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Marvel's Black Villain Era

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The question of villainy has always been a complicated issue for African Americans in film. Being seen as full characters has been a struggle, and Black people were so marginalized in American cinema they didn’t even get to be bad guys. The biggest notable exception of course is D.W. Griffith’s landmark film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which climaxes with a Black U.S. Senator (played by a white man in blackface) trying to rape a virginal white woman. 

But for much of American film history, Black people were more likely invisible or providing dutiful service to white characters. It wasn’t until the '70s that you began to see Black people getting the opportunity to twirl their metaphorical mustaches, and then almost always in opposing a Black hero. 

Probably the first most iconic Black villain I ever saw on the big screen was Evilene (played with relish by the late Mabel King) in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of “The Wiz” (1978). There is a lot to unpack with the construction of Evilene. In the film she is designed to look like a nightmarish mammy figure, and as a sweatshop proprietress, she economically oppresses Black people in a way meant to echo slavery (it must also be said the Lena Horne’s Glenda brings up the issue of colorism as she is Evilene’s benevolent opposite number). She only has two scenes in the film, but they are memorable ones, and the character seems to loom larger over the story than she actually does. (Of course, there’s also the most iconic villain of the last 50 years who was voiced by a Black actor named James Earl Jones, and, while that voice is undeniably a major part of Darth Vader’s mystique, I am not sure I would call him a Black villain.)

The ranks of great Black movie villains are, in truth, fairly thin. In my youth, we had Sgt. Waters (played by the late Adolph Caesar) in “A Soldier’s Story (1984), Sho’Nuff (played by the late Julius J. Carry III) in “The Last Dragon” (1985), and of course Danny Glover as Mister in “The Color Purple” (1985). The same year we met Mister, we saw Tina Turner as ruthless post-apocalyptic political boss Aunty Entity in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). As disparate as these characters are (some are comic, some tragic, some both), they all have a complex relationship to power, specifically power they had seized through capitalism, the military, patriarchy, an appropriated martial art from another culture, or apocalypse and attempted to replace those who have oppressed them. 

I remember that many of these Black villains were framed as being significant because they were so rare, but also because they all forced the audience to confront how the experience of being Black in America could easily lead a person to being the bad guy. Even without lengthy monologues about the corrupting forces of racism on Black people, the combination of evil and Blackness can in the right hands elevate a bad guy to something more than he’d be without either component. Consider the fact that our greatest living film actor won an Oscar for a lead performance not for playing a civil rights icon but for playing a flamboyantly corrupt cop. Many quipped that Denzel was rewarded for becoming a malignant symbol of the system run amok, but maybe there’s more to the power of the performance than fulfilling a stereotype of brutality. 

From the outset, the cycle of superhero movies by Marvel Studios that began with “Iron Man” (2008) have clearly evinced an understanding that the quality of the villains was going to be critical to the success of the series. The very phrase “comic book villain” is often synonymous with a two-dimensional bad guy, a narrative and genre necessity and nothing more. So rather than fall into this trap, the filmmakers behind “Iron Man” followed the lead of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and gave their first hero a villain who was their father figure. And his motive was both universal and endearingly petty: entitlement. For good measure they picked Jeff Bridges, one of our greatest actors, one year before he won the Oscar, to become their prototype antagonist.

In the decade and a half since, we have seen many variations of the same Marvel villain. Often, they are a fallen angel, someone who could have been a hero but for one fateful turn of events. But sometimes Marvel movie heavies are evil just because they want power, not to redress some wrong but simply because they feel entitled to have it. However, too much of that kind of bad guy and we are back to “comic book villain” territory. So, at times, alterations have to be made. Thanos, the capo di tutti capi thus far in Marvel villains, was changed from being a powerful incel trying in vain to woo the personification of Death by killing half of the universe as a pathetic gesture of amorous devotion, to essentially an eco-terrorist trying to save us from the consequences of our overpopulation. 

