2018: The Year in Villainy

It was a cinematic year that was primarily dominated by two Marvel villains, both of whom made big splashes. It’s hard to pick just one for the coveted title of Villain Of The Year, but ultimately there was one villain who just had to be given the title, and that villain is…

Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War

It had to be Thanos as Villain Of The Year. No other villain made as much of an impact on the lives of a movie’s characters. And not only did Thanos massively change (and, at least temporarily, end) the lives of dozens of superheroes, he also hugely impacted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has become a box-office juggernaut ever since the release of Iron Man in 2008. With Thanos, Marvel showed that it is not afraid to shake up the status quo of its hugely profitable film franchise. And really, the fact that Thanos actually succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe makes him Villain Of The Year pretty much automatically.

Marvel/Disney

Also, remember when he THREW A PLANET AT IRON MAN??? Holy crap that was awesome.

Josh Brolin did fantastic work bringing Thanos to life, and the writers, directors, and special-effects people created a character who was surprisingly sympathetic, instead of the two-dimensional power-hungry jerk the character could have easily been if he had not been handled so well. Infinity War was the culmination of a decade’s worth of blockbuster movies, and thanks to Thanos the Marvel Cinematic Universe will never be the same. And for the record, I am still not over that Spider-Man scene. You know the one. Sniff.

Erik Killmonger in Black Panther

Marvel/Disney

In any other year, Killmonger would have been Villain Of The Year. But thanks to Thanos, he is a very strong runner-up. Michael B. Jordan was excellent and turned Killmonger, much like Thanos, into a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. The viewer could understand Killmonger’s point of view, even while disagreeing with his actions. He was charismatic, intelligent and badass. He was everything a great movie villain should be. I’ve got him as a very close runner-up for VOTY, but if he’s your number one I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong.

Captain Wafner in Overlord

Paramount Pictures

In stark contrast to sympathetic villains like Thanos and Killmonger, Captain Wafner was a villain with no redeeming qualities at all. He was a sadistic Nazi captain who was irredeemably evil even before he got half his face blown off and injected himself with an experimental serum that gave him ungodly strength and turned him into even more of a monster. Overlord was one of the year’s goriest thrill rides, and its villain was one of the year’s nastiest.

The Predators in The Predator

20th Century Fox

Speaking of gory thrill rides, it’s a toss-up between Overlord and Shane Black’s much-maligned Predator reboot for the title of goriest movie of the year. The Predator had its share of flaws, but I still found it to be an enjoyable, if bumpy, ride, and probably the best thing about it was seeing the different varieties of Predator that Black and his creative team conjured up. The design of the Predator in the original 1987 Predator movie was great to begin with, so Black didn’t change it too much. But he did add a few new wrinkles that were fun to see even if the Predator dog creatures were a little goofy, complete as they were with Predator dreadlocks.

The Meg in The Meg

Warner Bros.

The Meg is the film that finally answered the age-old question, “What would happen if Jason Statham were to fight an enormous shark?” The Meg is a deeply cheesy B-movie that was nonetheless quite enjoyable, and its massive shark was its crowning achievement. Or should I say sharks, because there are actually two of the giant beasts. The toothy monstrosities are enormous and, of course, hungry for nubile human flesh. The Meg is a thoroughly preposterous movie that is certainly no masterpiece, but it is quite a bit of fun and its gargantuan shark beasts should be more than enough to satisfy any fan of aquatic monster movies.

Solomon Lane and August Walker in Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise’s latest Mission: Impossible flick was the thrill ride of the year, and it had two quality villains to give Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the rest of his team a run for their money. Sean Harris reprises his role as the diabolical Solomon Lane from the previous M:I film, and Superman himself, Henry Cavill, played August Walker, who was more than a match for Ethan in a fight. Give Lane and Walker credit: they came this close to enacting their evil plan, only to be thwarted at literally the last possible second. Being a bad guy can be a thankless task when all your hard work comes to naught. Hopefully they’ll try again in a few years, because I want more Mission: Impossible movies. Or at least Lane can try again, Walker won’t be able to participate on account of being extremely dead.

Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp

Marvel/Disney

It was a year of sympathetic villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ghost was a young woman who was suffering from a unique condition that gave her the ability to phase through solid objects and teleport short distances, which made her hard to handle in a fight, though her powers are unstable. But she became more sympathetic once the viewer learned about her tragic backstory, how she lost her parents in the lab accident that gave her powers and how shady government types took advantage of her powers to turn her into a weapon. She was the main superpowered antagonist for most of Ant-Man and The Wasp, but the movie ends with her seemingly cured of her affliction so perhaps we’ll see her again down the road.

The Murdersaurus (technically the Indoraptor) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Universal

You could argue that the main villains of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom were the morons who thought it would be a good idea to auction off a bunch of dinosaurs, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But those people were all idiots and dinosaurs are much cooler, so let’s talk about the Indoraptor instead. I dubbed it the Murdersaurus because it was a genetically-engineered death lizard designed specifically for hunting and killing. It gets to do a lot of hunting and killing in the second half of Fallen Kingdom, and I was kind of sad when it died because it was my favorite character in the movie.

Lizzy and Ralph in Rampage

Warner Bros.

Speaking of monster movies where all of the human characters were pretty dumb, Rampage was another deeply silly movie that I enjoyed quite a bit, it just might have been my guilty-pleasure movie of the year. The monsters were George the albino gorilla, Ralph the wolf, and Lizzy the (I think) alligator, all of whom were mutated to enormous size and exceptional ferocity. I didn’t include George as one of the villains because he ultimately becomes a good ape again, despite causing a lot of death and destruction. The monsters are fun to watch and the special effects are top-notch, and much like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom the monsters are much more entertaining the bland human characters.

The Screenslaver in Incredibles 2

Disney/Pixar

For a kids movie, Incredibles 2 had a surprisingly sophisticated villain. Writer/director Brad Bird’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2008 original, Incredibles 2 is that rare movie that is fun for kids but also contains a lot for adults to enjoy. This is a movie that treats its viewers with respect, regardless of whether that viewer happens to be a kid or a grown-up. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Incredibles 2 makes it look easy. The Screenslaver is a villain who takes advantage of the world’s overreliance on technology, and manipulates the omnipresent screens that are all around us. That’s a scary idea. The Screenslaver is one of the most culturally-relevant cinematic villains of the year.

Dryden Vos in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Disney/Lucasfilm

Paul Bettany is one of my favorite actors. He’s the kind of actor who elevates any movie he’s in. Since he frequently plays good guys, it’s always fun to watch him cut loose as a bad guy and really chew some scenery. He chewed scenery with aplomb in the latest Star Wars spinoff as a ruthless crime lord named Dryden Vos, who was at least part alien. Dryden is the kind of villain who acts friendly one moment but can explode into murderous rage at the drop of a hat. I like villains like that because their unpredictability ensures that the viewer is always on edge whenever they are around. Bettany’s role in the film is not a huge one, which is not too surprising if you’re aware of the movie’s behind-the-scenes drama (Bettany’s role was initially played by a different actor), but he makes an impression with a limited amount of screen time, as all great actors do.

Cable in Deadpool 2

20th Century Fox

Okay, so this is another debatable one, since Cable and Deadpool end up as allies. But much like Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp, Cable serves as the superpowered antagonist for much of the film, so he counts. It was a big year for Josh Brolin playing Marvel comics characters, and he was perfectly cast as the gruff cyborg Cable. He looks pretty much identical to how Cable looks in the comics, and is placed front and center along with Deadpool in the movie’s biggest action scenes. Deadpool 2 was more cluttered than its predecessor, but it benefited from a more complex antagonist, even though I haven’t forgotten that Cable and Deadpool become pals by the end of the movie and have a long history of teaming up in the comics, so perhaps we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Mathias Vogel in Tomb Raider

Warner Bros.

Walton Goggins was another actor who had a busy year playing villains. In addition to playing the main villain in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, he also played a secondary villain in Ant-Man and The Wasp. Goggins is an actor who frequently plays slimy bad guys, and he was well-suited to both of his villainous roles this year. In Tomb Raider he played Mathias Vogel, the leader of an expedition to find a hidden artifact with Great and Terrible Power. He was not a nice person, but he was at least somewhat sympathetic by virtue of the fact that he had been stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere for years and desperately wanted to return home. Still, he was a nasty fellow and his death was thematically appropriate and quite satisfying.

