Not to blow your minds with my superpowers of perception or anything, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem. By this point, that’s part of its DNA — it’s like saying that Brian De Palma movies have split diopter shots or that Christopher Nolan movies have a white male character who has to crack a code in order to forgive himself for his wife’s death, or that DC movies have utterly deranged defenders who have already stopped reading this article in favor of tweeting me death threats. Flimsy and forgettable bad guys are as much a part of Marvel movies as the quips and spandex. They’re not a bug, they’re not a feature, they’re just a fact.
Supervillains are only as interesting as the heroes they’re forced to fight against, and the Marvel squad has had a pretty rough draw in that department. Each of the Avengers is lovable and charismatic in their own way, but they often feel less like characters than they do stubborn value sets with zero percent body fat. (Remember when Paul Rudd got a six-pack for one profile shot of Ant-Man without his shirt on? That was very inspiring.) They’re noble to the point of nothingness, as plastic and flawless as the action figures that their movies exist to advertise. The only thing that has ever been able to tear the Avengers apart? A dramatically inert civics debate about the burdens of exceptionalism.
But we knew that it would only be a matter of time before Marvel got it right, and we knew that because Cate Blanchett is playing the big bad in “Thor: Ragnarok,” and she doesn’t really do mediocrity. But, in a shocking development, it turns out that we didn’t have to wait that long. A very unlikely villain has emerged from a film about very unlikely heroes. Somehow, in a sequel to a movie where Lee Pace played a cosmic evildoer so generic that I can’t be bothered to look up his name (Charlie?), writer-director James Gunn was able to disguise an emotional force as a genuine spectacle and sneak it through the studio machinery. Out of nowhere, we have the first MCU movie that isn’t good in spite of its antagonist, but because of it.
This breakthrough is made even more unlikely by the fact that, for the first half of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” it doesn’t seem like the movie even has a villain, let alone the best one that the MCU has ever manufactured. Yes, Ego (Kurt Russell) is suspicious from the moment he surfs a spaceship onto the screen — no mortal man has a head of hair that luxurious at that age — but initially he’s just another thread in a story that’s interwoven with daddy issues and residual family traumas.
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