“When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it,” Ultron says at one point in Avengers: Age of Ultron. “And believe me, he’s winding up.” That’s just one of the ways this artificial-intelligence-cum-self-multiplying-robot explains his evil plan. It’s a line that echoes other similar lines in other superhero and/or comic-book movies, and its heartlessness, its sheer cosmic disregard for the fate of humans, is meant to chill us to the bone. Oh my God, we’re supposed to think, he/she/it doesn’t give a crap what happens to us, or the Earth. We’re doomed!
That’s the idea, anyway. But these plans, along with the villains who concoct them, never feel too threatening anymore. Ultron wants to destroy the human race by dropping the equivalent of a meteor on it. In the first Avengers, Loki wants to enslave the Earth using an alien army he’s brought through a wormhole. In Man of Steel, General Zod wants to terraform the Earth in order to turn it into Krypton and starts pulverizing entire cities with his nifty “world engine.” In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Megatron wants to enslave humanity and use the Earth to transport and rebuild Cybertron — a fiendish plot that sort of combines Loki’s and Zod’s plans. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Ronan wants to destroy Xandar, an Earth-like planet. (But he also wants to destroy the Galaxy … I think … Actually, I don’t remember the Big Evil Plan in Guardians of the Galaxy all that well, and, to its credit, the movie didn’t dwell on it too much.)
All of these are terrible things to do to the Earth, and to the human race. But they almost never raise my pulse. Because ironically, the more ambitious they get, the less threatening they feel.
To be sure, no supervillain ever really achieves their aims; that they will fail to incinerate the planet or enslave the human race or destroy the galaxy or whatever is pretty much always a foregone conclusion. But despite the pre-ordained outcome of these stories (bad guy thwarted, entire cities leveled), the degree to which we in the audience feel the threat can vary tremendously. For example, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the stakes are big, but manageable — and imaginable. The Joker in The Dark Knight wants to reduce Gotham to anarchy. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises sort of wants to do that, too, but he also wants to blow the city up with a nuclear weapon. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Otto Octavius (a.k.a. Dr. Octopus) doesn’t so much want to destroy New York as he simply doesn’t care if his scientific experiment also happens to flatten half the city. All of these threats are monstrous, but they have texture and resonance: We can imagine what this level of devastation and destruction might feel like. (To those of us who lived through 9/11, some of it might even be a little too close for comfort — though how a film handles that particular echo can vary dramatically, too.)
Cities devastated by mobs run amok or callous madmen who set off nuclear weapons — terrifying. Planets destroyed by World Engines or alien armies invading through wormholes to enslave us, or galaxies wiped out by magic space stones – eh, not so much. Besides, Iron Man’s still making bad jokes, and that girl in the Michael Bay movie is still running in her heels; surely, the situation can’t be too dire.
The films themselves can differ in quality: I think the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are mostly wonderful; I’m a lot more divided on the Transformers movies, but for the record, I think the first one is aces. What almost never changes for me, however, is the fact that my attention will start to drift whenever these films — even the good ones — set up whatever evil scheme our heroes are trying to foil. But in films like The Dark Knight and Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Mans, the heroes’ desperation feels urgent and real. I know they’ll eventually succeed, but I’m still moved by their ordeal. In those films, I lean in and focus. In a movie like The Avengers, I sit back and relax.
That puts the modern superhero movie in a bit of a conundrum, especially as more and more of them are coming to rely on team-ups and faceoffs and whatnot. The Avengers are “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” for crying out loud; they can’t just fight a mean drug cartel, can they? When the Justice League of America finally assembles, what are the chances they’ll fight a particularly nasty group of gangsters, or a mad scientist who might blow up half a city? No, they’ll fight someone or something commensurate with the importance of assembling half a dozen franchise superheroes in one movie. And most likely it will involve a wormhole and/or terraforming and/or turning an entire Eastern European city into a meteor with which to wipe out our species.
At the same time, it’s not impossible to create a compellingly huge evil plan that can justify the amount of good-guy firepower being thrown at it. Just look at Kingsman: The Secret Service, released earlier this year. (Spoilers for Kingsman now follow.) In that film, the bad guy (played by Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson) wants to reduce the human race (or most of us, anyway) into deranged lunatics who will destroy each other. It’s a nutty idea, and not exactly one that we can easily identify with, but Matthew Vaughn’s film does something very smart: It gives us a taste of how the plan would work. In one incredibly violent, hilarious, and controversial action set piece, Colin Firth’s Harry Hart, a.k.a. Galahad, finds himself going bonkers along with everyone else inside a hate-filled church. The scene is notable for its gruesome, tongue-in-cheek body count, but its memory also creates a real sense of urgency that enhances the film’s climax: When the evil plan kicks into high gear, we can suddenly imagine the cities of the world turning into the kind of mad free-for-all we witnessed inside that church. (The film briefly shows us glimpses of what’s happening on the ground in these cities during the climax, but such cut-away would have little power had we not witnessed that earlier melee.)
Of course, the hyperjokey Kingsman isn’t The Avengers, and it’s also rated R, which means it can get away with the level of violence in that church scene — something unlikely to happen in PG-13 Marvel movies, which are allowed to threaten the human race, but can’t really demonstrate the consequences of what might happen were such threats to succeed. (Elsewhere, my colleague Kyle Buchanan argues that Ultron does at least try to show our heroes trying to save their fellow humans, which does help somewhat.)
Ultimately, for all our sakes, the supervillains’ best bet might be to be slightly less ambitious with their evil plots. Obviously, for the audience, it would result in a plausible threat that might engage us more deeply with what’s happening onscreen. But it might even have some benefits for the supervillains themselves. Because oddly enough, their huge, monstrous plans do eventually settle on one single location. In the climactic battle of the first Avengers, New York is basically leveled. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s the fictional town of Sokovia. In Transformers 3, it’s Chicago. If the villain in question had just aimed a bit lower — if he had wanted merely to destroy those particular cities — he would have pretty much succeeded. Really, it’s a win-win.