First there was Wonder Woman, now Captain Marvel. Can America survive with two leading female superheros? According to certain (and probably mostly robotic) members of the internet – our civilization will never be the same. For the rest of us – neat! I just saw Captain Marvel and wanted to write about how it compares to Wonder Woman, at least in terms of writing. There are so few female-driven superhero films, and even less that have been written and directed by women, that I found this to be a compelling topic.
I’ve written a lot about villains. Why we like them – why some work better than others – why it can be difficult to follow up one great villain with another. I’ve also written a little about Marvel’s villains and how they…they are. Marvel doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to creating compelling antagonists. Their idea of a villain is often simply a bad dude with a similar power set to the protagonist. The bar is in fact so low that Josh Brolin’s Thanos is – in my mind – easily in the top three, despite having an overall goal that doesn’t make a lick of sense.
But let’s not talk about number three today. Let’s instead discuss my one and two, AKA Loki and Killmonger. Both defy the Marvel mediocrity and create lasting impressions. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way – one trip to Google showcases just how many people appreciate and identify with these villains. My question, and the purpose of this article, is: Why? Why do people love Loki and Killmonger? Let’s take a look.
Loki as a sympathetic villain
Before Loki became known as just a snarky, smirking Tom Hiddleston, his character actually had a meaningful arc. One of the reasons that I believe Kenneth Branagh’s Thor stands above the average Marvel movie (of which there are now at least a dozen) is because of how the director approached the subject matter. Branagh has a background in theater – primarily Shakespeare – and I feel he applied this very well to the creation of his Loki.
I never liked Loki in the comics. He’s mischievous and…that’s it. To be blunt, he’s a dick. There’s not much more to him. Sure, he mentions he’s Thor’s brother at least once an issue, but I never believed there was actually anything there. It was a classic storytelling blunder: Telling the reader instead of showing them the relationship.
Thor corrected this problem. Loki is presented first and foremost as Thor’s brother…his overlooked, demeaned brother. The movie makes it very clear early on who Odin loves more, and these problems are only deepened as Loki learns of his secret, problematic origins. In short, he’s spurned and it’s easy to see how he falls.
But he doesn’t seem happy about it – this is the other important factor. Remember how I mentioned Loki’s trademark smirk? He actually doesn’t wear it often in 2011’s Thor. Instead, his face is more this:
A mix of surprise, anguish, and pain. Loki’s world is upended in the first Thor. He is desperate to prove himself to Odin and show that he is every bit as worthy as his brother.
Unlike how he would appear in later movies, we don’t see Loki taking a lot of pleasure in being evil. Instead, it seems like he feels this is his best and only option. Loki is driven, single-minded, and self-destructive.
Upon learning that Thor has had a change of heart and wants no part of genocide, Loki laughs maniacally…and cries. Tom Hiddleston plays a character who is literally coming apart emotionally.
I believe this is what makes Loki compelling. His “mischievous” nature is given reason: He can’t stand a status quo where he is routinely cast to the side in favor of his older, incredibly arrogant brother.
As Thor changes, Loki’s behavior becomes more erratic and he ultimately pushes himself to an extreme downward spiral. I don’t think it is any accident that Thor climaxes with Loki falling into a void, as that symbolizes the completion of the descent that has been happening within the character all movie.
It’s compelling, and it’s sad. We see Loki as horrible to his brother yes, but also caring to his father and mother. He is a monster, but he is a human one. This allows him to be a strong sympathetic villain.
Killmonger as an empathetic villain
And then there’s Killmonger. Erik Killmonger AKA N’Jadaka is not sympathetic, at least not to me – and I’ll explain why. Sympathetic can be defined as eliciting compassion, feeling, or understanding. While I think Killmonger does a great job for the second two, I personally find that he fails at the first – because he is too far gone. In Thor, we see Loki at the start of his fall. In Black Panther, Killmonger is a full blown psychopath.
The character kills indiscriminately, friend and foe alike. He is quick to betray, murdering several unarmed people in cold blood. Unlike Loki, we don’t see Killmonger behaving like a human to any other character in the film – even his own father. When asked if he feels sorrow for the loss of his dad, all Killmonger can say is “everybody dies.”
