Fresh off Daredevil season three, it occurred to me why the season and the series works so well within the Netflix Marvel universe. As discussed in this week’s Top 10, the success of these shows really relies on its villains. Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a problem with memorable villains in the movie universe, the Netflix world has a high success rate with their baddies. Why is that? Simply put, how each show humanizes their antagonists. This is going to be a long article, so let’s go through the memorable ones and the note so memorable villains in the Defenders-verse.
It can be hard at times to believe that you have anything in common with a man who seemingly has more money than God and half of the government in his pocket. But, Wilson Fisk comes from a humble background with an all too familiar backstory for those with not so nice fathers. Does this justify his actions later on? No. But, on top of his past history, Fisk also becomes driven by a very tangible thing: love. And he’s not obsessive or creepy or pursuing a relationship with a woman who wants nothing to do with him. Vanessa loves Fisk just as must as Fisk loves Vanessa. Their relationship is so normal at times that it can be easy to ask why are people trying to ruin their reunion, then, of course; you remember this is Kingpin. But, by adding these details and having a powerhouse actor like Vincent D’Onofrio play him, we have probably the best villain in the Marvel Netflix universe.
Yes, when we first are introduced to Frank Castle, he’s presented as a villain. How else would you describe a man who strolls into a hospital and decides to shoot up the place? But, even Matt Murdock himself has to eventually stand back and realize that Castle’s motives are not entirely unjustifiable. Throughout the second season of Daredevil, we find out that this is a man reeling from a horrific tragedy that not many would come out normal from. And throughout the course of the second season, we find ourselves rooting for The Punisher; as one juror says during his trial, “let those bastards feel scared for once”.
How do you bring a seemingly one-dimensional character to life? Explore his backstory. Tell the viewer how he got to where he did. There were some obvious signs from the beginning that Dex probably wasn’t going to grow up to be a good person i.e. killing animals as a child and finding enjoyment out of it. But, Dex is a character that is obsessed with praise and finding meaning. Ever since his therapist said that he needed something or someone guiding him, he’s been desperate to latch on. Whether it was his work, a girl he used to work with, or even Fisk. The problem was, Dex went so above and beyond that people who were opportunists, like Fisk; took advantage. And then hung him out to dry. Dex even asks what he is supposed to do with himself when it’s revealed that it could take six months to get his job back. This is a man wanting structure, who needs professional help, and there were several times during the series that it looked like it could have been possible for him to be brought back to the side of good; but, when Fisk is the one holding the cards, you rarely have a choice in the matter.
Next to Fisk, Kilgrave probably ranks as one of the most powerful villains in the Netflix Marvel universe. Again, David Tenant is a fantastic actor and Kilgrave’s popularity is largely due to this fact. But, it would have been easy to just have Kilgrave as a psychotic, mind-controlling antagonist with a major control complex and megalomania, but then Jessica Jones gave us background insight. A young boy, sick, and experimented on. Not truly understanding his powers and almost eager to learn how to turn his powers into a tool for good. In no way am I justifying what he did and how he abused his abilities, but if he had his own “north star” if you will, I wonder how Kilgrave could have turned out.
When we first met Davos, we get the idea that he is a very intense human being, but ultimately is on Danny’s side. It wasn’t until season two of Iron Fist that we were given a much darker Davos, pushed by the idea that he was the one worthy of the Iron Fist. Even though we won’t get a third season, I truly believe that some of Davos’s scenes were some of the most intense moments in Netflix Marvel history. And while we can all agree that his actions were more violent than they should have been, we were also given some heartbreaking flashbacks that lead us to believe that maybe if he was hugged a little more as a child he would have turned out better.
Among the great villains in these shows, we cannot forget Cottonmouth. As a powerhouse villain, his time in Luke Cage was cut short, but in that time, we not only got an antagonist with style, but we were able to see past all of that facade he alluded. Underneath the powerful kingpin, Cornell Stokes had a code, where he’d never kill Pops. We also saw the potential he had and the promising music career that awaited him, giving us a tale of missed opportunities that could have shaped the man differently.
Much like Frank Castle, Bushmaster came onto Luke Cage season two as the bad guy. In every promo, Bushmaster was presented as the bad guy and surely, he could contend with Luke. He even killed his fair share of people during his takeover of Harlem. But, we then find out, much like Castle; that this journey was one of revenge. For the lives that the Stokes family had taken from him, he decided to make things right. Even at the end, we found ourselves sympathizing with John McIver and almost believing that it was Luke who was out of line, not McIver.
Let’s end this list with someone you may not feel deserves to be here. Yes, Billy had a hard childhood and an absentee mother. Plenty of people have drug-addicted parents who abandon them and they don’t all turn out to be backstabbing sociopaths. But, it wasn’t the backstory with his mother that humanized Billy. The fact that the show decided to take a character who traditionally was never Frank Castle’s friend and in turn make him his best buddy make the hurt all the worst. We saw someone who was close to the Punisher before he became the anti-hero. We saw Billy almost genuinely caring for Dinah Madani and throughout the entire first season of The Punisher, we wondered; is there a soul in there? Billy was a ruthless killer, but why is a fan favorite? Is there redemption for him?
When these villains took up the screen, they made for better tv. Memorable scenes. Antagonists like Harold Rand, The Hand, Diamondback, and even Jessica’s mother fell by the waste side simply because there was nothing humanizing about them. Even Agent Orange in The Punisher could have been anyone; these were just all excuses to see the protagonist get their hands dirty. But, none of them made for all that compelling of television, which is why I believe Netflix/Marvel do better when they give us villains who not only have a backstory, but are fleshed out more than just an evil character.
Luke Cage and Iron Fist are unfortunately gone, but for the shows we still have, along with the upcoming Punisher and Jessica Jones series, I hope the showrunners have realized how well the formula works of having a more humanized villain.
You can now watch Daredevil season three, which by far has to be the best out
A girl with too many fandoms to count.