So there you have it, my favorite villains of 2018. Keep in mind that this was not a comprehensive list of every villain in every movie I saw this year, it was simply a list of my favorites. There were a surprising number of sympathetic villains this year, which makes me happy because if there is one thing I like it is a complex bad guy. 2019 is bringing us another full slate of bad guys, including the return of Thanos and the most dreaded evil clown of all, Pennywise. See you at the movies!

Avengers Infinity War: The End of the Beginning

The screen cut to black, and the credits started to roll. And everyone in the theater sat in stunned silence.

I suspect this was the case in theaters across the globe last weekend at the conclusion of Marvel’s epic Avengers: Infinity War, in many ways one of the biggest movies ever made. It’s a damn good movie, one with such a devastating ending that I simply must talk about it. I try to avoid spoilers for new releases, but in this case it can’t be helped so be aware that this post will include spoilers.

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

First off: there are a LOT of characters in the movie. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Star-Lord, Groot, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Mantis, Nebula, Wong, Loki, Heimdall, Shuri, Okoye, and the Mad Titan himself, THANOS.

Images: Marvel/Disney
Whew. One of the movie’s many pleasures is seeing combinations of characters that haven’t met before. I particularly enjoyed Thor’s scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man and Star-Lord bonding over 80’s pop culture references. Infinity War is frequently a very funny movie, and many of the funniest lines and moments come as a result of these characters being thrust together in unexpected ways. The only characters that aren’t in the movie are Hawkeye and Ant-Man, and Ant-Man will be in theaters again later this summer in his own sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp. Don’t know about Hawkeye though, maybe we’ll see him in Infinity War Part Two.

Speaking of part two, it’s important to remember that Infinity War is the first part of a two-part story, and the two films were shot back-to-back. So as devastating as that ending was, keep in mind that this is NOT THE END. More on this later.

Infinity War is a movie that requires a level of patience from the viewer, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many characters and so many things going on that it can be an effort to keep up with it all. The movie follows one group of characters for a while, then switches to a different group, meaning that the viewer has to frequently reorient themselves.

This can be a bit difficult, but it’s not a complaint. Infinity War is a movie that requires the audience to engage with it. It’s not a mindless blockbuster. There’s a lot of intelligence and heart behind it, and it benefits from a decade’s worth of audience engagement with the previous movies. It doesn’t have to make the audience care about these characters because if you’ve been watching every movie for the last ten years then you already do care about them, which is another thing that makes the ending such a gut-punch.

There’s not a whole lot of room in the movie for individual character development, but there doesn’t need to be since we already know all the main characters. If I had to pick one character that I would describe as the most important character in the film, it would be Thanos, the greatest villain the Avengers have ever faced.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing Thanos since the first Avengers movie in 2012, and carefully introducing the Infinity Stones in various movies. Infinity War is the movie where it all comes together, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Thanos is everything fans could want from the character. As soon as he appears onscreen, which happens in the movie’s first scene, no one is safe. The stakes feel very real. One thing about the various Avengers’ solo films is that there’s no doubt the protagonist will survive to the end, but in Infinity War, everyone’s lives are very much at stake.

Thanos could easily have been portrayed as a generic bad guy, but he isn’t, and it is to the credit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and actor Josh Brolin that Thanos is portrayed so well. The movie gives us some of Thanos’ backstory, and we learn that his home planet of Titan was overpopulated and everyone except him died. Since then, he has been trying to preserve life by conquering planets one by one and destroying half the population of each. This is a time-consuming process, and the powers of the Infinity Stones will give him the means to wipe out half the population in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Thanos doesn’t see himself as the villain. He sees his actions as being right, and is aware of the cost, but to him the preservation of life as a whole is worth the destruction of half of it.

Josh Brolin is excellent as Thanos, and his performance, the excellent writing and directing, and top-notch special effects make Thanos one of the greatest comic-book-movie villains of all time. I counted twenty-five characters in the list above, and all of their combined efforts are not enough to stop him.

Thanos wins.

Or does he?

It’s time, my friends, to talk about The Snap.

Despite all their efforts and the ferocious and thrilling battles that are waged along the way, the Avengers are ultimately unable to prevent Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones, and as Thanos and Thor grapple, Thanos extends a gauntleted hand…

…and snaps his fingers.

And people start to die.

