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Dr. Strange 2's Antagonist Problem and How to Avoid It


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spacer.png Warning: This article is coming later than anticipated, and for oddly relevant reasons...

Just as I prepared to write a review of Sam Raimi's latest jaunt into the superhero genre, my water broke and I gave birth to two beautiful twin boys. So you would think I, more than anyone, would understand Wanda Maximoff's struggle as she tries desperately to get back to her own twins, Billy and Tommy. Unfortunately, like many, I found her journey forced -- a bad rehash of the character arc she went through much more believably in WandaVision. While watching the movie, I asked myself, why did her motivation here fall flat when they worked so well on the small screen? If you keep up with MCU news, you've no doubt run across articles that blame sexism. These pieces state that, like Daenerys Targaryen before her, Hollywood just can't write female villains without falling back on sexist tropes. Whether or not this is true, I think both heroines turned villains actually suffer from a much more common Hollywood failing that plagues almost every comic book movie ever written, and that is the two dimensional villain.

This problem is particularly noticeable with Wanda, as we've seen what her story looks like when she's treated as the protagonist. In WandaVision, Wanda wants to live an idyllic suburban life with the deceased Vision. This causes her to mind control the entire population of a small town to play parts in her family sitcom fantasy -- but, she doesn't realize that the harm she's causing others. This version of Wanda is lost in the madness of grief. She does horrible things, but is ultimately relatable because of the emotions that ground her actions. When this Wanda realized what she was doing to the citizens of Westview, she couldn't bring herself to continue.

The Wanda of Dr. Strange isn't like that. Because she's framed as the antagonist, the film doesn't even bother to try to make her relatable.

She's willing to knowingly murder a teenage girl, as well as an alternate universe version of herself, to get what she wants. Sure, they give her a "good reason" for acting the way she does; she's a mother who wants to see her kids. On the surface this is a relatable reason, but it falls apart when given closer scrutiny. We don't see her emotional arc, which makes her motivation not a relatable flaw, but a single minded obsession. We don't see the Wanda of Dr. Strange struggle with her difficult decisions until the very end of the film when it's dramatically mandated. We don't feel her pain. Instead we get some BS about how she was corrupted by an evil spell book. To be clear, the problem that I'm talking about is not exclusive to Wanda. It can be applied to every bad villain both in and out of the comic book genre. It's only more obvious because WandaVision showed how the exact same arc works when you treat the villain like a protagonist…which brings me to my last point. 

How do you avoid creating a two dimensional villain in your own work? While the trope may seem easy to avoid, we've all fallen into the pattern of simplifying an antagonist either to make the plot work or to highlight the protagonist's virtues, but despite being common it's lazy writing. Writing a multi-dimensional antagonist, one that the readers/viewers can root for, is crucial for not only suspension of disbelief, but also for forcing the protagonist to challenge their own views and morals. And the way to do that? I like to make a version of my outline where the antagonist is the protagonist and vice versa. Basically create your own Wicked to your Wizard of Oz, your own WandaVision to your Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. While this work doesn't necessarily make its way into the final book/script, it helps to truly understand your villain as a person. Because if you don't, who will?

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