Major spoilers ahead for episodes 1-6 of Marvel and Netflix's Luke Cage, as well as Daredevil and Jessica Jones. If you haven't seen 'em yet, it's time you climb on board that train, son!
"Marvel has a villain problem": It's a sentence you've probably heard a few times before. But the author of those five words might want to throw in a caveat next time, because on the small screen, Marvel's villains are anything but a problem. Kilgrave was a regular scene-stealer in Jessica Jones, and Daredevil's Wilson Fisk was easily the greatest MCU bad guy to date. And then Luke Cage premiered.
Luke Cage introduces us to Cornell Stokes, played with a sublime hybrid of menace, rage and smooth charm by Mahershala Ali. Although he hates the name, Stokes is commonly referred to as Cottonmouth, his surname in the comics. He runs a gloriously old-school soul club, but in most other respects he has a very 21st century approach to being a gangster, and he's such a committed and relentless scene-stealer in Luke Cage, whether winning or under pressure (he's rarely winning. He's actually quite bad at this whole gangster shit), that I thought it would be interested to see how he stacks up against Kilgrave and Fisk, the best villains of their respective Netflix series. Is Cornell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes the best Marvel screen villain to date?
Let's break it down.
On the one hand, he's nowhere near as effective at what he does as either of those bad guys. Kilgrave's motives in Jessica Jones are entirely personal — his goal is nothing more than complete control over Jessica — and for twelve episodes, he's essentially winning that game. Only in the last episode does Jessica find a way to take the upper hand, seizing psychological liberation in the process.
But is Kilgrave truly a great villain? He's entertaining, but also kind of theatrical. His powers of mind control give him such a complete advantage over anybody who crosses his path, it's almost boring. There's no sense of a level playing field, of hero and villain cancelling out one another's powers. He simply wins, right until the last, and he's rarely if ever sympathetic. The man is downright terrifying, but that's kind of undercut by the realization that he's also just a pathetic, sad, lonely individual. That said, "Jessicaaaaa!" will never not induce chills.
By contrast, Wilson Fisk is so sympathetic, it's almost difficult to think of him as a villain at all. Like Cottonmouth, he's mannered, but where Cornell is mannered like a Bond villain — his smoothness is a deliberate tactic designed to counter his reputation, so that those he comes into contact with understand that they should fear him — Fisk's manners are real, a self-taught attempt to be everything his abusive, violent father wasn't. But more than just a reflective of the man he's striving to be, the manners are effective at building tension - you know when he loses his shit, he's going to really lose it, and you ain't wrong...
Much as he may wish he wasn't, Fisk is wired to be bad. He asserts a much more iron grip over Hell's Kitchen than Cottonmouth does over Harlem, a result of being smarter, less emotional and a better judge of character. Fisk would never hire a henchman like Tone, who disobeyed Cottonmouth's orders and put a thousand bullets in Pop in the hallowed territory of his own barber shop, because he understands the concept of respect, for his streets and for their people.
Cottonmouth has no respect, as demonstrated when he used the chance to speak at Pop's funeral as a PR exercise and an opportunity to make veiled threats at Luke. And it backfired, like pretty much everything else he touched. One thing that didn't backfire? That bazooka Cottonmouth launched square at Connie's restaurant. That was the moment at which I knew Cornell Stokes was nothing like Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave or any other Marvel villain. He might own the Harlem's Paradise, but Stokes is the kind of guy who gets his hands on a military-grade weapon and starts to drool at the prospect of all the blood he's about to shed.
If there's a loser in this battle of three bad guys, each distinct from the last and uniquely villainous, it's Kilgrave. It's impossible to feel anything but hate toward a man who was essentially guilty of domestic rape, and while he's both entertaining and highly provocative, his story can only end one way.
Cottonmouth runs Fisk close — I particularly love his deep laugh, which is only ever heard when Luke has the upper hand, a kind of involuntary reaction to being outsmarted — and I wish he'd been able to enjoy a longer period of dominance over Luke and over Harlem before it all came crashing down. Just a couple more bazookas fired. But it's Fisk who remains the smartest, the most charismatic, the one you'd least want as your enemy and most want to go for a drink with.
Will Netflix find a way to top Fisk? It's over to Iron Fist now...