that bring up the internal conflicts Marvel loves so much? Marvel’s most successful villain by far is Loki, Thor’s adopted brother and lifetime antagonist, who no longer needs to be introduced and explained in every movie — he’s an icon at this point, capable of supporting his own TV spinoff. Just by keeping him in the mix, the MCU has enabled a rich, engaging, and definitive relationship for one of its key heroes, and allowed its writers a wealth of stories about everybody’s favorite shapeshifting, sulking, larger-than-life backstabbing god.

And Loki is also a good example for anyone concerned that backing away from villain death in Marvel stories would make for less memorable or satisfying endings. Marvel hasn’t shied away from “killing” Loki, any more than Marvel Comics have shied away from killing off and revamping or rebooting their characters. Loki “died” at the end of the first Thor, deliberately dropping himself into a vast wormhole in space. He “died” again in Thor: The Dark World, faking his own stabbing so he could eventually take over Asgard. He maybe no-scare-quotes died at Thanos’ hands in Avengers: Infinity War, though time will tell on that one — it’s still really unclear what death means to his people, no matter how you define that term. But regardless of outcome there, time-travel shenanigans have put him back in the mix again.

Not every villain can support this kind of chicanery long-term. Loki is inhumanly hardy, and he’s an illusionist and a trickster, uniquely set up for “not dead after all” antics. The MCU certainly doesn’t need to make every villain death a fakeout, or engage in the kind of baroque resurrection, revival, and reset plots that so often characterize mainstream superhero comics.

But its creative teams do need to consider how much the Marvel Studios shows are pushing the bar, in terms of taking time to explore heroes’ psychology, relationships, and humanity alongside their beat-’em-up battles. Maybe their willingness to develop villains and give them a chance at another go-round is more a product of “always keep next season in mind” TV thinking, rather than an actual change in Marvel planning. But it’s a positive trend nonetheless. If the franchise is ever going to end up with more villains as memorable, enjoyable, and narratively versatile as Loki, it needs to spend more time building them up, and less time killing them off.

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