This article contains major spoilers from Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Live fast, die young.
That's the life of almost every Marvel villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the past seven years, we've watched Marvel develop the Avengers from the ground up. It's been like seeing a game of chess play out on the silver screen. Their evolution began in 2008 with Tony Stark, whose story became a gateway to introduce us to Black Widow, and then S.H.I.E.L.D. Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and the Hulk soon joined the fray. And in 2012, this chess game saw its first giant move when the Avengers finally came together on screen.
But what's been fascinating about watching these heroes grow is how disposable their villains have become. Villains like the Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger), Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy), the Mandarin (Iron Man 3), and now the titular singularity of Avengers: Age of Ultron are enduring foes in the comic books, but they all have incredibly short cinematic lives. As one of my readers pointed out on Twitter, these comic book juggernauts have become strawmen, vehicles to get us from one point in the Marvel universe to another, rather than fully fleshed-out characters.
This might be a reason why sequels like Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and even Age of Ultron haven't been as good as their predecessors. And conversely, developed villains like Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) have helped make Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Avengers so very good.
Ultron deserved better
Age of Ultron ends with death. Vision, in his fresh pink skin, finds the last member of Ultron's robot army hobbling in the Sokovian mountains. This crippled machine is the last embodiment of Ultron's consciousness, and if it dies, Ultron dies. Vision and Ultron talk about humans, our flaws, our beauty. And the screen is then bathed in a bright yellow, the hue of the Infinity Stone lodged in Vision's forehead. It is implied that Vision destroys the robot (in a really beautiful way).
It's a great scene. But it also betrays the spirit of Ultron in the comic books.
The character's one constant in the source material, aside from his rampant daddy issues, is his ability to always evolve and return stronger than ever. He trades up to new bodies. He receives adamantium upgrades. In the Age of Ultron arc, he even manages to take over the world:
And when he is seemingly defeated, as he is in Avengers No. 57, he gets an elegiac, Ozymandian finish:
That doesn't happen in the movie, which goes pretty quickly from his birth to his dream of wiping out the world to his death.
If Age of Ultron is the last we see of Ultron, it will add another entry to the list of Marvel villains who barely transcend the title of "plot device" — a disappointment for a villain of Ultron's stature. It would also spell the end of James Spader's wonderful turn as Ultron's voice and personality. Spader gives the movie its crackle, stealing scenes with the dark timbre in his vocals and subtle inflections when the mood lightened into humor.
You'd have to go back to Tom Hiddleston's Loki to find a villain this charismatic. And that's a problem.
Marvel's iconic villains have been reduced to cinematic fodder
The endgame for Marvel's movies is for the Avengers to go up against Thanos. Thanos, in the comic books, is a purple-skinned megalomaniac who is seemingly invulnerable, blessed with super-strength and cosmic energy projection. He's after the Infinity Stones (gems in the comic books), which will give him even more power to achieve whatever he wants (usually the destruction of Earth or turning citizens of Earth and the universe into his slaves).
But all we know from the Marvel movies is that he's some big bad guy. We don't understand his motivations. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we learn some surface-level facts — that he has two adopted daughters (Gamora and Nebula), and that Ronan the Accuser is done playing second fiddle to him — but we really don't know what his plans are or who he is. Marvel still has three years' worth of movies to reveal more about him, but so far his character development has been meager.
And for Marvel's other villains, their opportunities to evolve have already passed.
Like Ultron, characters such as Red Skull and Ronan the Accuser played and are still playing integral roles in the comic books but don't feel particularly consequential in the movies. They all want to destroy the world. They're all very powerful. They're all nasty. And Red Skull and Ronan specifically are just there for two big fight scenes. There isn't much to them, or to Marvel's lesser villains like the Iron Monger and Aldrich Killian, other than those fight scenes — a shame since the comic books deal with more complex themes and issues.
These Marvel villains don't have any personality traits beyond their evilness. It's uninteresting, but it doesn't have to be. Plenty of comic book villains want to destroy the world and rid it of humans, or of individual humans, but their reasoning and logic is usually explained by their experiences.
