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Marvel movies have always needed villains — now it has them

The biggest change to the Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t be adding more heroes, but the opposite

Doctor Victor Von Doom, ruler of Latveria and arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four. Marvel Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

After a month of rumors, a historic deal has gone through. Disney announced that it has acquired a majority of 21st Century Fox’s holdings, which includes several film and television franchises like Avatar, The Simpsons, and — as you might have heard — the X-Men and (presumably) the Fantastic Four.

Marvel Comics’ film licenses haven’t been so consolidated under a single corporate heading in 25 years. Forums have been abuzz for weeks about the potential to finally see the X-Men stand alongside the Avengers — to see Spider-Man pal around with his buddy Deadpool, or to see T’Challa of Wakanda woo his one-time queen, Storm of the X-Men.

But, believe it or not, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t need more heroes. What the MCU really gains — setting aside the significant monetary value of the acquisition — is something else entirely.

Villains wanted — apply within

The Marvel Cinematic universe is notoriously bad at villains, relative to its peers. Ian McKellan’s Magneto, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin defined an earlier era of superhero films in a way that only Tom Hiddleston’s Loki can be said to have since. These were parts and actors who became instantly definitive interpretations of characters who already had decades of reinterpretation under their belts.

Do you remember the name of Sam Rockwell’s evil arms dealer in Iron Man 2? The actor who played Batroc the Leaper in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? I didn’t think so. Josh Brolin as Thanos could very well break this trend in Avengers: Infinity War. But we haven’t even really met him, yet, so who knows?

(Baron) Zemo, the architect of all of Captain America: Civil War’s strife, actually worked pretty well. But that was in large part because the movie leaned into the criticism of its antagonists as forgettable — the screenwriters and directors built a villain who used his distance from the main characters as his greatest asset.

The reason that villains get minimized in superhero movies is usually because the film is spending more time with its heroes, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe frequently does. Batman franchises have fantastic villain turns, and therefore run into the opposite problem — the focus on building up a villain as a threat and developing their backstory necessarily puts the taciturn, isolated Batman in the backseat for character development. Batman movies are often much more about their villains then they are about Bruce Wayne.

So the problem isn’t simply about how Marvel has weak villains that aren’t memorable. As Commissioner Gordon would say, the problem is escalation. Someday soon (May 3, 2019, to be precise), the Avengers are going to defeat Thanos, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have to figure out who the team could possibly fight next without it feeling like a letdown.

Until now, the MCU’s biggest problem was that the most powerful villains in the universe were licensed to Fox.

Fantastic Four

Disney, the Devourer of Worlds

The Marvel Universe as we know it began with a single comic: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1, a 1961 team superhero book intended to rival DC Comics’ Justice League of America, which had become the company’s best-selling title a year before. As Marvel’s “first family,” the adventures of the Four were the springing-off point for many heroes — including the Inhumans and Black Panther — and a place to appear as guests before spinning off into their own books.

Rights to characters who originated in the Fantastic Four comics have often been murky. Black Panther and the Inhumans are fair game for the MCU, having apparently stood on their own long enough to be separated. The shapeshifting invaders known as the Skrulls, however, were co-owned by Marvel and 20th Century Fox.

Other major characters have been completely off the table. The real boon of bringing the Fantastic Four into the Marvel Cinematic Universe will not be welcoming Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm.

It’ll be winning back Doctor Doom and Galactus.

In the pages of Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby created some of the most compelling and powerful villains the Marvel Universe knows; these are the threats that truly require the Avengers to assemble. A Lex Luthor; a Darth Vader; a Saruman. And one character who combines all of those in one is Doctor Victor Von Doom, sovereign ruler of Latveria, mixer of magic and science, school rival of Mr. Fantastic and villain in the classic pulp-adventure style.

As the MCU goes on beyond Thanos, it’ll need a bigger villain than a god. And there’s no bigger villain than Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, who was first encountered and defeated by the Fantastic Four in their 48th, 49th and 50th issues.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe can survive without the Fantastic Four, and it has even proved that it can survive without the X-Men. But whether it can survive without an Avengers-level villain to follow Thanos is now a question that Disney no longer has to ask.