Maybe part of the issue is that iconic villains have always been more DC’s thing. If I asked you to name five DC characters, there would almost certainly be at least one villain on your list. Five Marvel characters? Possibly Doctor Doom or Magneto. Maybe Doc Ock. All of whom were part of the character sales of the ’90s and couldn’t appear in the MCU anyway. But really, one of the many differences between Marvel and DC has long been that DC’s heroes, even to a certain extent within the confines of the Justice League, have tended to be loners, and Marvel’s tend to be more social. After all, the first wave of Marvel’s really well-known comics included both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.
That said, I think the “Marvel Villain Problem” is overblown anyway. Okay, so they kill off villains pretty cavalierly, but I’m pretty sure that when people talk about the Villain Problem, they mean more than that. They mean that the villains are poorly defined, that they aren’t interesting, that the villains’ plots aren’t enough to hang a movie off of. To a certain extent, I suppose that’s true, though I’ll get into some detail in a minute. But from another perspective, that’s not really what Marvel is necessarily trying to do anyway. There’s a villain because that’s what we expect of superhero stories, but the Marvel movies are at least as much about internal struggle as external, and putting screen time into a villain only reduces the time you can spend with the hero.
To my mind, the two best examples of what I’m talking about are the Thor movies, presumably including the yet-unreleased Ragnarok, and the barely canon Edward Norton Incredible Hulk. I can and will pull examples from elsewhere in the MCU, but this is going to be my starting point. I should say right now that Thor is probably my least favourite Marvel hero thus far, whereas I’m about the only person who preferred Norton as the Hulk to Ruffalo. So my opinions on this one are what they are, and I won’t apologize.
But the fact is, the reason I dislike Thor is also the reason I like the second one better than the first one. Thor is dumb and kind of uninteresting. Loki, because of his intelligence and guile, because of his depth of character—oh, I grant you, more MCU daddy issues, but still—is just more interesting than Thor is, and the second movie is better because they acknowledged that and used him better. Small doses of Thor go a long way with me, but I would watch a whole movie of Loki exploring who he is and who he wants to be. Which, in Marvel, is usually what we’re doing with the heroes, which may be why Loki seems to be forgotten in discussions of villains who live through the movie.
Meanwhile, the story of the Incredible Hulk has always been a story of a man fighting with himself. Sure, we’ve got Thunderbolt Ross in both movies, and Emil Blonsky of course, but they’re mere sidebars. What’s more, I think everyone who remembers the movie, or even just knows the character, knows that. The Hulk is probably the most Freudian superhero in the Marvel pantheon. It literally doesn’t matter who his villains are. The whole movie could have been him fighting the guys in the factory in Brazil for all it really matters. We know who the Hulk is fighting.
Arguably, the point of the first Thor movie is for him to fight himself; after all, it’s a drive for a large chunk of the story to once again be worthy to possess the power of Thor. King Laufey is a subplot. If there is a villain, it is Loki; arguably, a bigger issue is just Thor growing up. This is also true of Tony Stark in Iron Man, for all he’s older; in battling Obadiah Stane, Tony is finally accepting that it’s time to be a grown-up. (Well, no; Thor is actually older, but Asgardians clearly live far, far longer. He is intended to seem younger, though, hence casting.) I would say it’s true of most of Marvel’s heroes, at least in the MCU. They just have to grow up.
Those who don’t have to grow up often have to overcome some aspect of themselves or their pasts. A lot of ink has been spilled about Diamondback in Luke Cage, but he worked for me. And part of why he worked for me was that he was clearly about Luke’s needing to realize that he cannot let the past drag him down. That’s the underlying theme of Luke Cage to me—learning to move on. Diamondback couldn’t. Cottonmouth couldn’t. Mariah couldn’t. And maybe, by dealing with Diamondback, Luke can. Just as Jessica Jones had to, really; her villain is not so much Kilgrave as the weight of her own past. As the Hulk is fighting the Abomination or General Ross or aliens from another dimension but is, in the end, fighting Bruce Banner. And it doesn’t seem clear which one is really the good guy.
I grant you that there is something to be said for a nice, simple villain with a clear-cut motivation. When Captain America is fighting Red Skull, he’s basically fighting Hitler. That’s fine. Cap can punch a lot of Hydra agents, and we’ll all feel better about ourselves watching it. But the reason for the weight of the Winter Soldier plot is that Cap, too, has to explore himself. Maybe not as much with the daddy issues; if he has mentioned his father, I don’t remember it. But it’s not surprising to me that we go from the clear-cut evil of Red Skull to the emotionally jarring Winter Soldier; the real world is usually more complicated than See Nazi Punch Nazi.
No, the Villain Problem as I see it is that most Marvel movies are really telling two stories, and we expect more of certain aspects of one. We expect a traditional villain like Lex Luthor or the Joker, DC’s most iconic villains, and we forget that, even at their best, Marvel villains tend more toward shades of grey. Red Skull is an old villain from Marvel’s earliest glory days, but those days faded, and most of Marvel’s empire is built on the ’60s era of teams fighting amongst themselves and occasionally stopping to punch bad guys. After all, it’s a comic book universe where one of the most famous villains started as a hero’s best friend.