The Secret to Marvel Villains is Family Tragedy

How do you build a villain like Loki, Kingpin, and Kilgrave? You parent him badly and set him loose.

Marvel Studios

Marvel films have been critically praised and financially rewarded by the masses. However, the studio’s films have garnered constant criticism for the revolving door of villains often thrown away after appearing in a single film. If Marvel wants to build out its brand and stable of characters, then they would do well to replicate the success of three specific, onscreen villain: Loki, Kingpin, and Kilgrave. All three have generated a huge online fan following for reasons that all might have to do with their upbringing.

Is it a coincidence, that arguably the best Marvel villains to appear onscreen have benefitted from tragic backstories that specifically involve their parents? Consider Marvel’s walking Shakespearean melodrama in Loki, the abusive, working class upbringing of Wilson Fisk’s Kingpin, and the arrested developed Kilgrave, all of whom have had fleshed out histories involving childhood harm or neglect. Just as the loss of loving parents help us understand the depth of our heroes’ struggle, having abusive family members helps us sympathize with the sort of hate and anger that can drive someone evil.

Wilson Fisk grows up afraid in Hell’s Kitchen.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk in Daredevil

Netflix, Marvel Television Studios

Fisk is afraid of his abusive father who terrorized him and his mother. He is afraid of the neighborhood boys who pick on him for being fat and weak. He feels vulnerable, even after he murders his own father to protect his mother. The weakness follows him until he is an adult, attempting to raze Hell’s Kitchen to the ground.

Unfortunately, Wilson Fisk’s story is the most relatable for most people. The first season of Daredevil did a fantastic job showing us as much of Fisk’s backstory as it could within its timeframe. The show gave its villain his own character arc, which was instrumental to building Fisk’s presence. Seeing a grown Fisk look at himself in the mirror, only to understand that he still sees the blood-covered child he grew from, spoke volumes on his insecurities and fears. Suddenly his near-hatred for Hell’s Kitchen had equal emotional weight as Matt Murdock’s, the story’s hero.

Ultimately, that move served the show well. By the time they watched later episodes, a sizable group of fans were publicly hoping Fisk would made it out of the end unharmed. If it wasn’t for the fact that he decapitated a man with his car door, he might have been mistaken for a gentle giant. Yet even having been captured by the end, and imprisoned by Season 2, his full transformation into a fully-fledged villain was a sight to behold.

Kilgrave, somewhat lovable murderer

David Tennant as Kilgrave in Jessica Jones

Netflix, Marvel Television Studios

Jessica Jones had an even more difficult job when the show examined its own villain, the mind-controlling man-child, Kilgrave. The writers behind Jessica Jones didn’t necessarily ask us to sympathize with Kilgrave, but they dissected the mind of a psychic murderer and rapist with more genuine curiosity than most shows allow.

Kilgrave is an unpleasant man who is armed with both charm and the power to bend the will of anyone who hears his commands. The problem with such a character is that as passive entertainment viewers, we are almost inclined to be won over by such a slinky, compelling villain. After all, what chance does anyone have with a villain who can reference Star Wars with his powers?

Luckily for the viewers, the talented people behind Jessica Jones refused to ever justify or forgive his actions. Instead they went back to his childhood, located the sort of fear and lack of structure needed in order to create a pitiable monster like Kilgrave, a man who never really grew up. His childhood isn’t an absolution as it is an indictment of all the failings a child’s environment and upbringing might contribute to the growth of vicious entitlement and lack of empathy. By the end of the series he’s less a figure of admiration as he is of pity. Nobody wants to be a Kilgrave after witnessing the petulant behavior of an adult man.

On Asgard, Loki is trapped in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor

Marvel Studios

As the adopted son and brother of Odin and Thor respectively, Loki lives inside huge shadows. When his father offers the throne to Thor, the under-appreciated Loki hatches a Machiavellian plot to overthrow his father and assume the rule of Asgard by faking an invasion by his actual birth father, an ice giant. Kind of like the plot to Hamlet, but more kickass.

Still, for all his machinations and underhanded plots, the character wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the vulnerable sadness of Tom Hiddleston’s performance. For all of his grandiose declarations of ruling Asgard, or destroying Earth, the audience knows that all of that is just a cover for the constant sensation of inadequacy and otherness Loki had felt his entire life.

As the weaker of two brothers in a society that overly values strength, and having discovered that he belongs to a race generally detested by his adopted people, Loki’s actions are a constant cry for approval and recognition of his own value. It helps that even the films themselves tend to lend a little sympathy for the Norse god. We get scenes where he is dismissed by the other warriors, and by his father. Despite all of that, he perseveres with his evil plans to destroy the Earth and wear a heavy crown. It’s almost enough to make you root for him.

Now granted, this doesn’t mean every great Marvel villain requires psychological evaluations from the audience. Hugo Weaving did a great job as the Red Skull by playing up the inherent ham of a Nazi skeleton man. These characters all also had the benefit of appearing in either multiple movies or an entire Netflix season. But each of these characters also garnered huge online followings specifically focused on their nuanced and emotional onscreen portrayals. If Marvel wants to cultivate a loyal fanbase for its villains as well as its heroes, then they would do well to make sure that their villains are given the same pathos as the three listed above.

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