And while there is some sorrow for how far Killmonger has fallen – since we know he was once innocent – it is too indirect, at least for me. It’s the same problem as showing Darth Vader as a child. Yeah, they’re nice as kids but…they’re kids. Even Hitler was probably fine as a boy.
This is not to say that Killmonger isn’t an effective villain. I think he’s terrific, but he’s serving a different purpose than Loki. Killmonger is an empathetic villain because the audience understands the root of his extremism.
Systematic and overt racism are enormous problems in today’s society, as well as the police state that many people of color feel they are subjected to. Given that Wakanda is a paradise – a technological utopia – Killmonger exists to show just how much of a fantasy that really is.
Given his plight, Wakanda could very easily be Norway or Sweden. Sitting comfortably, claiming to be a bastion of enlightenment, while other human beings suffer. Of course, the fact that Wakanda is an African nation adds incredible emphasis to this point, given the continent’s history of being abused and exploited by the “civilized” European world.
So while Killmonger may be a monster, he is “a monster of our own making” as T’Challa puts it. If Loki is Shakespeare, Killmonger is Shelley. He was created by a person (T’Challa’s father) who wished no responsibility for his actions.
But, like the Frankenstein monster, the audience is left drawing the conclusion that, no matter how right the creature may be about how wronged it was, it is still a danger to the world and the innocent people within.
All Killmonger knows is hatred, so that is all he can bring.
So there you have it, my thoughts and feelings about Loki and Killmonger. I think there’s a lot writers can learn from both characters, especially when it comes to creating compelling villains. Whether it is empathy or sympathy, these antagonists have to create feelings within us to be memorable. If not, well…they’re just this:
Last night, I finished watching Star Wars Rebels. The adventures of Ezra Bridger and company came to a close and, overall, I think I will look back on the series with a general thought of “It was all right, but I felt like it could have been so much more.”
The season 4 finale in particular had me scratching my head and sighing, feeling like a letdown after the superior writing of the mid-season finale. The sad part is, after the season 3 finale, I wasn’t surprised.
Star Wars Rebels hopes to teach its audience many lessons about life, morality, and consequences. However, I think it best serves as a message to writers and, unfortunately, I believe it will go down as a cautionary tale more than anything else. Let’s focus on the writing of Rebels and break down exactly what I’m talking about (warning: spoilers to follow).
The Importance of Payoff
When I think of Rebels, I label it as a show that raises many good questions and ideas. Ezra is a jedi trainee outside of the temple – at a time when temptations to the dark side should be at their peak. After all, he’s relatively powerless against overwhelming odds, and his chief drive is to protect his new family. On top of that, he’s a young kid in the middle of a war. Sound familiar?
And the show seems to be aware of this. We see Ezra tempted by the dark side. In pervades all of season 2 and is the dominant theme. Kanan is worried, stormtroopers are mind tricked into murder/suicide – it seems like Ezra’s “soul” is in real danger.
Then he meets Maul and Kanan gets blinded and…that’s it? The temptation of the dark side effectively vanishes for the remainder of the show, despite having numerous opportunities to resurface. This makes Ezra look incredibly strong-willed, which is odd because he doesn’t seem to really mature much elsewhere. He is still impetuous, he’ll still do anything for his friends, he still is placed in many life-and-death situations.
But the payoff never comes. Star Wars Rebels does this with an art form – build to events that never happen. Let’s go through the seasons. Season 1: Pretty solid – actually not much to report there. Season 2: The temptation of the dark side – payoff: Kanan gets blinded by Maul and Ezra is forever “cured.” Season 3: The rebels face Thrawn, who continually lets them go – referencing a larger plan – Payoff: Thrawn stumbles onto their base through unrelated events. Season 4: Lothal is revealed to be deeply connected to the Force, including force wolves and a portal that controls time – payoff: Ezra calls in some space worms from season 2 to save the day…?
