“What makes a good villain?” will always be a subjective question, but allow me to lay out a few bad-guy qualities that matter to me personally. I want to find them scary. I want to enjoy their villainy, for it to be creatively, salaciously, deliciously cruel. I want them to be a good foil for the hero: equal or even greater in stature, charismatic and powerful, a dark reflection of them in some way. And here’s an important, if counterintuitive one: I only care about their motivation up to a point.
Sure, it’s important for any well-constructed story to make it clear why the antagonist is doing what they’re doing — to give them both a clear goal and an emotional driver for it. But too detailed a backstory, too rich a deconstruction of their psyche, can be as much of a hindrance as a help in setting up a good villain. They are often scarier and more entertaining if they’re unknowable to some extent, with a hint of humanity, but not too much.
Here are four super-famous examples that meet these criteria, off the top of my head: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Here are the villains from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the most successful movie franchise of all time — that meet these criteria: none of them. Until Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
[Ed. note: Significant spoilers for Multiverse of Madness ahead.]
The MCU’s villain problem is well documented. It was particularly endemic in the series’ early phases, when screen legends like Jeff Bridges or Hugo Weaving would queue up to play forgettable, one-shot antagonists in heroes’ origin stories. Part of the problem was Marvel Studios’ reluctance to spend time developing these characters and its enthusiasm for killing them off after a single appearance, in stark contrast to the way it built decade-long arcs and complex, interwoven storylines for its heroes.
Another issue was simply that the cream of Marvel’s rogues’ gallery, including Doctor Doom, Magneto, and Venom, had all been licensed away to other studios. Can you remember anything meaningful about Christopher Eccleston’s baddie space elf in Thor: The Dark World? Me neither.
The villain problem has been so persistent that it’s started to seem like a kind of aesthetic or storytelling preference. Marvel movies don’t seem overly interested in evil, or even literal darkness. The dominant theme, strangely for films that feature so much violence, is not conflict but the comic opera of the heroes’ internal struggles and interpersonal strife. The most memorable action scene in the entire franchise arguably comes in Captain America: Civil War, when Earth’s mightiest heroes fight not an external threat but each other.
There are a few partial exceptions to this bad-villain rule. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is devilishly charming, and his resentment of his father Odin and brother Thor makes a fun and effective driver for his mischief. But with his wit and his venality, he’s always been more slippery than scary, and fans responded to him so well that subsequent outings have progressively morphed him from an antagonist to an antihero to a sort-of-lovable black sheep. If he hinted at a truly villainous edge in Thor — and in The Avengers, when he orchestrated an alien invasion of Earth in a fit of pique — it’s long gone.
Black Panther’s Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, presents a different side of Marvel’s reluctance to make its best bad guys really bad. He’s a complex and morally thorny character. In his case, it’s his twisted righteousness, rather than his charm, that holds the filmmakers back. He symbolizes the tragic reckoning of the African diaspora with its history and ancestry, and his resentment of Wakanda’s smug seclusion during centuries of Black suffering is more than justified. In that context, it wouldn’t sit well to portray him as outright evil, so the most despicable villainy in the film is outsourced to Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue.
Cate Blanchett’s iconically styled Hela, goddess of death, from Thor: Ragnarok deserves a shoutout. (I suppose it’s not surprising that figures from Norse mythology should furnish the Marvel universe with two of its most memorable and clearly defined antagonists.) Hela is fearsome and cruel, but she’s an abstract creation — more of an idea about entropy, decay, and death than an actual character.
And this is also my complaint with the mighty Thanos, the end boss of the Avengers series and the entire first three phases of the MCU. Perhaps it’s the character’s weightless CG bulk, or Josh Brolin’s measured diction and melancholy eyes, but something about him doesn’t connect on the visceral level that a great villain should. He’s too intellectual, academic almost, in the way he pursues his terrible goal to wipe out half of all life. And he appears to shoulder the burden of being the worst person in the universe with a level of reluctance and even regret. He doesn’t even extend us the courtesy of enjoying himself.
The Scarlet Witch — also known as Wanda Maximoff, but I’m referring to her by the character’s alter ego deliberately — is a terrific baddie. She’s frighteningly powerful and devious in the ways she uses her power. She’s a good match for the hero, Stephen Strange, in both themes and temperament. She’s not so much morally ambiguous as amoral, or perhaps post-moral; she thinks she’s right and doesn’t care if what she’s doing about it is wrong.
