What makes a villain a “Good Villain” is a question that gets bandied about a lot in media criticism but we never really come up with an answer, just a lot of theorizing that doesn’t really end up anywhere. That’s because there is no binary answer to this question, just a lot of vectors to measure. But one I’ve noticed getting surprisingly little play in discussion, especially of the recent glut of superhero films, is the question of how the villain ties into the themes and character arcs of the story. And it is this vector through which I will examine two of the villains from recent MCU films: The Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Hela from Thor Ragnarok.
Now, the Vulture has gotten a lot of praise for being a good villain, and in many ways that’s true. He’s a complex character, with understandable motivation and a rich inner life. Michael Keaton gives a great performance (and there’s the meta-fun of seeing a onetime Batman actor, and a man who got an Oscar nomination playing a parody of superheroes with a bird gimmick, playing a villain with a bird gimmick). In fact, while a lot of Homecoming slid off my brain until I rewatched it for this piece, his conversation with Peter in the car in the third act was one of the few scenes that stuck with me.
There’s just one problem: The specifics of the Vulture have nothing to do with Peter’s arc, or the movie’s themes. Peter’s arc is pretty easy to spot, and it ties pretty well into the theme. Peter is learning to be Spider-Man, and learning that he might have to give up things he wants if he wants to help people. It’s a pretty standard arc for a Spider-Man movie, since the “Great power=great responsibility” thing is basically branded on Spider-Man’s DNA.’
So how does the Vulture tie directly into any of that? The moments where Peter’s arc comes to a head (when he makes the tough choices, to abandon Liz at the dance and to go into battle without his Tony Stark upgraded suit) aren’t specifically tailored by anything about the Vulture and while the fact that Liz is the Vulture’s daughter might change things slightly, it doesn’t alter the fundamentals of the conflict. Yes he knows it might destroy his relationship with Liz, but so might leaving her at the dance.
It honestly feels like the Vulture might make a better villain for Iron Man actually exposes the real issue, which is that his backstory, sympathetic though it might be, is feeding into an entirely different theme. If the theme of the movie was being failed by father figures (another favorite Spider-Man theme, since most of his villains are former father figures for him), then his backstory would be relevant, since he was (arguably) created by Tony’s mistakes. But not only is that not the theme, it’s the complete opposite, Tony is shown to be in the right most of the time, dressing down Peter on several occasions.
Don’t get me wrong, I still like both the movie and the character, and I hope we get to see more of Michael Keaton if and when the Spider-Man movies wander into the Sinister Six territory. And it was very nice for Marvel to finally get some multi-dimensional villains in its roster, after a long string of villains who were, to say the least, a little bit flat. But I do still think it’s important that a villain tie into the themes and character arcs. Which brings us to Hela.
Now, on the surface, Hela is not a very complex villain. She’s the goddess of death and she wants to conquer the universe. Bam, summed up, easy. Oh she’s a fun villain, the entertaining dialogue and Cate Blanchett’s nearly superhuman charisma doing a lot to keep her an engaging screen presence (and once again we have some meta-fun, this time of her bouncing off her Lord of the Rings co-star Karl Urban) but there doesn’t seem to be a lot to her character.
Until you engage with the theme of the movie, and Thor’s character arc. The theme of Thor Ragnarok can best be described as “Cleansing the sins of Colonialism.” The story Thor has been fed his whole life, of a just and fair Asgard, leading the other realms through diplomacy and just use of force, is revealed to be a lie. Asgard conquered the other realms the way all colonial powers do, through brutal violence.
Hela, in this regard, is the perfect villain. The literal ghost of colonialist violence, buried away out of sight because having her around became uncomfortable, now returned and furious that her contributions and methods have been erased and painted over with comforting lies, determined to return to power by any means necessary.
…you know, now that I lay it all out, this movie sounds super blunt, but honestly? Thor Ragnarok isn’t really subtle, and one of the advantages to sci-fi/fantasy is that you get to make your metaphors incredibly literal.
She also functions as a dark parallel to Thor’s character arc, which is learning to understand that his father’s kingdom was built on ignoring the damage it caused and championing the Asgardians ahead of everyone else (which was already part of his character arc in Thor but kind of got dropped). Indeed, one of the central elements of the film that never existed before is being critical of Thor’s attitude toward the damage Loki causes. Hela is, of course, completely unconcerned with the damage she and other Asgardians cause, sure that her might makes anything she does right.
It is perhaps a sign of the growing maturity of the superhero genre that the MCU has begun to focus more heavily on villains that aren’t just the hero, but bad (which is useful, but only if it says something about the hero and their choices) and I wish more MCU movies would try to tie the villain more directly into their theme and character arcs. It’s worth mentioning that all three of my top favorite MCU movies (in order: Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther and Winter Soldier) all had villains that tied very intensely into the themes of the film, so maybe this is a personal thing. But on the other hand Black Panther made a CRAZY amount of money, so maybe the MCU, and other superhero films, will see their way to putting more thought into their villains.
Just don’t ask me to analyze Thanos.