When Marvel Studios was left at a halt due to the growing pandemic, fans were left wondering what the studio might have in store with new content heading in Phase Four. On Disney+ Day, which happened in December 2020, fans were given the entire slate, including new shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and Loki. Since then, many shows and movies that are a part of this phase have been released and with it, many, many critiques for some of its aspects. More notably, some critics and fans have pointed out that these villains have been one of Marvel’s weaker points when it comes to these Disney+ series. But how come these villains have been regarded by many as one of the studio’s weakest points in most of these shows? Taking a closer look at the shows from Marvel Studios that have been released so far, there is a lot to talk about regarding the roles of these groups.
In Marvel Studios’ most recent show, Ms. Marvel, viewers were introduced to the Clandestines, a group of beings (who were referred to as djinn) from the Noor Dimension who seek to return to their home world with the aid of Kamala Khan’s (Iman Vellani) bangles. The group is first introduced in the show’s second episode, Crushed, after Kamala is rescued by Kamran (Rish Shah) from the hands of the Department of Damage Control (who made their first appearance all the way back in Spider-Man: Homecoming.) Initially, the group, led by Kamran’s mother, Najma (Nimra Bucha), is open and accepting of Kamala, until she discovers that the Clandestines are manipulating her into giving them the bangles. After this incident, the group began hunting down Kamala as seen during Aamir (Saagar Shaikh) and Tyesha’s (Travina Springer) wedding in Destined and during Kamala’s journey in Pakistan starting in Seeing Red.
Originally, fans were off-put by the recognition of the Clandestines (as well as Kamala Khan’s description given by her friends and family) as djinn since they’re recognized in Muslim mythology as beings notable for negativity. However, this aspect of their role in the show would also prove to be one of the more convoluted sides in explaining Kamala’s and the origin of the bangle’s powers. The role of the Clandestines looked like it was not contributing to Kamala’s journey of self-discovery as much as they wanted to, moreso to expand the universe through the Noor Dimension’s role to take over Earth and Kamran’s journey. This is mostly shown through Najma, the leader of the Clandestines, as she tries to hunt down Kamala multiple times without majorly showing any side of actual remorse or second thought for Kamala and Kamran.
Throughout most of the show, Najma only wanted to get the bangle by any means necessary after failing to do so through her and Kamala’s first meeting and only showed some type of turn after Kamala’s short reasoning when the portal to the dimension opened up in Time and Again. In a surprise twist of events, Kamala was able to negotiate successfully, getting Najma to save both Earth and the Noor Dimension and giving Kamran powers at the cost of her life. The only development that we got from Najma was in this episode and with her involvement with Aisha, it had great potential to create a stronger cause of Najma’s quest to retrieve the bangle, though sadly this is only limited to this episode. Without getting to see Najma actually develop as a complex character through these episodes, it leaves this secondary antagonist as more of a plot device to push Kamala’s journey instead of creating a strong villain with a deeper history and personality.
Similarly, there is another group of antagonists that made a small presence within this phase: that being the Flag Smashers from The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. While the comics’ version of the group doesn’t exist (the only Flag Smasher is this classic Captain America villain), the MCU decides to make the group into an anti-nationalist organization with the purpose of transforming the world back into the way it was before Thanos’ snap as felt in Avengers: Endgame.
The group’s history follows after the Global Repatriation Council’s formation during the period of the Snap in which they would help those affected by the event. However, after the world’s population was restored thanks to the Avengers, the Council decided to turn away from aiding those communities, forcing the creation of the Flag-Smashers to return the world to this darker time so everyone could help each other out. The leader of the Flag Smashers, Karli Morgentheau (Erin Kellyman), is one of the main antagonists of the show, but for someone who has a looming presence in this show (unlike U.S. Agent, who comes in full force), it definitely feels like the Flag Smashers felt a little dull.
In the same way as the Clandestines, the Flag Smashers aren’t necessarily the main focus as both Ms. Marvel and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier focus on many storylines, whether that be through the main storyline of these shows (i.e. self discovery and self-worth), or through the many others that forge the path of Phase Four. The rest of the Flag Smashers, like the Clandestines, are sidelined in order to progress Sam’s (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) story and even though the viewers get some understanding behind the Flag Smashers and the innocence behind the idea, it isn’t enough to satisfy why the main soldiers of the group have to go out of their way to get what they want.
Focusing on Karli, she is a serviceable villain for most of the show, but her personality feels as if she isn’t really progressing, more as if she’s being forced to. Over time, Karli does indeed have that development needed to create a complex character, though that isn’t really seen in the mid-finale and finale of the show. The finale of the show had mixed reactions, from Falcon’s somehow forced-inspired speech to the proponents behind the Patch Act to the final actions of the Flag Smashers, and the latter definitely felt weak.
Karli, at this point, was somewhat developed to a point where she was serviceable and felt like she was actually on the verge of being complex, but unfortunately, she succumbs to her old ways in order to show the world the corruption of the Council. This just felt really off for where the character felt like she was going before Truth and the writing here made Karli into a classic villain without any semblance of having any other emotion than revenge and vengeance. I get where the character is coming from and her motivation for doing so, but hiding away those other parts of her personality makes her a weaker villain and the handling of her character makes her another weak point of the show overall. Hopefully, Karli’s actions have more of an impact in Captain America 4 (rumored to be reveal at Comic Con soon) and her character could be better understood in the future.
Now, who could forget S.W.O.R.D. from WandaVision? Originally planned to be revealed in Thor but moved to this show instead, S.W.O.R.D. was a government organization based on extra-terrestrial phenomenon and protecting the world from such anomalies. In WandaVision, S.W.O.R.D. is the main organization behind recreating Vision (after his death in Avengers: Infinity War) and stopping Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) from ‘hexing’ the rest of the world. The former leader of the organization, Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg), is one of the main antagonists of the show, following Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), who plans to stop Wanda through any means necessary.
Throughout the series, S.W.O.R.D. remains a prominent threat, though Tyler felt like a one-side villain who just wants to also get what he wants without the nuance and seriousness as he’s more upfront than any other villain. With each scene that he’s involved in, the character doesn’t feel like he poses as big of a threat that the organization is trying to be in the show as the sense of actual danger from S.W.O.R.D. only comes from White Vision after they incorporate their own A.I. with Vision’s old body. The dialogue and writing of Tyler comes off as somewhat childish at times and ‘straight to the point’ without giving a chance to see another side of him that viewers could have some empathy for. Though, this issue might be present with some of the other villains that have shown up thus far in Phase Four. The rest of the organization feels like a lesser version of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and no, I’m not saying this because it’s only shown up only in WandaVision so far) and it doesn’t feel like it has enough to be diverse even though they’re very present in most of the episodes. However, I can put these issues aside at a certain point since it is Wanda’s story after all, but it can’t dismiss its secondary antagonists. I mean, she literally made the entire outpost into a circus, what’s more to say about S.W.O.R.D. in this show? Thank Fiege for attempting to make S.W.O.R.D. into something new with the post-credits!
Hopefully, Marvel Studios can fix their future shows in the future since the use and development of these villainous groups seems like one of the bigger problems that Marvel is suffering from. Even though these shows are special in their own way, it seems like the studio is following a formulaic pattern of self-journeys through these different heroes and characters and it feels like Marvel may be handling too much in too little time. Because of this, along with several other problems that have been pointed out in the past, the studio suffers from a somewhat bad storytelling plague that looms over these shows and that just seems to be the biggest problem. However, I still have some hope in Marvel to create amazing stories as it once did in the MCU with the Infinity Saga and anticipate for their future projects.