The MCU Villain Problem: But What About Ego?

Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Marvel Villain Problem is the name is the moniker given to the succession of uninteresting villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film series. I’ve included pictures of a few below, and if you don’t remember the names of them, then I can hardly blame you. I’m a huge nerd who loves these movies, and I couldn’t remember the name of the villain from Ant-Man – it’s Yellowjacket – and I nearly forgot Malekith from Thor: The Dark World. But that’s not all, I did completely forgot Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy and Whiplash from Iron Man 2. Once I was reminded of these characters, I very well could have gone back and put them in the image above, but the fact that I forgot to include them says more than putting them in would have. There’s also Zemo from Captain America: Civil War whose whole purpose was to be overshadowed by the conflict between the heroes. (I’m not including characters like Red Skull or Mandarin because they have enough interesting things – such as misdirection, or menacing, or Hugo Weaving – that make their forgettable moments forgivable.)

[Clockwise from top center: Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges), Malekith (Christopher Eccleston),  Abomination (Timothy Roth), Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll), and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen)]

And most of the complaints about these boring villains seem to be:

  1. They’ve got a big, cannon-fodder army that is ultimately meaningless and the heroes can quickly dispose of without guilt or struggle
  2. Their color palate is gray and uninteresting.
  3. They just have the same powers as the hero
  4. Boring performance/actor or actress does not have much material to work with
  5. They only want world/galactic domination

This doesn’t apply to some villains – Loki, chiefly, the main villain for both Thor and The Avengers – as well as some of the villains from the Netflix shows, such as Fisk, Kilgrave, the Punisher, or Cottonmouth (but even the Netflix villains begin to lose steam). Ultron is great or so-so depending on who you ask. But in my humble opinion, perhaps the best Marvel Cinematic villain was the one Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had to offer – Ego the Living planet.

It’s definitely a toss-up, but I almost tend to think that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is better than its predecessor. And I think that there are a whole bunch of things that make Vol. 2 an amazing sequel and a great movie, but part of what sets it apart from the first is its villain. There’s nothing that interesting about Ronan the Accuser, but Ego is a fascinating character from start to finish. And, by and large, he avoids checking off most of the boxes above that make characters like Ronan or Malekith or Iron Monger boring. So let’s go item-by-item and examine what makes Ego potentially the best villain in the series.

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From left to right: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Ego (Kurt Russell) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana)

No Cannon Fodder Army

Well, one of the perks of being a sentient planet is that you don’t need an army – you are an army. It’s just refreshing to compare the Guardians-versus-Ego battle to something like Avengers-versus-the-Chitauri or Avengers-versus-Ultron-Robots. Sure, having one big enemy in a bunch of places as opposed to an army isn’t entirely different, but it’s certainly not the same. This dynamic set the final battle of Vol. 2 apart from the rest of the final battles because it’s just a little harder to gauge just how are heroes are doing – there’s not a quantifiable number of aliens/robots/nazis that they’ve defeated. That’s not a huge thing, but it’s noticeable.

Same Powers as the Hero

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Chris Pratt as Star Lord

As mentioned above, the less interesting MCU villains are the ones that just have the same powers as the hero. Ego, on the other hand, can create and manipulate matter in a godlike way, which is more than any of the Guardians can do – at first. The only way for Peter to fight Ego is to tap into “The Light” that makes Ego what he is. Since Peter starts off as a regular guy and ascends to superpower specifically to fight Ego, it feels a little more earned.

Coloration

And then there’s the concern of color palate. Ego’s initial character design – very toned down from the comic version of the character – has him wearing a simple, earthy brownish-colored cloak and suit. It’s a subtle, toned-down design. That’s a pleasant change from the drab colors of Iron Monger or Abomination or Whiplash’s final form, but not by much.

But okay, Ego is the living planet. He’s more than just his body with Kurt Russell. And, thankfully, the manifestations he embodies later in the movie are more colorful and visually fascinating. How about this image, reminiscent from how he appears in the comics?

Ego 7.PNG

Or this image, which immediately draws your attention to the bright blue arms, mouths, and eyes?

Ego 8

Having a galactic setting means that you can have a villain of a galactic scope. And having your villain be a planet takes full advantage of that setting and scope.

Kurt Russell

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Kurt Russell as Ego

Kurt Russell is a great actor. He’s phenomenal in The Hateful Eight and The Thing and Tombstone and Miracle, which is the greatest sports movie ever (don’t @ me). And the issue with most Marvel Cinematic villains is that they’ll get a good or great actor to play them – Jeff Bridges, Christopher Eccleston, Mads Mikkelsen – and they just don’t get enough screen time to convey the full range of emotions that are found in great performances. Basically, they only get enough to establish their motivations and backstory and from there it’s basically just “Be evil.”

On the other hand, Kurt Russell gets to play every emotion. He’s a little somber when he first meets with the Guardians. He’s friendly and warm when they first arrive on his planet. He’s fatherly when speaking with Peter. He’s sorrowful when he talks about Peter’s mother. And these emotions all give way to the rage and the menacing that comes with his villainous turn.

But my favorite moment of Kurt Russell’s performance – pictured below – is the part where he and Peter play catch with the energy ball, about 55 minutes into the film. When Peter forms the energy, Ego – somewhere between a scream and a yelp – exclaims “YES!” It’s a small, subtle thing, but the way he says it, there’s just so much emotion packed into that one word. You can tell, he’s lonely, he’s amazed, and he is looking forward toward his future

Motivations and Goals

Let’s be honest, this one is the most important.

Ultimately, what makes Ego so insidious and so evil is the bond he builds with Peter. Early in the film, Peter mentions never having a dad to play catch with. Then, when Peter shapes the ball of energy and the two play catch with it? That’s a particularly moving moment that becomes tainted when you know Ego’s true nature.

Ego 9
Chris Pratt as Peter Quill and Kurt Russell as Ego

Ego’s attempt to take over the worlds within his reach – as we said, conquest is the goal of other villains – but that isn’t what makes or breaks him as a villain. Admit it: Nobody cares about Ego’s plan to take over the rest of the galaxy with his flower plants. Thing is, we don’t have to. Ego’s conquest plan is just there to give stakes to the Guardians. It is Ego’s relationship to Peter provides enough for the audience to get invested. We’re not scared that Ego will conquer the universe, we’re scared that he will conquer Peter, and either use him “as a battery” or worse, make him into the loveless, unfeeling god that he is. Making Peter immortal – and taking away his love for the other Guardians – is more frightening to the audience than Ego’s plan working.

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Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War

Since Ego, the MCU villains have been getting better – mostly. Michael Keaton’s Vulture was a high point of Spiderman: Homecoming and in Thor: Ragnarok – despite Hela leaving a little to be desired – Jeff Goldblum’s Gamemaster was a delight. People always talk about how it’s important to learn from failure, but in the case of Ego, I think it’s a case of learning from success. With Thanos – the villain that Marvel Cinematic Universe has been building to since the very first Avengers – just on the horizon, I have to wonder what they will do to set him apart from all the villains who came before him. If he’s as unique and interesting as Ego, I’ll be happy.

 

 

All images the property of Marvel Studios and the Walt Disney Company.

3 thoughts on “The MCU Villain Problem: But What About Ego?

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