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At the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, something monumentally crazy happened — Michael Keaton’s brilliantly portrayed Vulture lived. And not only did he live, he had a post-credits scene that teased the promise of more complicated Vulture dynamics for Pete to come.
Now, as comic nerds, this shouldn’t be such a monumental occasion to us. It happens all the time in our funny books. Good guy bests the bad guy, there’s a happy ending, and then — oh no! — the bad guy swears revenge. And then when the writers hit a wall on new ideas, they’ve got a deep bench of revenge-swearing baddies to pick from.
We are currently 463 Marvel movies in, and I’m not sure how they’ve missed the memo from the comics that they’re based on. Instead of wisely recycling, they’ve racked up quite a body count: from poor old Malekith of the Dark Elves, Ronan the Accuser, and the Abomination to Darren Cross, Obadiah Stane, and even the sweet-eyed Kaecilius.
You’ll notice that I’ve tossed the weakest of the bunch into a single bracket. We’ll get to Killmonger shortly. First, let’s focus on this random assortment of generic aliens and monsters, tech guys, and Mads Mikkelsen. I will be the first to admit that this motley crew is not the most memorable, and probably don’t need to be the hill this article will die on. And yet, this hill it shall be.
Villains Deserve Second and Third Chances
The promise of comic books means second and third chances for a character to land. Sure, Malekith and Ronan were lackluster the first time around, but they don’t have to be the next time. New filmmakers can come and breathe life into these characters. What if the Children of Thanos had been the heavy hitters of MCU past, instead of an additional new group of aliens I don’t know much about? The reveal of Squidward, Malekith, Ronan, and Abomination kneeling at the feet of Thanos and Hela would have been a pretty cool moment for audiences.
New movies mean new opportunities to give these characters new dimension, just like the heroes the movies are named for. Malekith in Thor: The Dark World is incredibly dull, but Malekith so desperate for revenge on Thor that he pledges his army to Thanos is an interesting new angle for him. I’m into it for the scene where Hela mocks his failure to destroy Asgard alone. Sometimes it just takes a change of scenery.
Returning villains also create a valuable shorthand for audiences and creators alike. Had the evil army in Avengers: Infinity War been a combined horde of Dark Elves and Chitauri, we wouldn’t have had to take that moment to adjust to an even newer generic CGI horde. Using CGI hordes we already have a connection to allows a moment of familiarity for the viewer, and an intense moment of recognition in our heroes.
It’s Time for the Turk Barrett Method
The tech guys are equally useful to keep around. From Justin Hammer to Stane to Cross, their motivations are simple: Greed. These boys don’t always have to be the focus, but keeping them around and involved gives us a more fleshed out, living and breathing universe. Do you remember the arms dealer that wanted to steal Hank Pym’s lab in Antman and the Wasp? All respect to Walton Goggins, but no. No, you don’t. But if it had been Justin Hammer, and Sam Rockwell had danced his way into a restaurant for a meeting with Hope, the stakes go up just a little more. This is a villain with a little history and a little weight behind him.
These “not quite archnemesis” types are some of the most valuable characters a comic book universe can have. One of my favorite characters in the MCU? Turk, a D-lister at best. A nothing guy that’s just around to move drugs or sell a gun. He could have easily been 25 different faceless bad guys waiting to get punched by a Defender, but the writers saw a value in that 25 guys always being Turk. He’s a connective tissue to the Hell’s Kitchen corner of Marvel. Now, imagine Justin Hammer as the white collar Turk to the larger MCU, or Ronan as hired muscle who is happy to come after anyone in space that needs to get Accused (Accusor-ed?).
Top-Tier Threats Need Top-Tier Arcs
The archnemesis-level folks have a more clear and obvious value, and yet their toys have been cleared out of the sandbox. I’m talking hitters like Ultron, Hela, and Killmonger. Can you imagine if Magneto and Dr. Doom had been killed off in their first comic book appearances? Is there even an X-Men comic without decades of the evolution of Xavier and Magneto?
In losing these villains, we’ve robbed big-screen heroes of that same evolution. Ultron is a top-tier threat to the MCU, sure, but he’s also a constant reminder of the hubris of the Avengers that should never truly go away. I’m still waiting for him to show up in a Guardians of the Galaxy film to wipe out a solar system or three.
Hela may not have had a ton to do in Thor: Ragnarok but Cate Blanchett’s performance alone carried her into the upper echelon. And that’s the point of villains surviving: a performance like that deserves so much more. She deserves to be revisited and fleshed out. Blanchett’s god-powered homage to Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar deserves to be an ongoing factor in Thor’s personal life and in the greater MCU.
Killmonger (and T’Challa) Deserved Better
Which brings us to Killmonger. The MCU has always relied heavily on its villains being “mostly like the hero but slightly different.” It’s a frustrating trope that needs some creative attention, but they nailed it perfectly in one guy: Killmonger. He’s not just “Black Panther but evil.” He’s truly the opposite side of the same coin. He’s charismatic and tragic, and Michael B. Jordan’s performance gives you enough hope that he’s redeemable that you almost want to root for him.
All that to say that Killmonger is the MCU’s Magneto. The dance between Black Panther and Killmonger could, just like the Distinguished Competition’s bat and clown, go on forever. And while Killmonger’s end overlooking the country he had longed for his entire life was a beautiful close to that film, I argue that it was short-sighted, and that Black Panther doesn’t just need Killmonger to fight. None of these heroes just need these villains around to fight. Our heroes need Killmonger, Hela, and even the generic Darren Cross to grow and evolve.
I know a lot of folks are focusing on how undoing the snap is going to affect what our lineup of heroes is going to look like. I’m far more interested in how it changes our gallery of rogues. Marvel has the perfect chance to make like the comics and ignore death. Let’s hope they take it.