The saga to stop and then reverse Thanos’ mass murder was a success for Marvel Studios but it also had an unforeseen side effect: it signaled to the audience that the MCU was effectively over. The last few years have been challenging for an uber-franchise that once seemed unstoppable. Not only does it feel like a guest that has overstayed his welcome, the MCU is also falling prey to that inevitable outcome of all empires: overexpansion. Disney+ necessitated the creation of MCU series, and the production of those shows on top of the theatrical features has led to a distinct slippage in quality. 

A frustrating and fascinating aspect of Marvel’s Decline Era is the way race and gender have become weaponized. There has always been a toxic element amongst the fandom, of course. But now that the first generation heroes who were largely white guys are bowing out and being replaced by heroes who are Black (both Captain America and Iron Man had Black besties - a hallmark of earlier eras’ half-measure liberalism - who are now being promoted to fill the big shoes), or otherwise non-white and often women, the racism and sexism that always existed in fandom has become especially vocal and malignant. Racist and misogynist fanboys will see the expansion of what heroes can look like as a cause of the MCU’s decline when in fact over-farming of the soil is a far more likely factor for a bad crop.

Marvel Studios has developed an at times impressive if uneven rogue’s gallery; and as alluded to earlier, it has been noted by many that a formula can be detected. These bad guys aren’t just evil for the sake of evil. What motivates them often is rooted in some kind of grievance, often a relatable or at least understandable one. Probably the most striking case of this is the decision to make the antagonist of “Black Panther” (2018) not a stand-in for European colonialist depravity but someone determined to avenge it. 

That choice, call it the Killmonger Precedent, paid off handsomely. It made Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger one of the MCU’s most iconic bad guys (the first proper Black villain of the MCU since Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo in “Doctor Strange” in 2016 was not the film’s antagonist) and elevated the film from being merely an entertainment or box checked toward Marvel’s diversity bona fides; even those who objected to the villainization of someone driven by values of Black Liberation (and they were many) had to on some level admit that the discourse around Killmonger is what made “Black Panther” work. If Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue had been the bad guy, the film would have been cleaner, simpler, and there would not be much to argue about. Having a Black villain, espousing his ideology, gave Marvel a sense of being “important.”

Last year represents a curious milestone for the MCU where race is concerned: every villain in every 2023 film or series was Black (with the exception of the second season of their animated series "What If…"). When I’ve pointed that out to people, the response is usually, “how did that happen?” But for me there are bigger questions this raises.

The goal of increased representation for Black characters in American film has historically been about combating negative, stereotypical depictions and replacing them with more three-dimensional and positive characters. Sixty years ago, the push for these kinds of characters that represented the best aspects of humanity was an understandable reaction to being restricted to being comic relief, the help, buffoons, or worse. But inevitably, once those trails have been blazed the time comes for a different kind of representation. 

Context is everything, and there’s a world of difference between Jonathan Majors being asked to play a genocidal maniac now and Sidney Poitier being offered a similar part in 1962. In fact, I have heard many Black actors suggest that in some ways being able to play all of the spectrum of humanity, the heroic, the villainous, and everything in between is the best outcome of any campaign towards increasing on-screen diversity; so long, of course as those villainous portrayals steer clear of old stereotypes. So the fact that Marvel gave us a year of all Black villains is not in and of itself a bad thing nor a good thing. But it does, for me at least, make me wonder what this occurrence tells us about the contemporary depiction of race in film. 

