Cheering for the villain

Welcome back to this week’s Comic Character Spotlight! Today we’ll be doing things a bit differently and spotlighting a few different characters that fall under Marvel’s common portrayal of their villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Particularly, in MCU films, Marvel struggles to find a balance between evoking sympathy for their villains and successfully portraying them as antagonistic figures. If a villain has a seemingly righteous cause, the screenwriters often ensure that they commit erratic acts of violence in an attempt to prevent audiences from sympathizing too much with them.  

The most recent example of this can be seen in “Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness” (2022).  The antagonist of the film, Wanda Maximoff, has a deceptively simple goal — to be united with her children in an alternate reality. To achieve this goal, she would have to take America Chavez’s power of venturing through the multiverse, thereby killing her in the process. 

However, the immense popularity of the character following the success of “Wandavision” (2021) may prevent viewers from seeing her as the true villain of the film, as her driving force is a mother’s love. Therefore, the film is filled with Wanda’s gruesome and murderous rampage as she hunts America Chavez through multiple universes in order to obtain her power. Wanda’s brutal undoing of beloved characters such as Professor X and Mr. Fantastic should cement her as the character to root against, right? Not necessarily.  

Even as Marvel portrayed Wanda’s acts as unmistakably cruel and violent, her tragic story of grief and heartbreak, alongside Elizabeth Olsen’s brilliant portrayal of the character, calls into question how much an audience could truly root against this villain.

Similarly, Michael Keaton’s Vulture in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2018) also has a fair reason behind his pursuit of villainy. He simply wishes to provide for his family. In doing the same thing Tony Stark was preoccupied with in the past — the sale of weapons — he aims to give his loved ones a stable life. 

While viewers may first be intimidated by his menacing appearance, in reality, the Vulture never becomes an obstacle in Spider-Man’s path until Peter Parker becomes a direct threat to the business he worked tirelessly to build up. This “villain” the audience is meant to root against didn’t actually do anything wrong per se. Well, other than the crime of caring for his family to a fault.  

I find that oftentimes the conflict between rooting for the villain and supporting the lovable heroes of the movie, in this case, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man respectively, is what makes for some of the most engaging and enjoyable MCU films. There are definitely more villains that fit under this category, such as Erik Killmonger from the film “Black Panther” (2018), but that will be explored in a future, potential sequel to “Cheering for the Villain.”