It starts with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, Captain America’s best and oldest friend. He drops his rifle and disintegrates as Cap watches, helpless.

Others follow.

Falcon. Scarlet Witch. Black Panther. Doctor Strange. Star-Lord. Drax. Mantis. Groot.

And, finally, devastatingly, Spider-Man. Peter Parker. A high-school kid. “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says to Iron Man. He’s beginning to disintegrate. He collapses into Tony’s arms, sobbing. “I don’t want to go Mr. Stark, please, I don’t want to go…” he begs. Tony tries to comfort him, but it’s too late, Peter is gone, and Tony is left literally empty-handed, having just witnessed the death of a kid that he feels responsible for having dragged into this mess in the first place.

Oh.

My.

God.

I seriously didn’t get through writing that without tears.

Going into Infinity War, I was aware of the possibility of losing some of these characters that I love. But never did I think that there would be so many, or that their losses would be so devastating.

Especially Peter.

Batman will always be my favorite superhero, but Spider-Man is a very close second. I love the guy, and I love Tom Holland’s portrayal of him. Hearing the fear in his voice and the desperation in his eyes as he fades away tore my heart out and stomped on it, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in that crushing moment was also superb. Earlier in the film, Tony and Pepper Potts, his fiancée, had been talking about getting married and having a family, and later, a kid for whom he had become a surrogate father literally fades away in his arms.

I’m sorry, I’m crying again.

Judging from people’s reactions on the internet, I’m not the only person who was hit so hard by that.

But it is important to once again emphasize that THIS IS NOT THE END. Time for some theorizing and rampant speculation.

First of all, there is no way Marvel and Disney would kill that many franchises in one fell swoop. The Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel already has a release date for 2019, and there is already talk of a Black Panther sequel and more Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which logically would have to take place after the events of Infinity War. Also, Black Panther just made more than a billion dollars worldwide and became a cultural talking point, there’s no way Marvel and Disney would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry guys, no more Black Panther movies!”

I don’t doubt that some of these characters will be back. I also don’t doubt that some of them won’t be. We’ve probably seen the last of Loki and Heimdall, and it’s hard to see Gamora coming back after Thanos sacrifices her to obtain the Soul Stone. Another thing I do not doubt is that reclaiming what was lost will require further sacrifice. The survivors of The Snap are mostly original Avengers such as Thor, Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and War Machine. Perhaps Infinity War Part Two will involve the efforts of the older Avengers to find out some way of bringing back the newer ones, even at the expense of their own lives.

It’s also worth remembering that two of the Infinity Stones are the Soul Stone, which can bring people back to life, and the Time Stone, which gives its wielder the power of time manipulation (used to great effect by Doctor Strange in his solo movie, and used to much more nefarious effect by Thanos in Infinity War). It’s not hard to see how those could be used to resurrect some of the heroes we lost, but doing so will require the remaining Avengers to somehow get the Stones from Thanos, which will be even more difficult at half-strength.

If/when some of the departed heroes do return, their loss in this film will still resonate, and will still affect the survivors moving forward.

Who knows what will happen in the as-yet unnamed Infinity War sequel? All I know is that it’s due out on May 3, 2019, exactly one year from the day I am posting this.

And now the wait begins…

BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther is so freaking cool.

Captain America: Civil War was one of my favorite movies of 2016, and one of my favorite things about it was Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, aka Black Panther, making his big-screen debut. I had heard of the character but didn’t know much about him until I saw Civil War, and the movie’s portrayal of him was so good that I immediately wanted to learn more about him.

I’ve since read some Black Panther comics and enjoyed them a lot, and like many people I had been eagerly anticipating Black Panther’s first solo movie. The hype leading up to the film’s release was huge, and it didn’t disappoint. Black Panther is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Images: Marvel/Disney

One of the biggest complaints I hear about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is that they tend to be formulaic. It’s hard to dispute this, since many superhero films do tend to share similar story elements. This doesn’t bother me because I love superhero movies, but I can see why some people call them formulaic.

Black Panther is one of the least formulaic films in the MCU, partly because it’s central character is the exact opposite of formulaic.
Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 and was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics. He is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the only source of the ultra-valuable metal vibranium. Vibranium has allowed Wakanda to create technology far more advanced than anything in the rest of the world. Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced country in the world in the Marvel universe, and I couldn’t wait to see it portrayed onscreen.

