Prince Nuada: The Forgotten Villain and the Problem with Cinematic Universes
On July 11, 2008, Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army was released in theaters. A week later, however, the movie would be forced to live in the shadows of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This was and is unfortunate, because as much as The Dark Knight was and still is deserving of the praise and success it received, Hellboy II was an exceptional and enjoyable movie in its own right, but due to the timing of its release, it is recognized only by a niche fandom that can be found in small corners of sites like Tumblr and Archive of Our Own (Ao3). Both The Dark Knight and Hellboy II, however, had something in common that is difficult to find in many of the “cinematic universes” of today: A compelling villain.
Now, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Joker is one that continues to be praised to this day, and rightfully so. In this write-up, however, I will be focusing on Hellboy II’s Prince Nuada Silverlance and why I feel this forgotten villain puts a lot of today’s most popular villains such as Thanos to shame and why he deserves to be mentioned among the likes of Loki and Killmonger.
As a struggling writer, I think one of the most challenging things to write is a villain or an antagonistic character, and I think this shows with even some of today’s most successful film franchises. For all of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strengths, for example, one of the most prevalent flaws is their inability to create memorable villains (with the exception of Thor’s Loki and more recently, Black Panther’s Killmonger). One of their most recent villains is Thanos, and if you’re not a stranger to the internet, you probably already know there’s a good portion of the audience that did not connect with him, and I believe the reason for this is the attempt in Avengers: Infinity War (directed by Anthony and Joseph Russo) to force sympathy towards him on the audience.
Disney’s MCU might have popularized some names of Marvel Comics, but the fact of the matter is there is still a good chunk of moviegoers who do not keep up with the comics and go in knowing little to nothing about many new characters introduced in the movies. This means that many of us went into Infinity War knowing very little about Thanos. In fact, at the time of its release (April 2018), the franchise was turning a decade old. We knew a lot of the characters: Tony Stark (Iron Man), Stever Rogers (Captain America), Thor, and so on. We didn’t know Thanos. We scarcely even saw him before this movie save for a couple of cameos sprinkled here and there throughout the span of ten years, and even then, we saw more Stan Lee cameos than we did of him. Details about Thanos were kept vague. We knew he was the adoptive father of Nebula and Gamora (if you want to call a kidnapper the father of those he kidnapped) and we knew he was after the Infinity Stones. In keeping the details surrounding him vague, Disney built up a lot of anticipation. We expected him to be the ultimate baddie. A threatening force. A cut above even the likes of the MCU’s strongest villains such as Loki and Killmonger.
Well, Thanos was at least one of those things. He certainly was a threatening force, but was he the ultimate baddie? Was he a cut above Loki and Killmonger?
It is difficult to say how Killmonger would have handled Thanos, as he died at the end of his movie and has yet to be even mentioned in other films of the franchise, but the opening of Infinity War involves Loki being killed off by Thanos in a way that is quite insulting to the character and his fans. Loki is a master of many things: Illusion and telekinesis to name just two. His death was by strangling by Thanos’s hand after he attempted to kill him with a small knife resembling that of Peter Pan. This should have our first sign that Thanos was going to be a disappointment. The fact that the Russos and/or their creative team didn’t make use of Loki’s many abilities in order for him to be killed off by a villain so easily and who we really just met and knew little about comes off as just a tad bit lazy.
Among other problems I have with Infinity War is that it focused on characters that were already well established in previous movies rather than allow us to get to know Thanos. At the same time, however, the writers really seemed to want us to identify with him. This isn’t particularly a bad thing. Some of the most memorable villains such as Loki and Killmonger are such partly because of their relatability. However, a villain cannot be relatable if we really don’t know where they are coming from. When watching the movie, we witness Thanos abuse his already mutilated “daughter” Nebula in order to get answers from Gamora. Shortly after, he learns that in order to receive the soul stone (something he needs in order to successfully commit genocide), he must sacrifice something or someone he loves — and this results in Gamora being pushed off a cliff. Afterwards, we see a shot of Gamora’s lifeless body at the bottom of the cliff and close-up shots of Thanos’s anguished face as solemn music plays in the background. The implications of this scene alone are problematic, but I want to focus on the characterization. Yes, we are given a look at Thanos’s first interaction with Gamora as a child in the movie where he decides to spare her as her mother is being killed in a massacre behind them. This scene is not enough to imply love and based on the way Gamora speaks of Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy, we can only assume that Thanos loved neither Gamora nor Nebula. He rather saw them as tools for him to use.
