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Thor Christopher Eccleston

The bad guy is winning. Take a look around and you’ll see a new dark age of villains dominating the cinematic landscape, with the antagonists stealing not just individual scenes from the heroes, but in some cases the title of the movie.

Marvel’s upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron are just two examples, and Thor: The Dark World (out Nov. 8) is dominated not just by Tom Hiddleston’s sinister Loki, but by Christopher Eccleston’s creepy, waxen-faced Malekith the Accursed.

In the EW exclusive video below, we get a little more background into this malevolent inhuman, who seeks to reduce time and space to a primitive, darkened state that will allow his race to rule the mythical nine worlds again.

But what’s behind this larger, newfound passion for the wicked, cruel, and misguided in the Marvel universe?

Hiddleston says look to The Joker in The Dark Knight for reminding people how charismatic and significant a good monster can be. “Heath Ledger’s performance changed the game. He certainly changed it for me. I’ve never seen such an electrifying performance before or since,” Hiddleston says. “There was something incredibly compelling about that film because of his performance in it.”

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, said audiences have always been excited by characters who break bad, but it was only after planning out their Phase II slate of films that they saw how heavily it was tilted toward villains.

“We didn’t sit down and say, okay now bring on the bad guys. The heroes are the focus and the drivers,” Feige says. “We choose those villains because of what you hope they will bring out in the hero. Malekith and the dark elves give Thor a noble foe, tap into Asgardian history, and bring about somebody who is worse than Loki, to put Thor in a position where he had to ask for his brother’s help.”

Brotherhood of sorts is also key to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which comes out April 4. Those who know writer Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed series of comics that introduced the Winter Soldier are already aware how this nemesis ties into Cap’s former life. (Let’s just say old friends make the worst enemies, and Sebastian Stan from the first film is reprising his character, but in a very different way.)

“The movie takes place in the modern day, with Cap struggling for his position in the world, and just when he thinks he might be finding his niche, we throw in something from his past to throw him for a loop,” Feige says.

The Winter Soldier is, like Cap, a bio-engineered military weapon. But unlike Cap, he has been brainwashed and lacks the strong moral compass that guides his red, white, and blue opponent. “Winter Soldier has been methodically, almost robotically, following orders for 70 years, and Captain America is struggling with what it means to serve a country, to serve a government, and whether the ideals he grew up with still apply,” Feige says.

This noble skepticism was all over the Brubaker comics that ran from 2004-12. The hero’s loyalty to America was never in doubt, but he did strongly challenge some of the decisions of the nation’s leaders. In the upcoming sequel, it’s the methods and goals of S.H.I.E.L.D. that begin to make him wonder if he’s on the right side.

Controversy, and the question of whether America is on the right path, are a long tradition in the Cap series. “When Stan Lee thawed him out in the ‘60s he went right into this. He was there in the turbulent ‘60s and the Kennedy assassination and right into the Nixon Watergate scandal,” Feige says. “He’s been confronting that stuff for a long time.”

Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t start shooting until the middle of next year, but they’ve already announced James Spader as the voice of Ultron, who in the comics was an artificial intelligence that develops self-loathing, and then channels its metastasizing rage into eradicating all biological life on the planet.

Feige was more circumspect about details of how this villain will clash with Iron Man, The Hulk, Cap, Thor, and Black Widow, et al, but did tip his hand a little bit about the movie, headed to theaters May 1, 2015. Like many villains, Ultron will be a contrast to the heroes he faces. His zeal to resist and reshape his programming make him hate the powerful rivals who seem to have total control of their lives and destinies.

“There is an element of free will that our heroes have, that all humans have, whether it’s Thor or Steve Rogers — and certainly Tony Stark is the poster boy for free will,” Feige says. “That’s what Ultron resents.”

For more on the dark age of villains — including Tom Hiddleston’s interview on the art of playing a bad, bad man — check out the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands this Friday. It’s the one with Katy Perry (and her henchmen) on the cover.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Movie
  • 150 minutes