The new movie takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to become the new king. The title of Black Panther is hereditary and passed down from generation to generation, and T’Challa is the current Black Panther, who serves as the protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is entitled to use the sacred heart-shaped herbs, which give him superhuman strength and reflexes.

I love the way the movie portrays Wakanda. It looks amazing. The sets, special effects, and costumes are top-notch and make Wakanda feel vibrant and alive. It’s the kind of place you want to visit as soon as the movie is over. We meet T’Challa’s inner circle, most of which are badass women. These include Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces (described by one character early in the film as “Grace Jones-looking chicks”). There’s also Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, an undercover spy and former Dora Milaje member who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and his younger sister, teenage Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is the smartest person in Wakanda and keeps T’Challa supplied with cutting-edge vibranium tech.

All these characters are great, as are the actors who portray them. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and recent Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Shuri is my favorite character in the movie. She’s just great. She’s lively and smart and funny, and gets some of the movie’s best lines. The great thing about these characters is that they feel like a family. They don’t exist just to fill certain roles in the story, like love interest or comic relief or whatever. They love and support one another, and the actors have great chemistry. Martin Freeman is also very likable as a CIA agent who gets to be the fish-out-of-water in Wakanda.

And oh, yes. Of course, there has to be a bad guy. And this one is a doozy. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and with a name like that you know he’s serious. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan and is one of the MCU’s best and most well-rounded villains. The extraordinary thing about Killmonger is that you can understand his point of view. He’s the bad guy, but he’s the furthest thing from two-dimensional. Another common criticism of MCU movies is that the villains tend to be forgettable, although there are notable exceptions. Killmonger belongs firmly in the “exception” category.

Killmonger first appeared in 1973 in a seminal story arc called Panther’s Rage. The entire Panther’s Rage story is available in a single paperback, and if you want to get into Black Panther comics and are wondering where to start, Panther’s Rage is the perfect entry point. It’s not perfect, since writer Don McGregor’s captions and dialogue tend to be overstuffed and can be long-winded, but the artwork is fantastic and the stories and characters are socially and emotionally resonant. Also, the story of Panther’s Rage was very influential on the story of the film and the portrayal of the characters. There’s even a part in the book where Killmonger kicks T’Challa off a waterfall, which probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the movie.

Seriously, read Panther’s Rage. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tells a serious story that is still relevant today, while also delivering great moments of over-the-top comic book action. There’s a scene where T’Challa rides a pterodactyl and jumps off its back to kick a bad guy in the face while the bad guy is in the process of shooting an explosive arrow at him which then hits the pterodactyl, which then blows up. Panther’s Rage is a serious and contemplative story, but don’t think it gets too serious because it still features an exploding pterodactyl.

The movie is similar in the way it tells a serious and meaningful story while still delivering on the action, as well as goofy comic book elements. For example, Andy “Gollum” Serkis plays a character named Ulysses Klaue (simply called Klaw in the comics, in which he is a recurring Black Panther nemesis). Serkis previously played the character in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he lost an arm. Klaue has since replaced that arm with a cybernetic attachment that turns into a laser cannon that can flip cars and blow holes in walls and that sort of thing. Serkis has fun hamming it up and speaking with an over-the-top South African accent, but Killmonger is the main villain, make no mistake.

And Michael B. Jordan plays him extremely well. He’s a badass who is T’Challa’s equal in terms of physical strength and mental cunning, which makes the two very evenly-matched. He’s also had a tough upbringing and a genuine beef with T’Challa. I won’t spoil the details, but Killmonger’s gripe with T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense in fact that it even leads T’Challa to question himself, and to wonder if maybe Killmonger does have a point. The central conflict of the film is much more nuanced than many other superhero movies, and the line between good guy and bad guy gets blurred in a way that is uncommon to big-budget blockbusters.

Director Ryan Coogler is only 31 years old, and Black Panther is only his third film. He’s clearly a talent to watch and his previous two films were also critically acclaimed (and Michael B. Jordan starred in both of them, so he and Coogler clearly have a well-established rapport). He has deftly crafted a blockbuster that is fun and entertaining, while also culturally relevant and thought-provoking. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and I’m super happy that the film is already a massive success. It deserves to be.