What’s frustrating is that Thanos did have the potential to have some relatability, but the fact of the matter is that the movie’s writers decided to focus on characters we already knew rather than develop him — and they still expected us to identify with him when they gave us little to nothing. The only thing we were given was a little bit of dialogue between him and Stephen Strange:
Thanos: “Titan was like most planets; too many mouths, not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.”
Thanos: “At random. Dispassionate, fair; To rich and poor alike. They called me a madman… and what I predicted came to pass.”
Strange: “Congratulations, you’re a prophet.”
Thanos: “I’m a survivor.”
Strange: “Who wants to murder trillions.”
Thanos: “With all six stones, I could simply snap my fingers; They would all cease to exist. I call that…mercy.”
Strange: “Then what?”
Thanos: “I finally rest and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe. The hardest choices require the strongest wills.”
This dialogue is all we got. From this, we know Thanos believed that genocide was the answer to the problem of dwindling resources and his people ridiculed him (rightfully so). This is why many of us felt so disconnected from him. Obviously, genocide is not the answer. However, didn’t Loki also attempt genocide? Didn’t Killmonger attempt to murder his own cousin in order to gain control of Wakanda and their military? Why are these two villains relatable but not Thanos?
The answer to that question is simple: We saw where these two characters came from.
Loki was his family’s scapegoat and his adoption and true heritage were kept secret from him. Killmonger’s father was killed by Wakanda’s royal family — his own extended family, and he was left an orphan in the inner city of Oakland and a victim of systemic racism in America, all while people of Wakanda lived peacefully and comfortably hidden away from the world.
Thanos doesn’t work as a relatable villain because we don’t see what led him to believing genocide was the only answer to the problem of dwindling resources. Had someone hurt him in the past? Did he lose someone he loved? Did something else incredibly tragic or traumatic happen to him? Never once are these questions even alluded to let alone answered, yet at the very end of the movie once he succeeds at his goal of genocide, we are given another close-up of his anguished face as he stares into the sunset of an uninhabited planet.
Some of us probably hoped to get some answers in Avengers: Endgame, but unfortunately, we did not. Instead, the rising action of the film starts with Thanos of the past (the present having been killed by the remaining Avengers early on in the movie) abandoning his plans to fight the Avengers of the present. That’s it.
Now, contrary to popular belief, a villain doesn’t have to be grey or sympathetic in order to be a well written villain. There’s a reason the classic Disney villains such as Maleficent, Cruella deVille, Ursula, and Scar remain incredibly popular today. They are fascinating and sometimes even fun to watch, but at the same time, we are satisfied to see them defeated. Other one-dimensional villains are just plain terrifying. One of the best examples I can think of is Captain Vidal from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This character is a leader of Spain’s fascist military. He is also guilty of child abuse, murder, and torturing prisoners of war. He possesses no redeeming qualities which makes it all the more satisfying once he is defeated. I can’t help but feel that if the writers of both Infinity War and Endgame really felt it was necessary to give as many already established characters as much screen time as possible, the smartest thing they could have done with Thanos is make him more one-dimensional, because as I’ve pointed out, a one-dimensional character isn’t always a badly constructed character.
And speaking of del Toro, let me get back to Prince Nuada from Hellboy II.
Hellboy II begins with a flashback of Red as a child being told the story of the war between elves and humans by his father. In short, King Balor (Nuada’s father), released the Golden Army in order to defend his people from the humans, but when he saw how brutal and inhumane the army was, he decided to create a treaty. The terms of said treaty were that humans were to remain in their man-made cities while the elves were to remain in the woods. Nuada, who had initially begged his father to release the army in the first place, was not pleased with the agreement and went into exile as a result.