While I don’t think a chronological approach is necessarily the best, it seems remiss to not start with the introduction of Jonathan Majors’ Kang the Conqueror in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.” Before his misdemeanor conviction on assault and harassment, Majors was clearly being groomed to be the next Thanos, the new Final Boss that only the combined forces of all the active heroes of the MCU could stop. He had been introduced in 2021 in the first season finale of “Loki” as He who Remains, an enigmatic and powerful keeper of multidimensional order. He warned that his murder would bring about malevolent versions of himself and that is who we meet in “Quantumania.” Everything about Kang now feels ill-fated. Majors does well in both Darth Vader mode and convincingly portraying Kang’s vulnerability in befriending Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) when both are trapped in exile outside of time and space in the Quantum Realm. But despite the attempt to outdo Thanos, Kang falls short because in the end his motives are too vague and his ideology is non-existent. He’s just a genocidal strongman who feels justified in his actions even if he never truly communicates why. 

Naturally, Kang’s Blackness is never referenced. And that’s one of the interesting tensions in Black villains. No matter what, we are on some level engaging with their Blackness and seeing their villany through that lens. Often that takes the form of using their Blackness as a visual signifier of some traumatic past which put them on the path to being bad. Or it can just be there without any significance at all. I should note Major’s Kang is the second Black villain in the Ant-Man trilogy: British actress Hannah John-Kamen (of Norwegian and Nigerian descent) played Ghost in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018), a character that is neither female nor Black in the comics. Ghost wasn’t truly a villain, just a young woman who couldn’t control her powers (a hoary cliche of comic books), and very much the opposite of Kang. 

If Kang has a grievance, it will remain a mystery unless they decide to discard the character after Majors' firing. He is dispatched in “Quantumania,” but again, the multiverse renders the idea of the villain being defeated meaningless as the film literally ends with a stadium of Jonathan Majors variants roaring and getting hyped for the multiversal carnage to come. 

Majors’ final MCU appearance is in the second season of “Loki,” This season of “Loki” is such a mess it is hard to say with total authority whether or not it even has a villain. Majors plays both He Who Remains and late 19th century scientific genius Victor Timely (his surname an Easter Egg for those who are up on Marvel’s real life publication origin story). But Timely is not the antagonist. He’s just another pawn in a nonsensical and tiresome checkers game. Majors, whose muscular physique has always been an important part of his persona, must have enjoyed himself playing a turn-of-the-century science nerd, a pretty rare role for Black actors now or in the past. His mid-Atlantic accent seems out of place for a 19th century Black man from Illinois, but sweating such details is a path to nowhere. 

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (of South African and English descent) kinda sorta becomes the bad guy of sophomore season “Loki” as a Ravonna Renslayer, a renegade time cop who decides to set herself up as the new multiversal overlord. But the character is so thin there isn’t much to say despite Mbatha-Raw’s valiant attempt to create a coherent character out of this unfortunate train wreck. We last see her before she meets her fate in the maw of an energy kaiju from season one, a particularly strong punishment for such a weak antagonist. Mbatha-Raw deserved so much better. 

The absolute nadir of this quartet of Black baddies has to be Gravik, the revolutionary leader of a dissident group of Skrulls (a shape shifting alien race who have been furtive refugees on earth since the 1990s) in last summer’s Disney+ miniseries “Secret Invasion.” Another convoluted mess, this show is the first MCU project to center Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury as its lead in a story that finds him returning to earth after years in space to help put down a revolt of Skrulls who have decided to take over the planet that has given them sanctuary (there’s a nasty right wing undercurrent to this plot that I assume is more a product of the filmmakers’ thoughtlessness than a conscious political agenda).

British actor (are you sensing a pattern?) Kinglsey Ben-Adir (of European and Trinidadian descent) plays Gravik, who we learn came to earth as a child and has become radicalized after decades of Fury’s failure to find the Skrulls a permanent homeworld. Gravik is an inverse of the Spider-Man villain, his is the fury of a disillusioned son toward the fallible father figure he once regarded with God-like awe. 

Again, Gravik is so undernourished there isn’t much to say about him. His grievance is the only interesting thread in him, but even that fails to develop into anything complex. Gravik isn’t even a good Killmonger since he clearly views Skrulls as expendable as humans in his drive to conquer this planet, such as it is. Since the Skrulls are shape shifters, Gravik is not strictly speaking a Black character, yet casting a young Black man in this part of a bloodthirsty revolutionary clearly taps into some fraught history and the racist, nativist idea that today’s grateful immigrant is tomorrow’s arrogant usurper. 

