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Marvel’s villains are eclipsing its heroes

Marvel’s Phase 4 has given us great villains, like Christian Bale’s Gorr, but they rarely stick around.

Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the best thing about Thor: Love and Thunder is its villain: Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale).

It’s a great name. A butcher isn’t just a killer, he doesn’t just end a life and move on. He repurposes and reconfigures his victims, hacking at hunks of their meat with a cleaver. The name brings to mind flesh and metal and thwacks against a divine cutting board.

Then there’s the great story. Gorr, born in an unnamed world far away, was eternally devout — even in his own suffering, even after the death of his daughter. But then on his judgment day, he came face to face with the god he worshiped, Rapu (Jonny Brugh). High on haughtiness, Rapu told Gorr he didn’t care about him. With no faith to lose, Gorr killed Rapu with the magical Necrosword. Now, he tries to make everyone feel the same hopelessness he does. He does this by butchering those gods, one by one.

But — spoiler alert — even though Gorr the God Butcher is the best thing about Thor: Love and Thunder, it’s likely to be the last fans ever see of him.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll be around for a grand flashback, but he dies at the end of the movie, and history shows that’s usually the end of the road for Marvel villains. Like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger from Black Panther and Cate Blanchett’s Hela from Thor: Ragnarock, Bale’s Gorr probably won’t be back for another round.

That’s all sort of a shame.

Marvel has created an acclaimed and highly profitable web of interconnected superhero movies, but their villains are largely treated as disposable. Unless it’s the ultimate guy (see: Thanos), bad guys don’t stick around in the MCU. They’re just temporary obstacles that stand in until our heroes can unite to fight the biggest, baddest evil. When the villains are pretty forgettable (quick: name the villain in the first Ant-Man movie without Googling it) and are a part of heroes’ origin stories, it’s usually not a problem.

But it feels a little wasteful when you have a performance like Bale’s. This misuse is especially glaring now because for the first time in a while, it feels like the MCU is starting over.

The current slate of movies, known as Phase Four and following the events of 2019’s Endgame, aren’t yet bound to an overarching story. The Avengers are all scattered to the wind at this point: many of Marvel’s established heroes are gone (dead, or retired). Returning heroes like Thor and Doctor Strange are just making their way back. The new crop of supes like Shang Chi and the Eternals aren’t household names yet.

The only consistently great thing in the current MCU is the series of fantastic villains like Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher, most of whom are only around for a movie. Marvel could do anything right now, but it seems frustratingly locked into its formula, stifling its most powerful assets.

The best thing about Thor is Gorr

I feel so strongly about Bale’s performance in Thor: Love and Thunder because I (surprisingly) didn’t enjoy the film. Love and Thunder is one of those movies that has four or five not-great movies rattling inside of it.

There’s a patchy flick about how Thor (Chris Hemsworth) deals with all his friends and family members dying; a loose Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) origin story that tries valiantly to round out a character that was underwritten in the first two Thor movies; a defiantly un-horny rom-com starring Thor and Jane; a satire about homelands turning into tourist destinations starring Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson); and the fantasy adventure about defeating the great evil we’ve all come to expect.

These all sound good in theory, but there’s just too much going on — The Shadow Realm! The Guardians of the Galaxy! A snowy bloodbath! Jane’s cancer treatments! The salvation of New Asgard! — to really allow any of the actors or director Taika Waititi to do them justice.

Some of the set pieces indeed are funny and flashy (see: Omnipotent City), but feel as though they only exist for one specific joke or moment to meme. And even with the quick changes in scenery, the pace still somehow lurches, plodding along as if Love and Thunder was just trying to cover all the bases, rather than thoughtfully unfold any of its many plots.

Gorr and his absolutely jaunty veil!
Marvel Studios

Coming from Waititi, it’s a little bit disappointing that some of these stories never find their mark. Love and Thunder, like Thor: Ragnarok, has a lot more freedom than a lot of Marvel movies, thanks in part to its director. It’s largely self-contained aside from the Guardians cameo in the beginning and there’s no direct connection to the multiverse, the big interlocking plot that Marvel has seeded in movies and television shows like WandaVision, Loki, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But the film’s third act works, and I’d argue it saves the entire thing. That’s because of Bale as Gorr.

