SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
After rocketing its way to a $145 million domestic opening, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is well on the path to surpassing its predecessor. However, despite all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success since 2008’s Iron Man kicked things off, one of the glaring criticisms of the movie-making behemoth is that more often than not, the films’ antagonists tend to come off as bland, one-trick ponies whose sole purpose is to serve as a small hurtle for the heroes to jump over. Even Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has gone on the record to acknowledge said criticism. “I think that’s probably true,” he said of the notion that the MCU’s villains thus far have been largely unmemorable. With Guardians 2, though, director James Gunn took a different approach; one that’s methodical and that plays on the viewers’ heartstrings, resulting in one of the MCU’s most effective big-screen foes to date.
In Guardians 2, we’re introduced to a new breed of villain in the form of Ego, played by acclaimed actor and 1970s icon Kurt Russell. While the first Guardians film makes a few passing references to the mysterious father of Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill – most notably when the Nova Corps reveals that Star-Lord isn’t entirely Terran – we’re already given an inherent reason to at least tangentially care about the character, sight unseen, simply because he’s the father of the film’s hero.
Flash forward three years to Guardians 2. Like a newly-hatched duckling that becomes attached at the hip to its mother upon first glance, Gunn brilliantly makes the decision to formally introduce Ego in the opening scene, burning the character into our minds by ensuring he’s the first thing we see once the movie opens. As Ego and Peter’s mother Meredith cruise along a Missouri interstate in a cool blue Mustang, listening to classic tunes that have become a staple of the Guardians franchise, we’re given every reason to believe that these characters are truly in love.
Now that we, the audience, have had a chance to meet Ego, we jump ahead to the point in the film where we finally witness the first meeting between father and son. Despite Peter’s initial skepticism, the innate human desire to have some sort of connection with one’s parents is easily enough to cloud the foresight of not only Star-Lord, but even jaded moviegoers who often immediately associate new characters with “surprise” villains.
In any case, the bond between Peter and Ego continues to develop as the story progresses, with the latter explaining how his home planet was actually a part of him, and that his human form was merely an extension of his true self that he used to traverse the galaxy in search of other life-forms. This, of course, is how his relationship with Meredith came to be, and we soon learn that the reason behind his supposed abandonment of Peter’s pregnant mother was simply because his avatar body couldn’t withstand prolonged distance from its main source.
Ego then shows Peter how to begin to access his own dormant celestial abilities, leading to a game of catch using an energy sphere Peter creates. As Peter explained to Gamora in an earlier scene, he would often become jealous as a child when he witnessed his school friends playing catch with their fathers, so there’s a warm feeling of completeness upon seeing this minor throwaway line serve a greater purpose by further solidifying Peter and Ego’s newfound familial bond.
Then, right as both Gunn and Ego have us in the palms of their hands, the gentle embrace we’ve felt throughout the film suddenly becomes a noose, slowly but surely tightening around the audience’s neck as the floor begins to disappear from beneath its feet. Yes, Ego was truly in love with Meredith. So much, in fact, that he actually returned to Earth several times to see her. He knew that if he returned again, though, he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to leave, thus never completing what he believed was his life’s work: planting parts of himself on every planet he visited so he could ultimately absorb them in order to “improve” the universe. It’s your classic case of the villain believing they’re doing the right thing, but using questionable methods to achieve their goals. In the case of Ego, though, his methods involve spawning countless children, killing those that didn’t inherit his celestial genes (i.e.: all of them except for Peter), and planting a tumor in Meredith’s head to keep his undying love for her from interfering with his true purpose in life.
Looking back at how Ego was developed over the course of the film, you can clearly see that Gunn checked off all the right boxes as far as requirements for a compelling antagonist. Make the audience care about the villain: check. Make the hero care about the villain: check. Ensure the villain believes that they are actually the hero: check. As far as killing his children and the love of his life, those are simply bonus points as far as big-screen baddies go.
To be fair, Marvel has executed somewhat similar formulas in the past to varying degrees of success. In Iron Man, Obadiah Stane was a likable character and a close friend of Tony Stark before turning full heel. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds in some aspects with Bucky, but he wasn’t the true villain of the film as much as he was a pawn of Hydra. Then, of course, you have the gold standard of MCU villains in the form of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, whose character development mirrors Ego’s in terms of getting the audience invested in them and playing on the ever-relatable concept of family.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, lies the MCU’s remaining foes, who generally all believe that they’re the heroes of their respective stories, but suffer from being vastly underdeveloped beyond that. There’s Ant-Man’s Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, who’s already a few cards short of a full deck at the start of the film. The Avengers sequel seemed promising when it was announced that they were introducing Ultron, but the harrowing, evil robot we saw in the trailers ended up being nothing more than a quip-spouting, electronic stand-up comedian with anger issues. Then there’s the slew of baddies who simply aren’t given enough screentime or general purpose to either care about or take seriously — Kaecilius, Malekith, Ronan, Aldrich Killian, Abomination, etc.
With 15 films under its belt and only two genuine, stand-out antagonists, Marvel Studios may want to rethink how it approaches the development of villains moving forward. Thor: Ragnarok’s Hela looks promising from what little we’ve seen of her, and Thanos has had the benefit of being the enigmatic threat that’s been looming for five years (six by the time Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters), but the same amount of care, thought and precision should be used across the board when it comes to crafting effective counterpoints to the heroes we all know and love.
In theaters now, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 stars Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, Vin Diesel as Baby Groot, Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon, Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, Chris Sullivan as Taserface, Sean Gunn as Kraglin, and Kurt Russell as Ego.