Yeah it’s not great. Throughout its four season span, Rebels continually raises plot lines that it doesn’t pursue to conclusion. It isn’t the first show to do this, nor will it be the last. Thematically, it is more challenging to explore a theme in its entirety – but also much more rewarding. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the audience gets the feeling that the two writers really thought about war, violence, and resolving conflict. Almost every aspect is thoroughly explored, and I never once got the impression the writers were talking down to me.
If Star Wars Rebels can teach you anything about writing, it should be that plot threads should be fully developed ahead of time (or refined in editing) to erase most of the dangling story points.
Creating Characters with Arcs
All through season 4, there was one character I was wondering about: Zeb Orrelios. Namely, the thought on my mind was “What happened to him?” Zeb has no character-focused episodes in the final season, instead sitting on the sidelines. I also started thinking about his character. Throughout the series, he did have several arcs – he found his people, persuaded Agent Kallus to rebel against the Empire (really easily), and…that’s it.
And while Zeb had his character arcs – I couldn’t really figure out what he ever did for the main plot. He was always there, it’s true, but his stuff felt very superfluous. Kallus’ betrayal never amounts to much (he’s in season 4 even less than Zeb). In the greater struggles of Rebels, Zeb is a passive character, largely just along for the ride. He could have left at any point without making a noticeable impact. There is no “it” that he has that the other characters don’t.
And I feel like this is true of a lot of the main characters in Rebels. Their arcs are general or barely there. How does Sabine Wren really change from the first to the last episode? How does Hera? Most characters are very static – with only small deviations (hey remember that time Sabine left the rebels for all of three episodes?).
Even Ezra – the main character – does the bulk of his changing in the first season, going from a loner to a team player. He doesn’t really sway much past that point. Many character arcs relate to the goals of the story. Here is a chart:
Most of the characters never go through this change, in part because many don’t have serious flaws to be corrected. In much the vein of traditional Star Wars archetypes – the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad (in every sense of the word). It fits but…eh, it’s a bit dull for a series.
The Importance of an Intimidating Villain
I’ve already written about this in an earlier post on Thrawn, as well as touched upon the broader writing lessons in my ‘Beat Up Your Heroes‘ post – but it bears repeating here. The villains of Rebels were typically dull and uninteresting. Part of this was the movie armor. Darth Vader is imposing as heck but then…stops pursuing them? The rationale is never given.
Likewise, it is a joke by this point that stormtroopers can’t aim, but Rebels elevates this to laughable heights. The final episode features stormtroopers firing – and missing – a stationary target roughly five feet in front of them. It would be okay if I didn’t think the show wasn’t trying to be serious – but you can’t have serious when your standard villains are less threatening than unarmed children.
The rebels are never beat up – for an oppressed group, they seem to be doing very well for themselves. Only one of them dies, and even then it feels more like the will of The Force than the actions of the villains.
If you want the hero’s victory to feel incredible, they’ve got to earn it. Rebels ends with a James Cameron’s Avatar moment: The intergalactic threat is defeated and just…leaves? Never comes back? What? It’s a happy ending but it doesn’t feel like an earned ending. With everything at stake on Lothal – why would the Emperor, a dude so evil he looks like Satan, let Lothal go?
Also if that’s all it took to free Lothal then they could have done it seasons ago – just saying.
At its heart, I think the Rebels‘ writing team had a real problem managing the escalation of stakes. When it was a little show about a small group of rebels on one backwater planet, resisting whatever the Empire had time to throw at them, it was believable and fun.
Toward the end, they were blowing up star destroyers left and right and crippling whole operations like it was nothing. How did these guys not single-handedly defeat the Empire?
There is one episode in season 4 where they fight 2 trandoshan slavers (one voiced by Seth Green doing his Cobra Commander voice) and they struggle. I mean, it takes them a whole episode to capture the freighter. While I liked this hearkening back to the first season’s scale, it stuck out to me. Why were they having so much trouble with 2 non-military personnel? After all I’d seen them do?
I could go on – and I’ll probably reference Rebels again in future articles. For now I will just say this: A lot of good stories can be ruined by laziness or sloppiness. I don’t think Rebels was ruined, but it was never great. If it wasn’t Star Wars, I don’t think people would have been as hooked.
When writing your stories, manage your payoffs – keep character arcs in mind – and write to suit escalation.