This exposition is brief and takes place during the first few minutes of the movie, but as brief as it is, it is effective. When we actually see Nuada in the the movie, we know what his goals are and where they come from. We understand why he hates humanity and we get the frustration he feels towards his twin sister, Nuala, and his father who seems to have adopted her “inactive” approach to the problem their people are faced with. Both his sister and their father have accepted the possibility of their people’s extinction as a result of humanity’s greed. With all this said, we are able to understand his motivation behind killing his father to take the throne. We get the motivation behind his abusing the psychic connection he has with his twin sister in order to track her down to retrieve the last piece of the crown needed to control the army. We understand all of this without condoning said actions.
To add to all of this, Nuada is not a character who is simply full of hate and a need for vengeance. Nuada loves his people and wants to protect them, even if he goes about it in the wrong ways. There’s also a moment in the movie where we see Nuada after having killed the guards of the BPRD base where Nuala is hiding have a brief moment with the guard dogs. After allowing one to lick the blade of which he used to kill the guards, he gives the dog an endearing pet on the head and softly says, “Good dog.” Nuada is not simply a bloodthirsty killer. He does value life. His hatred is reserved for humanity, as it is humanity that is threatening his people.
Even as Nuada is dying in Red’s arms, we can feel sympathy towards him. “We die,” he says weakly, “and the world is poorer for it.”
It’s heart wrenching because if it wasn’t clear already, races such as elves are dying out. The world is very close to losing its magic. Nuada and his sister are among the last of their kind, and Nuala’s death is also heartbreaking, as she knows there will never be anything or anyone to change her brother’s views and that he will never stop until he has successfully rid the world of humanity. She knows the only way to stop him is to sacrifice herself (their bond as twins is so strong that any harm inflicted on one will affect the other). Nuala’s choice not only saved humanity from her brother, but in making her choice, she chose humanity over her own people. But having seen the way humanity treats Red even after protecting them, we’re left to wonder if humanity deserves this sacrifice.
Now, besides well-developed backstories and layering, I think there’s something else that Prince Nuada, Killmonger, and Loki have in common that give them an edge over Thanos: The timing and circumstances of which their movies were released.
As mentioned before, the bad timing of which Hellboy II was released was detrimental to its popularity, but there’s also an upside. Back in 2008, movies and their sequels didn’t connect with other movies. Thor was released in 2011 in the earlier stages of the MCU (The Avengers wouldn’t be released until a year later), and Black Panther was handled in a way in which people wouldn’t have to have seen the previous MCU movies to understand what was going on. I believe this creative choice had to do with the movie’s importance from a socially progressive standpoint — it wasn’t just a movie that Black MCU fans were going to see. Said fans took members of their families who normally didn’t watch movies of the comic book genre but recognized the importance of supporting a Black led movie of said genre.
The advantage Hellboy II, Thor, and Black Panther have is that the creative teams of all these movies were not constrained by a franchise’s need for a movie to be connected to other movies within it. Nuada, Loki, and Killmonger are able to be carefully developed because the focus of their movies isn’t to remind their audiences that their stories are only fragments of bigger universes, and time is allowed for us to see where these villains come from rather than them simply being thrown at us with the expectation we sympathize with them. I think the main problem with Infinity War, Endgame, and Thanos was the creative choice to spend as much time as possible presenting quippy dialogue between characters we already knew for way too much comic relief for a high stakes situation. It feels like being beat over the head with, “Hey all! These heroes you already know are meeting for the first time! Isn’t the awkwardness between them hilarious!?”
Now, with this said, I’m not against cinematic universes, but I do believe there is a right and wrong way to do them. For many of us, it’s fun to have movies that connect with others in a single franchise. It, however, becomes tiring when the development of a villain or antagonizing force is sacrificed in favor of reinforcing the connectivity. And it becomes irritating and even insulting of our intelligence when a villain like Thanos is thrown at us with the expectation we sympathize with him even though we are given nothing to sympathize with.
As I mentioned earlier, I, myself, am a struggling writer, so maybe I’m not in the position to give already successful writers advice. However, it might be worth it for those like the Russos to look back at movies like Hellboy II. Nuada’s fandom may be small, but they are a passionate fandom. They are devoted. They’re smart. They connect with his character because they are given things to connect with and his development isn’t sacrificed in favor of references and Easter Eggs for the first Hellboy movie. If writers want their audience to sympathize with their villains, then they better give them something to sympathize with. Otherwise, your villain will come off as sloppy, and for some, even a joke.