Villainous, disapproving, or disappointing fathers are the MCU’s go-to trope.
It’s no Infinity War spoiler that Thanos, the Mad Titan, isn’t an ideal father figure. He calls his henchmen “the children of Thanos,” perhaps hoping to inspire familial loyalty on top of the fealty they show him out of fear. We know from Nebula’s account that Gamora was his favorite “daughter.” We know this because Nebula’s own fatherly experience of Thanos is one of horrific abuse:
My father would have Gamora and me battle one another in training. Every time my sister prevailed, my father would replace a piece of me with machinery, claiming he wanted me to be “her equal.” But she won. Again, and again, and again, never once refraining. So, after I murder my sister, I will buy a warship with every conceivable instrument of death, I will hunt my father like a dog and I will tear him apart piece by piece.
Thanos is a particularly egregious example, but he joins a long line of “bad dads” that serve as both villains and inspiring-for-the-wrong-reason goads to their children in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I started thinking about this because Marvel, in general, leans heavily on the idea of family in its most effective stories. Teams like The Avengers and the X-Men are a kind of found family, misfits and mutants and outcasts who band together, often because they have no one else—this has been the way of things since the early days of the comics.
Again and again, however, the modern MCU comes back to blood and adoptive families to make their most moving storylines hit home. Thor and Loki, Gamora and Nebula, and T’Challa and Killmonger show how resonant the bonds of siblings and cousins can be, and Loki, Nebula, and Killmonger have all played the role of a villain as well. But Loki, Nebula, and Killmonger all have sympathetic elements that win them many fans and a sort of understanding as to why they’ve made the choices that they made. The same cannot be said for the MCU’s awful father figures.
Before Thanos, the most recent and glaringly bad dad was Star-Lord’s father Ego the Living Planet, who is revealed at the end of Guardians Vol.2 to be a really goddamned evil planet who put a tumor into Peter’s mother’s brain (when he wasn’t busy killing his own children). Peter’s somewhat better yet still problematic father figure, Yondu, dies shortly after acknowledgment of that role.
Tony Stark’s father Howard received a bit of a rehabilitation in his younger MCU years, but he’s also depicted as a cad, and later as a demanding and distant dad. In the comics, he’s been a verbally abusive alcoholic locked in a tumultuous relationship with Tony since Tony’s childhood. The post-Avengers movies haven’t mentioned Bruce Banner’s father, but he’s another monstrously cruel figure in comics who murdered Bruce’s mother in front of their son.
Thor’s father Odin, the father we’ve spent the most time within the MCU, is at times a loving presence in his older son’s life, though he seems to handle his children’s problems through banishment and imprisonment—and his lying to Loki about his Jotun origins sends Loki into a dark spiral. He also raised the boys in a competitive environment, favoring Thor, and his attempt to keep his daughter Hela locked away forever—after she helped him bloodily conquer other realms—arguably led to the destructions of Ragnarok. “Odin’s A+ parenting” is a snarky way that fans often refer to the way his actions have impacted the family and all of Asgard.
Even T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, who by all accounts appears to have been a good man and a loving father, has his questionable actions become a turning point of Black Panther. It is T’Challa’s realization that his father erred in not having brought young Erik Stephens back to Wakanda—acknowledging that T’Chaka killed his own brother in the process—that upends T’Challa’s entire worldview. He realizes that his father was also wrong to have kept Wakanda’s capabilities such a closely guarded secret, and ultimately sets off on a mission to change that by the movie’s end.
Some of the MCU’s heroes appear to be lacking the bad dad trope, but it is because they are conspicuously absent: Steve Rogers’ father is not mentioned in the movies, only his mother, Sarah; in the comics, once again, his father Joseph is an abusive alcoholic. Peter Parker’s father is dead, as is his kindly father figure, Uncle Ben. Natasha Romanoff’s parents are dead, and we have not been told about Doctor Strange’s; because of the division of Marvel properties we haven’t been able to explore in the MCU that Wanda Maximoff’s father is Magneto.
Everyone’s history with their parents seems complicated (as it often is in real life), but it’s striking to me that we have not seen villainous mothers from the MCU in the same fashion. Instead, we’ve been given loving, warm, supportive women like Frigga, Ramonda, Aunt May, Laura Barton, and Maria Stark. It’s an intriguing contrast, something that feels both old-fashioned, trope-wise—the adoring mother—and also refreshing—no evil, jealous step-mother types.
The only real supportive fathers that we see from Marvel’s movies appear to be the heroes themselves. Both Clint Barton and Scott Lang are depicted as dads who will do pretty much anything to keep their children safe and happy. If the MCU teaches us anything, this probably will ensure that their children can have a normal life and not turn into either a superhero or a supervillain.
Thanos is only the latest in the MCU’s history of showing how a bad dad can threaten both the universe and drastically change the lives of his children. When I tried to think of other awful father figures in tentpole movies like the MCU’s, it struck me that I couldn’t: Darth Vader might be the most shocking patriarch reveal in cinematic history, but he cares about his family and is eventually redeemed by siding with them. The ultimate Star Wars rogue, Han Solo, basically lets himself be sacrificed to his son’s dark ambition. Looking over at the DCEU, both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne had loving and supportive fathers and father-figures like Alfred. Diana Prince may not know her father, Zeus, the actual king of the gods, but he gifts her with the power to defeat Ares.
The “bad dad” isn’t essential to make a superhero, but it sure does seem to be something that the MCU keeps coming back to. I wouldn’t mind seeing that change in the future. There are a lot of wonderful fathers out there, and it would be nice to see that reflected more on-screen in the movies that all of us are bound to see. Of course, there are a lot of lacking fathers out there as well, and I wonder sometimes if they can see themselves in the MCU, and recognize that they’re the supervillain of the story.
(images: Marvel Studios)
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