It should be noted that Ben-Adir was raised Jewish and that the Skrulls have long been depicted in a manner that echoes antisemitic conspiracy theories (in 2019 “Captain Marvel” brilliantly debunked this take on the Skrulls as evil infiltrators only to have “Secret Invasion” undo that and double down). Would “Secret Invasion” be a different show if Ryan Gosling were cast as Gravik? Not particularly. But Ben-Adir’s identity cannot be wholly divested from the Otherness of the villain he’s playing. 

With the failures out of the way, it’s time to finally take a look at the two more successful characterizations. In James Gunn’s MCU swan song “The Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 3,” Nigerian-British actor Chukwudi Iwuji plays the High Evolutionary, an extraterrestrial humanoid with cybernetic enhancements who is the CEO of an interplanetary bio-engineering firm. In addition to crafting the best trilogy of the MCU, Gunn has also managed to create heartfelt films in this idiom. The love he has for his flawed characters brings to mind someone like Hal Ashby. And the eternal villain in Gunn’s work is pretty clear: ethnonationalism. 

Every villain in a James Gunn film (I have not seen his first two pre-Marvel features) is trying to erase diversity or replace it with homogeneity. His Max original “Peacemaker" series (for DC/Warner Bros.) made that literal with an actual white nationalist villain (I suspect Marvel Studios would never sign off on that). Having a Black actor play a sociopathic character obsessed with engineering a master race is a bold choice. But it pays off, in my view. Iwuji’s High Evolutionary is a welcome respite from all the sad-eyed mass murderers with complex inner lives the MCU has presented us with (even Ultron the genocidal android had time for some self-pitying moments). The High Evolutionary has no grievance. He has no tragic backstory. He just has a toxic ideology that makes him evil. And Iwuji tears into this character like a small child opening a Christmas present. 

The same is true of British actress Zawe Ashton (of Ugandan and English descent, also affianced to Tom Hiddleston who has played the iconic Marvel villain Loki since 2011) who plays Dar-Benn, a gender and race flipped Kree warlord hellbent on saving the Kree homeworld in Nia DaCosta’s unjustly maligned “The Marvels.” Dar-Benn is saving her world from a disaster caused by Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel and she is willing to commit war crimes on any race standing between her and what she needs. Like Iwuji, Ashton is having a ball playing this character and throws herself into becoming a figure of unhinged evil that has an undercurrent of almost sexual intensity (her character reminded me of English actress Kathleen Byron’s bravura turn in Powell and Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus”). It should be noted that this is the only Black villain realized under the direction of a person of African descent. 

Ashton’s Dar-Benn isn’t all pyrotechnics. Her character starts off like so many Marvel villains with a reasonable grievance (her homeworld is dying), but as this Black woman offers herself up to become an avatar of imperialism, the power she needs to save her planet and her own revanchist bloodlust turns her into a monster. James Gunn introduced Kree nationalism to the MCU, so it is fitting that Dar-Benn comes to bear a resemblance to the High Evolutionary. 

Some will say it’s a reach to say this, but casting Black actors in parts where they must embody some of the uglier forces visited upon their ancestors can, these films suggest, enrich a text and add levels that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Like the iconic Black villains of my youth, they can suggest a complicated argument about what it means to be bad. This is true of the rival DCEU franchise villain Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis). Her race is never mentioned, but when I look at Waller, I see how the single-minded persistence needed to break glass ceilings can also make a person capable of unspeakable acts. The best storytellers know how to use race to their stories’ advantage. And for lesser filmmakers who are simply pushing red buttons on an amusement park control panel, it's just one more missed opportunity. 

Brandon David Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a filmmaker, film writer, and lecturer.

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