On paper, it’s not surprising that the most effective villain in a Marvel movie to date should be a character who’s had the luxury of extensive development over the course of several movies and even her own TV show. Audiences have a rich relationship with Wanda already, so her heel turn at the start of Multiverse of Madness packs a dramatic punch. Elizabeth Olsen has a huge amount of material to draw on as she steers Wanda to the dark side in her pursuit of a reality in which she can be reunited with the two sons she imagined into existence in WandaVision.
But I’m not sure how relevant this backstory is to the reasons Scarlet Witch works so well in the villain role. If anything, it’s an impediment. I’m not going to get deep into the heated debate over whether Wanda breaking bad does right by the character; for me, it felt satisfying and consistent with the end of WandaVision, although I accept that it plays into a problematic deranged-mother archetype.
Setting that aside, it’s definitely a structural problem for Multiverse of Madness that it requires familiarity with the plot of WandaVision to make much sense. As podcaster Chris Ryan has pointed out, an evil Scarlet Witch from another universe simply tearing into our reality with mayhem on her mind might have worked more cleanly.
The best thing about the Scarlet Witch in Multiverse of Madness, and the thing that most distinguishes her from all her MCU predecessors, is that she’s scary. Olsen, a brilliant actor who demonstrated a huge range in WandaVision, gives her an implacable, deadened surface, with controlled rage and suppressed grief roiling visibly beneath. Her voice dips into a low, menacing register, and her gaze burns. Whether in full Scarlet Witch regalia or the homely duds of alternate-universe Wanda, she has a frightening aspect, and director Sam Raimi tops off the look by drenching her in blood by the end of the film (a tribute to Sissy Spacek in Carrie, another tale of a troubled woman unleashing the full force of her fury).
Raimi’s playful, gruesome visual imagination emphasizes the Scarlet Witch’s immense power, but also her ingenuity and cruelty. Both in her mind-bending escape from the mirror world Strange attempts to contain her in, and in her shocking demolition of the members of the Illuminati, the Scarlet Witch doesn’t just outgun her opponents with her ability to bend reality — she out-thinks them, too. The deliciously wicked icing on the villainous cake is the way she turns the Illuminati heroes’ powers against them. Reed Richards is unraveled like a scarf. Black Bolt implodes his own head. Professor X is ensnared in a mental trap before she snaps his neck.
There’s humor and poetry to these kills, a pleasure in wickedness, and a shock value that goes beyond how almost-gory they are. The audience for a Marvel film expects surprises, but not these kinds of surprises. They expect cameos from fan-favorite actors like Patrick Stewart and Hayley Atwell, but they don’t expect them to be summarily murdered moments later. This is Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron upending the MCU formula, albeit within the safe confines of a plausibly deniable multiverse story.
But it’s also the only time, aside from Thanos’ snap, that a Marvel villain has been allowed to shred the moral and physical invincibility of the heroes in this world. Scarlet Witch rips these alternate-universe heroes apart because she can, and does it in a way that shows how pathetic she finds them. There’s a frisson of perverse pleasure to be had from her disregard for everything their universe holds to be important. She’s repeatedly held up as a meaningful parallel for Strange, who is as seduced as she is by the unfettered power of the dark arts, but who still tries to cling to a moral compass. Her casual murder of the Illuminati also ups the stakes for Strange’s quest considerably. Surely someone so powerful can’t be beaten, the sequence suggests, and someone so hollowed-out can’t be reasoned with.
It turns out that she can, but only by herself. Scarlet Witch is destructively focused on a fantasy. America Chavez shows her the truth of her own villainy by showing her how terrifying her behavior and what she’s become would be to her beloved boys. Meanwhile, the variant Wanda shows her enough compassion that she’s able to understand how she’s gone wrong. She breaks free of the Darkhold and destroys it, and maybe herself. It’s not a traditional villain takedown, but in the context of a character who had previously been a hero, it’s fitting.
Fans may never come to terms with a character they loved being turned into such a monster. But they should take solace in what a fine monster she became. One function of a good villain is to shake us out of complacency, to challenge our sacred cows, and to do the unthinkable, the unconscionable. Supercharged by the mischievous Raimi, Scarlet Witch is powerful enough, frightening enough, and seductive enough to rip through the MCU’s conventions — if only for half a movie — and show us a world where bad things can happen that we can feel good about. I hope the portal to this dimension stays open.