When the Villain Becomes the Main Character of a Movie Franchise

By  · Published on February 17th, 2017

Could the Marvel Cinematic Universe really go there?

Bad guys are protagonists in movies all the time. From the early days of gangster films through the modern affinity for anti-heroes, we’ve followed immoral and criminal characters to their demise and rooted for mass murderers who get away in the end. It’s not even unheard of in the superhero genre. Just see the animated movie Mastermind or last year’s Deadpool for baddies who’ve humorously gone good, at least relatively.

But just imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe trying to do what the movie news media has made it sound like they’re doing with Avengers: Infinity War. Here are just a few of the likeminded headlines seen on the internet early last week:

Is Thanos really going to be the main character in Avengers: Infinity War, though? Here’s what Marvel head Kevin Feige actually said during the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 set visit held in April 2016 but reported now:

Thanos in Infinity War is, you know, in a movie that has a lot of characters, you could almost go so far as to say he is the main character, and that’s a bit of a departure from what we’ve done before, but that was appropriate for a movie called Infinity War.

Key phrasing there is “you could almost go so far as to say.” Obviously this isn’t going to be a movie where we root for Thanos, especially when he’s going up against some of the most popular movie heroes of the last decade (and if we count their comic origins, of the last century). It would be cool if Infinity War did primarily follow Thanos in his pursuit of all the Infinity Stones, facing Avengers and Guardians along the way until he’s ultimately defeated in his third act. That would be kind of cool and unprecedented.

If any forebear, the presumed idea reminds me first of horror movies. There is a long tradition of horror villains becoming the main characters of their properties, to the point where it seems a convention of the genre. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” doesn’t see the title character as the protagonist, but in the movies he’s become that. Same with other Universal Monsters. Later, the slasher genre turned once-terrifying villains into icons whom we love to watch murder victims, up until their (usually temporary) defeat in the end.

We can’t really call any of those baddies “heroes,” even if we cheer for them. If they were heroes, they’d win in the end and survive. There are exceptions to the hero narrative, of course, but that sort of success is the norm. Instead, we could call them the main characters. There are, on the other side of the coin, bad guys who become good guys, even in the MCU with someone like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Also in the Saturday morning cartoons that brought movie villains such as Betelguise (Beetlejuice) and Slimer (Ghostbusters) to the lighter side.

One of the most interesting movie franchises in terms of its antagonists becoming protagonists is The Fast and the Furious. In the first movie, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his gang are pretty much the bad guys, at least initially, yet things get complicated when the movie’s good guy FBI agent, played by Paul Walker, gets in too deep with them, and both sides balance out. Fortunately there are some other, worse characters to ultimately take on the villain roles and meet a satisfying defeat at the end.

After taking a break for a couple installments, Toretto returned and became the main character of the series. Then in Fast Five, Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise as an antagonist – but he is a good guy in the sense that he is on the right side of the law – only to also come back in subsequent sequels as one of the real heroes. It helps, again, that Fast Five features an even greater villain on the wrong side of the law to put things into perspective for the varied-level good guys. It’s basically the superhero vs. superhero that turns into superhero team-up vs. super-villain thing, without being immediate in how obvious it is with that direction.

Diesel might be the only actor who is able to do this “heel-face turn” trope in a sequel without ruining or diluting the original tone of his character much. He did something similar in the Pitch Black/Riddick series. Most of the time, you’ve just got a villain who goes soft, as with Zed (Bobcat Goldthwait) becoming a cop in the Police Academy movies or anytime you’ve got an evil villain given the humanizing prequel thing, like Darth Vader in Star Wars.

Thanos being the main character in Infinity War wouldn’t necessarily turn him into a hero, but even in being given the protagonist position his power could be blurred and watered down on the screen, for the audience. Outside of Diesel’s ability, villains can’t just become the main character of a franchise for one installment (or two, in the case of Infinity War). He or she has to have been or be revealed to be the main character of the whole series.

How Movie Villains Got To Be So Terrible

George Lucas said that Vader was the real main character of the Star Wars movies, especially with the prequels added on, but it doesn’t play as well as, say, Lord Voldemort being the main character of the Harry Potter franchise. The protagonist is the character who drives a story through his or her desire for something. Voldemort wants to kill Harry Potter and rise to become the the supreme ruler of the Wizarding World, but he’s constantly thwarted by Potter and friends. Potter is the main character of each book/movie, but he doesn’t have anything he independently wants over the course of the series, so he’s not the main character of the overall series.

Seeing as how Thanos has been doing his thing to pursue the Infinity Stones in the background of the Marvel franchise for a while, he could be the Voldemort of the MCU. However, like with Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, as well as Vader, and to a degree horror icons like Jason and Freddy, he’d have to stay seemingly secondary in the individual movies, even his climactic installments, such as Infinity War and its sequel.

Unless, and this is where Marvel could venture into uncharted territory (or could have if they dropped the ball in piquing our excitement for something like this and don’t deliver). The best way for a villain to be the main character of an individual movie, including one within a franchise, is to follow a certain type of detective story format. A perfect example is Falling Down, which focuses on an antihero villain (Michael Douglas) but also follows a hero (Robert Duvall) along the way.

In 2008, there were two superhero movies that came out. One focused on the villain, one focused on the hero, and we at Marvel looked at them, like ‘yeah, we focus on the heroes. We don’t mind that. We like that.’

In the same discussion where he addresses Thanos, Feige referenced The Dark Knight as a superhero movie focused on the villain (see the quote above). That idea has been argued for and against to death, but we can consider the movie on a similar plain as Falling Down in that we’re mostly drawn to the Joker (Heath Ledger) and his interesting anarchic philosophy while also following the hero, Batman (Christian Bale), on the side as he attempts to stop the villain and his grand scheme.

That’s the best way Marvel could handle Thanos at this point, to be honest. The non-comics-reading audience still has no clue who he is, really, and he’s not as pop-culture-famous as the Joker that he could be the focus without our becoming better acquainted with him. He needs a story. And then he ought to be tracked at every step of his villain’s journey, which should wind up with him acquiring all the Infinity Stones, filling his glove, and achieving some remarkably evil deed with that power.

Of course, for Thanos to achieve his goals, he has to win his battles with the heroes along the way, so Infinity War could actually end, in an Empire Strikes Back sort of way, with that villainous main character being on top. Technically, narratively, Thanos would therefore be the movie’s hero, or at least its protagonist. Then the next Avengers movie, arriving the following year, would consist of the good guys striking back in a movie that’s just an onslaught of action, until they turn the tide and win.

Hopefully, that is what Feige meant with his statements and what he intends to do with the MCU. If not, some other mega-franchise better take the idea.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.