It’s been 11 years and 21 movies, and on April 26th, with the release of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s lengthy and costly but phenomenally successful effort comes to a culmination. Not even the tweediest, pop-culture hating film professors can deny that this franchise has been a defining part of a new era of cinema. And now, more than a decade later, it’s time to ask; who is the real villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Wait, isn’t it Thanos? I actually think this is unlikely. Sure, Thanos has been foreshadowed since The Avengers stinger, but if Endgame is going to be as obvious as “the good guys win, the end,” the team behind the movie probably wouldn’t be as up in arms as they are about spoilers. Don’t get me wrong, I could totally see the film going this way — maybe it’s the threat of industry blacklisting that is keeping everyone who worked on this enormous project quiet — but I find it more likely that Marvel head Kevin Feige and directors the Russo Brothers have some massive twist planned, and a change of antagonists would indeed be a huge surprise.
So who are some likely candidates for Endgame’s real villain?
The God of Mischief seems the immediate first candidate for villainhood. Loki’s death and body are framed in glorious heroic-sacrifice narrative form, and Thor: Ragnarok firmly established him as coming back to the good guys’ side for good. Sure, Marvel films have cheated in their cinematic language for Loki’s death before, but I don’t see a purpose in having him come back as a bad guy. I do think that Loki set in motion some scheme before his death that may involve his resurrection, but not so that he can continue to plunder and conquer. Ragnarok too firmly established that he realized that that’s not what he really wants.
However, his status as the big bad in The Avengers is notable in his Endgame villain candidacy, since that was more or less setting up Thanos as the antagonist in Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos gave him the scepter, which also became a plot device in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Hmm. The scepter. Let’s come back to that.
Alright, so if we’re floating previous MCU villains, why not the titular antagonist of Avengers 2? Maybe Ultron kept a data backup of his consciousness somewhere on the internet, in a time capsule or something? This also seems unlikely, simply because of Age of Ultron’s lackluster performance. Subsequent films have tried to minimize reference to it, with Thor: Ragnarok giving up on the Infinity Stone subplot entirely and handwaving it away in the opening monologue. But I think there’s a grain of something hidden in this movie that we missed while we were hating on it. There’s more to it than just being a mediocre action movie, and I think the evidence lies with the consistencies it carries over from its immediate predecessor in the Avengers series: the scepter and the Mind Stone.
The Mind Stone is more or less the instigator of conflict in Age of Ultron. It’s what inspires Tony Stark to create Ultron and a major part of the blueprint for Ultron’s consciousness. Ultimately it finds its way into the head of Vision, who everyone refers to initially as “THE vision,” as in Thor’s premonition about the Infinity Stones. But Ultron also refers to Vision as “my vision,” as in his vision for himself. And Vision himself could be thought of as Tony’s “vision,” as in the ultimate vision of Ultron, his project to save the world. So while Ultron himself may not be making a comeback, there’s definitely significance to Vision’s name. He is, quite literally, a vision that multiple people have had.
By the way, there’s another guy out there with big visions of the future, a big purple guy who had a vision to save his planet. And he had the Mind Stone long before it made its way to Earth, in the form of the scepter. But let’s return to the topic at hand. Could the true MCU villain be…
I doubt it. He’s dead and deactivated, after all, since his frontal lobe was removed. But Vision merits talking about, for all the reasons I cited above. Throughout Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Vision struggles with what, exactly, is going on with the glowy yellow rock in his head. His ultimate conclusion is that it has to go because Thanos is coming. But before that, all he can say is “I only see you” to Wanda, his lover, and the person he cares about most.
Isn’t there something else in the MCU that does that? Shows people the person they care about most, that is. Come to think of it, immediately after the snap, Thanos’ mind is transported to some sort of alternate world where nothing exists except a young Gamora (the person he loved enough to sacrifice for the Soul Stone, and therefore, probably the person he cared about most) and some soul-furniture to fill up the space, soul furniture that seems drawn from Thanos’ own memories of Gamora. Where else have we seen this kind of imagery in the MCU?
The Supreme Intelligence
In Captain Marvel, the Supreme Intelligence is said to appear to those who commune with it as the person they care about most. When Carol Danvers is talking to it, it appears as her Earth mentor Dr. Wendy Lawson, who strolls about and leans on an Earth desk in the empty non-space of Carol’s own mind. Furthermore, the building on the Kree homeworld that houses the Supreme Intelligence is decorated in bright, gemstone-like yellows that resemble the forehead of a certain red android we know.
There’s outside evidence to support the Supreme Intelligence’s candidacy as the Supreme MCU Villain, too. It’s a major antagonist in Operation: Galactic Storm, a comic arc that Endgame seems set to be adapting, in part. In Operation: Galactic Storm, a group of Earth-based Avengers, including Captains Marvel and America split up into teams to deal with a cosmic-level crisis. The Supreme Intelligence, in its Ultron-like obsession with evolution, decides to blow up 90% of the Kree population. One of the Endgame trailers features Black Widow talking to a group of assembled Avengers about “their assignments,” as if they are about to split up and tackle some greater threat. As for the crisis that wiped out populations, well, it already happened.
The main problem with this theory is that it feels like a long shot. There’s no evidence that Thanos ever came in contact with the Supreme Intelligence, which is a Kree AI, and Tony absolutely has not. Both of these guys got their ultimately genocidal ideas to save the world from the Mind Stone itself, which leads to the ultimate conclusion that the true villain of the MCU this whole time has been:
The Mind Stone Itself
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Mind Stone is intelligent. When Tony and Bruce Banner are analyzing it in their lab, Bruce notices that “[it looks like] it’s thinking.” There’s Vision’s whole existential conflict, and when Wanda scans the stone as Vision’s body is being 3D-printed she can see its thoughts: everyone being dead. If the Supreme Intelligence was an AI derived from the Mind Stone, as Ultron was, it would explain their similar ways of thinking, as well as the connection between Thanos’s visions of Gamora and the Supreme Intelligence’s method of communication.
It was the Mind Stone that Thanos had way before everyone else, that first gave him visions of killing people in the name of saving them. The Mind Stone that subsequently mind-controlled Hawkeye and countless others to do the bidding of Loki in The Avengers, that gave Wanda her mind control powers and inspired Stark to create a genocidal AI based on itself in Age of Ultron, and the Mind Stone that everyone is trying to remove from Vision and destroy in Infinity War. It’s no mistake that the Mind Stone takes the “central” spot in the Infinity Gauntlet when all the promotional art seems to imply that it’s the Soul Stone that goes there; it’s been manipulating Thanos to get itself there from the start.
Having the true villain of the MCU be an inanimate object would be a real shocker. What’s more dangerous than an enemy you can’t beat into submission, that turns your best friends against each other through the strength of their own beliefs? It promises knowledge and power to the likes of Tony and Thanos to further its ultimate goal of killing countless people, and it does all this without you realizing that it was hiding right under your nose since the first movie. The only way to stop it is by destroying it, but doing so deprives you of all the stuff you could learn from it. A truly insidious enemy, and a plot twist appropriately wild for the most ambitious film franchise in history.