Ultron's first comic book appearance was one example of writers, creators and artists making villains as dynamic as heroes. Magneto, an iconic X-Men villain, is a Holocaust survivor — this crafts his worldview and utter distrust of humans. The Joker is determined to convince Batman that they're two sides of the same coin, and believes violence and horror form the avenue to convince Batman of this. Lex Luthor, in some incarnations, displays the egotistical side of a hero complex — saving the world becomes a selfish act. William Stryker and his Purifiers illustrate how religion can enslave, twist the mind, and breed hate.
It makes you wonder: what made Ronan so cranky? And why, exactly, don't Red Skull or any of these other villains have something a bit more complicated in mind beyond simply destroying the world?
With Ultron we get halfway there, thanks to Spader's booming voice and stunning scenes like Ultron's reveal in both Sokovia and the Avengers Tower. But certain elements are missing. And the most crucial of those elements is a relationship between Ultron and Tony Stark.
Ultron, we're told, bases his entire existence and endgame on Tony Stark, modeling his behavior, his personality, and his fears after the man. But we never see father and son share a moment together. There's a greater connection and relationship between Ultron and Jarvis than there is between Tony and his creation.
Nor do we really witness the dark depth of Tony Stark's fear that inspires him to create a system like Ultron. How much of Ultron was in place before the Scarlet Witch got involved? How much of Ultron is corrupted by the scepter? How have Tony's fears deepened from what we saw in the first Iron Man? What's been going on in his head since Iron Man 3? And how much does Bruce Banner know or not know about this program?
Filling in some of these blanks could have made Ultron more compelling and a more thoughtful character, but then he also might have been a character we'd have to hold on to for a little longer. Such a story might not align with the larger narrative that Marvel wants to tell.
There are exceptions to the rule
Not all of Marvel's villains fit the one-and-done pattern.
More specifically, two of them don't, at least so far: Loki and the Winter Soldier. And it happens that these two characters are integral parts of two of the best Marvel movies — Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier — ever produced.
During Loki's first appearance in Thor, it's made very clear to us that this character cannot stand his brother. But we see why. We're made aware of Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) status as the golden prodigal son, coupled with Loki's desire to rule. What's more, the film is very much a story about family, nature, and identity; even though Thor is the hero, Loki provides the movie's brain and spirit. And Loki's desire to rule is later revitalized and realized in The Avengers.
Loki's development over the two films makes for a much richer, more textured story. It also makes him the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, he's evil. But as with Magneto or the Joker, we understand what underscores Loki's motivation to enslave the human race. Kings need their servants, and since Loki can't ascend to the throne on Asgard, his greedy heart yearns for Earth.
Bucky Barnes — a.k.a. the Winter Soldier — is enjoying the same kind of development, but on a smaller scale. There is no world-breaking event concerning Barnes. Instead, his friendship with Steve Rogers becomes a lens for his villainy. Captain America: The First Avenger establishes Barnes's big-brother relationship with Rogers, and his apparent death. In The Winter Soldier, we find out he's been brainwashed and experimented on. And though he only appears in brief scenes in The Winter Soldier, the idea that Barnes may at any time snap out of his killing mode keeps the movie taut.
Barnes and Loki are examples of what Marvel's villains could be, if given the type of character nourishment they deserve. Loki has that Magneto-like charisma, and Barnes is a foil to the feel-good experimentation tale of Captain America. If all of Marvel's villains were as complex and riveting as these two, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World (Loki was a secondary character in this sequel) would be better films.
But perhaps that's not Marvel's ultimate concern. The company is building toward 2019, when Avengers: Infinity War Part II is due to hit theaters. The stories from now until then will interlock with one another, and will ostensibly ramp up to Thanos's big finish. But in order to have villains like Loki and the Winter Soldier, Marvel must invest in multiple movies — which would derail its agenda. And having recurring major villains also diminishes Thanos's potency.
Being able to dispose of villains left and right while Thanos lurks just across the horizon makes Thanos more grand — he's the one thing we and the Avengers should all fear. He's the Big Bad, and unfortunately for anyone who loves a good villain, these other guys will function as speed bumps until we get to him.