Marvel villains have always fascinated, delighted, and repulsed fans since comics first began revealing the nefarious ne’er-do-wells 75 years ago. The lawbreakers of the 2000’s maintained this tradition with a roster of crooks, assassins, intergalactic monsters, and masterminds dressed up as titans of industry. However, as with most of the compelling scoundrels in Marvel’s storied history, these brand new baddies refused to be mere mustache twirlers.
In fact, most of the villains that held our attention the past 15 years could be labeled as heroes in someone’s eyes—just not the greater good’s.
Take, for instance, the cosmic threats to our heroes and Earth at large. Beings like 451—a Recorder created with by the Rigellians who somehow stopped being able to forget— and Ord from Breakworld committed monstrous acts in the name of their causes, including kidnapping, terrorism, murder, and genocide. But they were, in their minds, doing it for higher purpose, for the “right reasons.” Ord sought to prevent the destruction of his planet and the extinction of his people while 451 actually believed what he did to Tony Stark and demanded from him would save Earth and make the galaxy as a whole a better place.
Moving planet-side finds villains committing acts just as hideous—although perhaps with less far reaching consequences—for equally grey reasons.
First consider those who, it could be argued, did not truly have control of what they did. While we may now know The Winter Soldier as a hero who even bore the burden of the Captain America mantel for time, he initially burst on the scene as a dangerous assassin. Of course, “Winter Soldier” served but an identity forced on Bucky Barnes and maintained by years of alternating between frozen and brainwashed states, all to do the bidding of a corrupt nation state. Monster—aka Carlie Cooper—saw her good intentions go astray when the Goblin Serum seized control of her brain, altering her personality and physical appearance. The Descendants found themselves seized by Artificial Intelligence and absorbed by hive mind motivation. Even Danger, the living embodiment of the Danger Room, only sought to carry out her programming to the Nth degree, regardless of the harm she did.
Villains also find themselves often in the grips of mental illness. Paper Doll became so absorbed in a delusional fantasy of a celebrity love life that her outer appearance became as two-dimensional as her inner-tabloid fixated-world. Massacre’s traumatic head injury made him a man without empathy and thus able to kill without remorse. Freak, already a prisoner of substance abuse, found himself completely remade by an experimental drug he mostly like would have been unable to understand the science behind even if he had been 100% sober.
Even if we have complicated relationships with our relatives, we can all connect with the idea that sometimes one just needs to take care of family business. On this score, several 00’s villains did not differ, feeling compelled or trapped by legacy to do wrong. Ezekiel Stane, Justine and Sasha Hammer—and their creation Detroit Steel—Temugin, Ana Kravinoff, Grey Goblin, and Lucia Von Barda all carried on the twisted acts of their relatives to varying degrees of success.
And so it goes, on and on. Whether they live virtuous lives of charity to offset their criminal enterprises—Mister Negative—burn with revenge for lives ruined—Raptor—or wrestle long simmering familial resentment—Cassandra Nova, Daken—the bad guys of the aughts had motivations, however misapplied, that make sense to us all. We find ourselves draw to them and scared of them because we see in ourselves the flaws that have led them into darkness. If we all stand a gift and tragedy away from being a hero like Spider-Man or Daredevil, it seems equally true that a curse and a selfish motive might be all we need to go bad like Ikari or Fusion.
With events like AXIS and Civil War and changes in allegiances like those we saw in Cyclops or Winter Soldier, the 2000’s made it clear to us just how close we are to becoming that which we fear; made us have to confront the reality that villainy is not so easily written off as something only the truly wicked do.
See all the great content from Marvel’s 75th anniversary celebration at marvel.com/75