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The Art of Heroic Villainy

Unlike some Marvel movie fans, I don’t feel that Thor: The Dark World (2013) is a bad film, necessarily. It does, however, suffer from one glaring, nearly fatal flaw. To phrase it at least somewhat politely, Malekith is an extremely lackluster villain. His goal: to extinguish all life in the multiverse, because his race existed first… or something. He’s a generic Evil Overlord with a generic Evil Plan. He looks cool and intimidating, does some unquestionably nasty things (killing Thor’s mom, for one), and is summarily dispatched by the good guys without leaving much of an impression on the viewer. In short, he serves his narrative purpose, nothing more.

Of course, that’s all a villain is really obliged to do, but for the sake of comparison, let’s briefly examine Michael Shannon’s interpretation of General Zod from WB’s Man of Steel (also released in 2013).

While the two characters appear to be remarkably similar on a superficial level–each is the leader of a nearly extinct race willing to sacrifice humanity to ensure the survival of his own people–one vital difference distinguishes the mad Kryptonian from the tyrannical Dark Elf: whereas Malekith is a walking plot device, seemingly devoid of any semblance of inner-life, Zod legitimately believes that he is the hero of Man of Steel’s story. True, he is willing to commit genocide on a global scale, but only because he wishes to create a new home for his devastated race. In his own words: "I protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And everything I have done, no matter how violent or cruel, has been for the greater good of my people."

Indeed, Zod is so passionate in the pursuit of this "noble” ambition (unlike the cold, emotionless Malekith, who extols his own righteousness with the conviction of a man reading his lines off of cue cards) that his (literally) earth-shattering climactic rampage is motivated by no less than his complete and utter failure as a “hero.” With his loyal followers banished once more to the Phantom Zone and the genetic legacy of Krypton reduced to ash at his feet, Zod has been robbed of the only purpose he has ever known, and so resolves to destroy everything that Superman, the person responsible for his torment, holds dear–until, finally, the Big Blue Boy Scout is forced to put the madman out of his misery.

Marvel’s own work provides another appropriate example. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Alexander Pierce, played by an earnest and grandfatherly Robert Redford, is compelling and nuanced in every way that Malekith is not. The de facto leader of the faction of HYDRA zealots that has grown like a cancer within the highest ranks of SHIELD, Pierce honestly believes that his unambiguously evil actions are morally justified. From his twisted point of view, HYDRA is the only force capable of saving mankind from itself; the loss of personal freedom and a few million lives are a small price to pay in the struggle to impose order upon a chaotic world. The sickening double-think involved in Pierce’s rationalization of his crimes–and, more importantly, its undeniable similarity to SHIELD’s own mission statement and methodology–shapes the film’s central thesis and informs much of Cap’s evolution as a character. 

While any good story should ultimately focus on the protagonist’s journey, an adequately developed villain has the potential to deeply enrich the conflict, illuminate new facets of the hero’s characterization, and/or clarify the overarching theme. I hope that, moving forward, Marvel will follow the example set by Winter Soldier and leave flat, uninspired creations like Malekith far, far behind.

[Originally written April 8, 2014.]

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