Does ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Have Too Many Villains?

The AvengersColumbia Pictures via Everett Collection

Two new bits of information from the set of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. First, according to Twitch, the movie is looking to add a new international location to its filming schedule, and will be shooting in the Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea. Rumors of a Korean shoot have been circulating for some time now, and although star Mark Ruffalo has shot them down in the past, Korean representatives have confirmed that South Korea will be joining Italy and the U.K. as filming locations for the upcoming film. In addition, Korean actress Kim Soo-hyun has been added to film’s cast of thousands, and although her character has yet to be revealed she has reportedly been cast “in a villain role.”

Kim’s character would be the third villain in Age of Ultron, as James Spader and Thomas Kretschmann have already signed on to play Ultron and Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, respectively. It’s very likely that her character will play more of a supporting role, and probably work for or with one of the two main villains of the film, although, since her role is being kept under wraps, there’s still a chance that she would be playing a more prominent villain. Superhero films have often been known to use multiple villains as a way of distracting both the heroes and the audience from the real villain of the piece, which means either Strucker or Ultron would be used to draw attention away from a more important character. However, both Ultron and Strucker are long-term adversaries of the Avengers in the comics, so it would be a more logical choice for the film to use them as the primary villains. 

Regardless of the size of the role that Kim will play, the addition of a third villain might be cause for concern amongst fans of the series. Of course, having multiple villains in a superhero film is nothing new, but it’s a difficult feat to pull of successfully, which might explain why there are so few films in which such a trope has worked well. Most movies like to establish some sort of backstory for their villains, in order for the audience to understand why they have turned to evil, and why they choose to terrorize this particular city or hero. Adding a second or even third villain would then require additional backstory for those characters as well, which tends to eat up a significant amount of the film’s runtime — not to mention the fact that a film can only sustain so many subplots before everything starts to become convoluted. Spider-Man 3 attempted to circumvent the backstory issue by connecting Sandman with Uncle Ben’s murder, but even that became confusing when added to Harry Osborn inheriting his father’s role as the Green Goblin and Venom turning to evil after a petty feud with Peter Parker. Yes, that film has a myriad of other issues, but having three separate superheroes competing for screentime and Spider-Man’s attention did nothing but drag things down even further. 

Of course, even if Kim is playing a more supporting, henchman-type role instead of being a distinct villain in her own right, that doesn’t necessarily mean the film is in the clear. Iron Man 2 attempted to add in a second villain with the addition of Justin Hammer, who plays a secondary role to Ivan Vanko, and assists in his scheme to take down Tony Stark, but ultimately, his storyline feels like an unneccessary subplot, and he’s dispatched with easily and quietly. The plot of the film works just as well without him, and he doesn’t add anything important to Tony’s story or even to Vanko’s story, so all he’s doing is providing addition wisecracks and taking attention away from the rest of the story. It’s not just Marvel that has difficulty balancing multiple villains, either; The Dark Knight Rises attempted to work in both Bane and Talia al Ghul by having the former provide the main villainy causing problems within Gotham, while distracting Batman from the fact that Talia was the mastermind behind the whole thing. Most of the film’s plot focused on Bane, and when it was revealed at the very end that his story was actually hers, it felt more like an attempt at a surprise twist ending than anything else. She was never given the attention needed to make that ending feel earned or justified, which again, results in the double-villain trope being unsuccessful. 

Even without factoring in Kim’s character, the deck is stacked against Age of Ultron. Both Ultron and Strucker are significant parts of the Avengers mythology, which means they have complicated and dense histories, which the film will have to find a way of condensing or entwining in order to do justice to both of the character’s origins and relationship with the Avengers. Marvel has been known to focus on one villain as the main antagonist, and slowly establish the second one as a long-term villain who will play a more significant role in the next film. However, in this case, it’s impossible to tell if that will be the direction they choose for Age of Ultron, as neither Ultron or Strucker gives of the impression of being a one-and-done character, which makes it all the more important that both characters receive the time and attention they need. The best way to go about this would be to follow in the footsteps of The Dark Knight, which incorporated Two-Face’s origin story into the Joker’s plot, and allowed them both to succeed as the villains of the piece. If Age of Ultron can find a way to combine the two stories — for example, having Ultron work for HYDRA, or having him be the catalyst for Strucker’s founding of the organization — then it might be able to avoid the “multiple villain” curse that haunts superhero films. 

With the addition of Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Rhodey, Age of Ultron already has the difficult task of keeping the story from becoming over-crowded with characters, and so, as a result, multiple villains doesn’t seem to be a solid plan. They’re already having to relegate some of the good guys to background and subplots, which makes it hard to see where writer/director Joss Whedon will be able to fit in the many backstories needed to sustain a proper villain arc. Furthermore, the increased size of the cast seems to be counterintuitive to the “smaller” and “more personal” nature of the story that he has promised, as more characters means there is less room to focus on the individual, be it hero or villain. The Marvel universe has thus far seen great results with its attempts to focus on the psychological and emotional elements of the characters as well as the action that we expect, and the description of the script for Age of Ultron makes it sound as if this will be joining Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as successful looks at the inner lives of the heroes. But adding in so many new characters seems to undermine that story thread, and might only result in a film that has too many plots to properly explore anything. 

We’re hoping that Marvel will be able to avoid the pitfalls that come with having too many villains in a film, and we’d like to see Age of Ultron join the short list of superhero films that have been successful. However, the larger this cast seems to grow, the more reservations we have about whether or not the film will be able to pull it off. It’s a delicate balancing act to work so many subplots and backstories into a film that is cohesive and engaging, but Marvel’s on a hot streak right now, so we’ll just have to hold out hope that Age of Ultron won’t allow everything to come crashing down. And if it does, at least they’ll have a few dozen more films in which to make things right.