For a long time, the biggest criticism anyone hurled at the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that, aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the franchise had no good villains. “They’re all the same,” “they’re all one-note,” “they aren’t interesting or memorable,” etc., were complaints lobbied at the franchise’s antagonists throughout Phases One and Two; until 2017’s Ego, from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, praise for the villains was rare. But while Phase Three and onward have seen this complaint die, were they ever accurate, to begin with? Perhaps Marvel’s Phase One villains were never really deserving of this scorn, as it was simply received wisdom that had gone unquestioned.
The MCU started with a bang in 2008 with Iron Man. This film featured Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane as the unexpected antagonist. Following him was Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer and Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash in Iron Man 2, Colm Feore’s Laufey and, of course, Loki in Thor (and later The Avengers), and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. However, it wasn’t until The Avengers that the MCU truly became the decade-defining phenomenon it is now, and the expectations of the individual films were not the same as in 2022.
MCU’s Phase 1 Villains Had Great Performances
Bridges’ Stane is an unexpected antagonist — what is often termed a “twist” villain. This is what makes him so effective. Played by the Dude himself, with a fatherly dynamic with Tony Stark and an affable demeanor, Stane seems like a figure of trust for most of Iron Man, but his effective performance and direction (the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it magazine cover of him standing over the world in the opening montage) foreshadow his reveal as the mastermind (bilingual fans will catch it before the opening credits). His menace as he leans over Tony in the climax or towers over Pepper like a horror movie villain is genuinely chilling; his status as the embodiment of the corporate greed Tony is walking away from makes him a compelling foil.
Tim Roth as Abomination has long gone underappreciated by fans. He, too, begins The Incredible Hulk as a likable presence, a dutiful soldier following the vendetta of General Ross and genuinely terrified when faced with the Hulk for the first time. Roth’s character slowly develops an obsession, Inspector Javert-style, with catching the Hulk and growing strong enough to take him on. He slowly destroys himself with his obsession. Iron Man 2‘s villains serve a similar function, with Rockwell’s Hammer playing Salieri to Tony’s Mozart, like Stane, and Whiplash becoming the vengeance-obsessed monster, like Blonsky.
MCU Phase 1 Villains Are Underrated
While praise has always been high for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, fans have also noticed the powerful and understated performance of Colm Feore as Thor‘s secondary antagonist, Laufey. King of the Frost Giants, Laufey has three scenes of dialogue in the film, but Feore makes the most of them. There is a gravitas to his words as he whispers, “You know not what your actions would unleash. I do,” to Thor, his eyes bearing the weight of centuries of subjects lost to warfare. His simple words lend a certain tragedy to all he does; there is a sense of these frightening-looking movie aliens as simply another group of beings and an Aesop in their destruction that Thor must learn as he tragically swaps places with Loki by the finale.
Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is more of a classic, Grand Moff Tarkin-style super-villain. He operates, rather than a being of pathos, as an ideal dark foil to Steve Rogers. A fellow experiment of Dr. Erskine’s, he is what Cap could have been, the cautionary tale of the experimental serum and the dangers of pure power lust. Like the villains of Indiana Jones, he is a power-mad Nazi who plays with fire until it burns him up. Weaving’s delivery holds a dark, deadly conviction. The character’s fascination and annoyance with Steve, as the person he should have been, makes for a fascinating dynamic.
Between all these different powerhouse performances and fascinating antagonists in Phase One, one must ask — where does this notion come from that Phase One’s villains were lacking? Why do they not get the praise afforded Phase Three? Perhaps it is time to look back and re-evaluate the pre-established notion, often accepted as truth: that the MCU’s villains were ever lacking in the first place.