Gorr’s tragedy grounds the movie, and Bale gets to splash around in monologues about fear, faith, and decapitation. If gods are symbols of faith, their deaths should be soul-crushing for their worshippers, he believes, and the bloodier and gorier the death, the better. In Bale’s hands, Gorr’s so convincing that I found myself on his side. He raises compelling questions about modern-day hero worship, including how Marvel is responsible for so much of it.

As the God Butcher, Bale is under pounds of powder-white makeup punctuated by trails of crumbly charcoal around his eyes. It looks like someone smeared a blood sausage smile across his mouth. You have to assume he smells like rot. Yet there’s a gothic elegance about him. Gorr isn’t lumbering around in armor; he has this cute little veil. Bale could have easily phoned it in and the character would still have been effective because of his striking visuals.

But instead, Gorr’s gothic grandeur gives Bale something to chew on. He can be over the top and rev up the anger and enigma because the character is so striking.

Still, Gorr’s clear ending — he makes the dying wish to bring back his daughter, which also grants him a heroic redemption — pretty much seals his fate as a one-and-done villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not extremely surprising.

Marvel’s MCU is structured so that villains, with the exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), are one-movie threats. Phase One, for example, encompasses the origin story-based movies like Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and capped it with 2012’s The Avengers, which brought all of those heroes together. Essentially, Marvel movies build and build toward a team-up movie in which a villain who’s supposed to be bigger and badder than the rest presents the biggest threat to the universe. Endgame was the culmination of a decade of cinematic storytelling, a.k.a. Phases One through Three.

Allowing smaller villains — unless they’re Thor’s brother — to have stories that continue across multiple movies takes away from that grand threat. By the time the next Marvel movie comes out, you likely won’t remember what was so terrifying the last time around.

Marvel’s Phase Four could be all about the bad guys

Marvel is now in its Phase Four of movies — Shang Chi, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder are all part of this chapter — but they have yet to weave in a big bad for this cycle. According to rumors, the ultimate villain is supposed to be the legendary, time-traveling Kang the Conqueror. While a multiverse variant of Kang was introduced in Loki, there hasn’t really been the buildup with Kang that we saw with Thanos who was referenced in many Easter eggs and credits scenes. Kang hasn’t been in Marvel’s last few post-credits scenes (which are mostly casting announcements at this point) nor has he been a looming presence.

At the same time, like Gorr, the villains of Marvel’s Phase 4 movies have been the best parts of their respective films, often eclipsing the heroes they’re facing off against. Wenwu (Tony Leung) stole the show in Shang-Chi. Spider-Man’s Rogues Gallery, especially Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and Green Goblin (Willem DaFoe) were just as powerful as the Spider-Mans in No Way Home. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) should’ve been the titular character in the Multiverse of Madness.

They’re all really great performances by fantastic actors, and they helped give the first crop of post-Endgame MCU movies gravity and importance. Marvel’s subsequent movies have the difficult job of introducing new characters in the wake of departing stalwarts like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, and Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers.

Without its established vets (Hemsworth aside), it’s the villains — not the heroes — who are soaking up the spotlight in the MCU. I suppose that’s why I’m more inclined than ever to see Marvel’s stable of super-powered baddies reappear and to see defeats that leave the door open for them to return, much like the way they do in the comic books.

For a company that revolutionized the way studios can build entire movie universes around characters, Marvel has rarely dared to try anything thrilling with its assembly belt of antagonists. There’s no real reason Marvel’s villains have to follow in the footsteps of the hooligans before them, especially now that it’s more of a free-for-all in the MCU than it has ever been.

So why not have Bale’s glorious God Butcher or even Gorr’s predecessor in Ragnarok, Hela (Cate Blanchett), come back for a couple more swings? What if Wenwu didn’t have to step aside to make way for Shang Chi? Why not let these villains stick around, especially if A-list actors are signing on for these roles and delivering time and time again?

The timing is perfect: With Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s Marvel properties, there’s going to be an influx of iconic evildoers and antiheroes like the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom and Galactus, as well as the X-Men’s Magneto, Apocalypse, and Mystique. They’re too high-profile to be disposable or interchangeable, which might end up forcing Marvel’s hand.

While Marvel’s formula can certainly feel safe now, the studio didn’t reach the pinnacle of pop culture by sticking to the rules. Its universe full of connected movies, and now television shows, is still something that only Marvel has done successfully. With its villains, it’d be fantastic if Marvel would dare to break the rules again. Even if the company wrote those rules themselves.

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