Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania served as a particularly strong reminder of one of Marvel's biggest problems. It doesn’t matter what you think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or superhero movies in general, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on — even if they don't realize it yet.
Marvel has a real problem doing justice to its villains, and that problem isn’t getting any better. And this time, we thought, was going to be different. All of the Quantumania ads were more about Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) than Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) himself.
On top of that, Kang isn't just any old hyped villain. He's one with a long future in the MCU ahead of him, and a Marvel history that began the beloved Loki finale. He's also played by Jonathan Majors, whose star is on the rise.
But, of course, to explain this, we need to dive through spoilers for Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania!
For those that haven’t seen the movie, Quantumania has two major villains. The first is MODOK, a cartoonish villain who’s only really there to be made fun of, while the main antagonist is Kang the Conqueror - a character set up as the MCU's next Thanos-level big bad.
Unfortunately Marvel did both those characters dirty, and it further proves that the studio has a serious bad habit when it comes to its villains. A habit that it doesn’t seem to care about fixing anytime soon.
Marvel movies villains have always been weak
Think back to previous Marvel movies, and list off the number of major villains that weren’t killed off almost immediately. The list is longer than you might have thought, more so if you consider the likes of Trevor Slattery (fka The Mandarin, of Iron Man 3 and Shang-Chi), who simultaneously is and isn’t a villain.
But it doesn’t change the fact that Marvel has a habit of killing off its villains after their first appearance. Or, at the very least, let them fade into obscurity and not be seen again for several years. Like Red Skull, Abomination or Darren Cross - now known as MODOK.
Ultron, Malekith (Thor: The Dark World), Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy), Killmonger (Black Panther), Hela (Thor: Ragnarok) and Kaecilius (Doctor Strange) and countless other villains never really had a chance to shine because they died before the hero could pass on some of the spotlight. Even Mysterio, a villain with an almost unbeatable master plan that almost ended up breaking the multiverse, was killed during his first movie appearance.
It’s a problem that isn’t unique to the MCU, either. Whether you’re talking about the Sam Rami Spider-Man movies, Tim Burton’s Batman, or anything directed by Zack Snyder, supervillains rarely hang around for very long on the big screen.
Those villains that did manage to gain second or third appearances, were either killed off shortly thereafter or have been left in limbo. Thanos died twice in Avengers: Endgame, following two cameos and one other movie as ‘main villain’, while the likes of Grandmaster and Vulture are in places hitherto unknown.
Though it is worth pointing out that Grandmaster was supposed to die in Thor 4, at the hands of Christian Bale’s Gorr - another wasted villain who died almost as quickly as he arrived.
In fact the only villain that has been given his due is Loki, perhaps a little too much. The original God of Mischief survived two apparent deaths before being killed off for good, while one of his alternate selves is still living in Loki season 2, running around the timestream as a member of the TVA.
Quantumania’s Kang wasted the Conqueror’s potential
Unfortunately it seems like Kang is the latest villain to fall victim to the Marvel curse. The Conqueror we see trapped in the Quantum Realm is hell bent on getting out and, in his mind, protecting the multiverse through conquest and destruction. But rather than emphasize his status as Marvel’s next big bad, this Kang was seemingly killed - a fate his variants in the mid-credits scene seemingly confirmed.
In the grand scheme of things, the death of Quantumania’s Kang isn’t going to make much difference. It’s an infinite multiverse with infinite variants of the villain, so there will always be another version to take his place. Including versions that are more or less identical to the one we saw getting sucked into his shrinking power core.
Throw time travel into the mix and suddenly you could even see the same Kang return, from a point in time before he was exiled to the micro universe. He’s a very complicated villain when you get down to it, and that’s already a problem in itself.
But it also means Marvel can get away with Quantumania’s Kang, and treat him like a regular C-list villain who’s only there to fill the villain role. In the case of Kang the multiverse is a general cop-out, letting writers do whatever they like to the character knowing full well that the slate can be wiped clean at the start of the next movie.
Outlook: Can Marvel prove it can build a proper villain?
While this means there’s potential for a different version of Kang to make up for Quantumania’s missteps, it's about time Marvel stop treating its villains like disposable canon fodder. It’s a trend that I had hoped was on its way out, after seeing the likes of Thanos and Mysterio, but Phase 4 of the MCU might as well have reset the whole process.
Look back at those villains: Kro (The Eternals), Gorr (Thor: Love and Thunder), Taskmaster (Black Widow), Scarlet Witch (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and now Kang. They all had the potential to be truly great villains, but none really sticks out as a villain whose defeat made them worth beating.
And frankly, in an age where the quality of its movies seems to have declined, the studio needs to finally get its act together and figure out how to make its villains worth putting on the big screen. Hopefully, the next upcoming Marvel movies change that pattern.