It's often said that a hero is only as strong as his villains. What's the point of a superhero who doesn't have evil to battle against, after all? Would Batman be as memorable if it weren't for villains like Joker, Two-Face, and Catwoman? Would Wolverine still be the best there is without Sabretooth or Mystique or Lady Deathstrike pushing him to persevere?
Comic fans will agree that supervillains are integral to the success of any good superhero comic. But strangely enough, that isn't always the case with superhero movies. Hollywood hasn't shown a great deal of interest in the villains of the Marvel and DC Universes so far. It's heroes like Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine that draw in the big bucks. I don't know about anyone else, but my enjoyment of these films is beginning to seriously suffer because of the lack of attention paid to fleshing out and developing the villain characters.
Just look at Marvel Studios' lineup so far. Nearly every villain in these films falls into one of two categories. On one hand, you have the generic villain who wants to destroy everything because, hey, they're the bad guy and that's what they do (Ronan, Justin Hammer, Aldrich Killian, Red Skull, Abomination). On the other hand, you have a villain posing as a close ally to the main hero until they pull a third act heel-turn (Obadiah Stane, Alexander Pierce). Loki is really the only villain across all 10 Marvel Studios films so far who stands out as a fully-realized character with clear motivations and desires beyond wanting to blow things up. And it's no coincidence that he wound up playing a central role in three of these movies so far.
Ronan is an especially disappointing example of this trend. Guardians of the Galaxypainted him as a one-note villain with ambitions of conquest and destruction, whereas the comic book Ronan is a man bound by honor and loyalty and willing to sacrifice all for the good of the Kree Empire. His bland depiction was one of the main reasons I found myself enjoying the movie less than the vast majority of superhero fans.
The Spider-Man franchise is pretty much a textbook example of what can go wrong when the villains aren't properly handled. The Sam Raimi trilogy started off on the right foot with a decent Green Goblin and a great Doctor Octopus. But every film since Spider-Man 2 has been a train wreck of villains smashed together on screen. You can't cram Sandman, Harry Osborn's new Goblin, and Venom into one movie and expect any of the three villains to fare well. But Sony did it again when they attempted to frame Amazing Spider-Man 2 around the combined menace of Electro, Harry Osborn's Green Goblin, and a very drunk Paul Giamatti. Spider-Man has one of the best rogues galleries in comics, but you really wouldn't know it from watching his movies. It's clear from Sam Raimi's past comments and recent chatter from Andrew Garfield that Sony executives are to blame for many of the storytelling woes befalling these movies. They want the name cache of villains like Venom without doing the necessary story legwork to build to them.
The problem is that studios don't seem to have much incentive to focus on the villains in these projects. The heroes are what draw the audiences in. The heroes are the ones who have their faces and colorful costumes plastered on all sorts of merchandise. The heroes are the ones whose actors are signing contracts worth tens of millions of dollars and involving half a dozen appearances or more. And focusing on the heroes has worked out pretty well for these studios so far. Marvel had one of their most successful summers yet thanks to the combined appeal of Chris Evans' Captain America and Chris Pratt's Star-Lord.
It seems as though Hollywood doesn't have a financial incentive to emphasize villains in these superhero movies. At the same time, look at The Dark Knight and The Avengers. They both rank among the highest-grossing films of all time - not just superhero films, but films in general. And both projects featured charismatic, fascinating villains opposing our heroes. For many, Heath Ledger's maniacal, anarchy-obsessed Joker was the main draw of The Dark Knight. And while I won't argue that Loki was the primary appeal in The Avengers rather than the big superhero team-up, his presence and depth of character certainly helped contribute to the movie's lasting box office success.
The Batman franchise has always been the big exception when it comes to Hollywood's lackluster treatment of supervillains. Batman's foes are just so iconic and so beloved and so taped into Jungian psychology that studios really have to try to screw them up (which is why Batman & Robin gets an "A" for effort). If anything, the problem with the Batman franchise has been in not allowing villains like Jack Nicholson's Joker and Jim Carrey's Riddler to overshadow the guy in the rubber bat costume.
Or look at the X-Men franchise. That series has thrived on the strength of villains likeMagneto and Mystique. Because most of the heroes in the X-Men movies are so dull and bland next to Jackman's Wolverine, the impetus almost has to shift to the villains. That franchise has gotten a lot of mileage out of Magneto's war against humanity and Mystique's struggle to choose between the two most important men in her life. It's a shame that the movies haven't done as well by the rest of the many villains in the X-Men franchise. After seven films, we've struggled through disappointing adaptations of Dark Phoenix, Juggernaut, and Sabretooth, and we're only just now getting to Apocalypse.
As time goes on and more and more superhero films hit theaters, studios are going to discover that it's necessary to focus on the villains as much as they have been the heroes. It's one thing to place all the focus on the hero when a franchise starts out and a foundation has to be built. But Marvel Studios is getting to the point where they're working two or three sequels deep on some franchises. WB has their plan for the DC Cinematic Universe more or less mapped out for the next decade. These sequels can't function simply by regurgitating the same, basic hero's journey we've seen so many times before. They need bigger and more charismatic villains who can hold the audience's attention as easily as Tony Stark can.
It's going to become more and more necessary for superhero movies to feature great villains just as a means of standing out. How many charming, attractive, white male heroes can Hollywood really support, anyway? We really need different kinds of superhero movies that push the boundaries. And as much as that process includes emphasizing female heroes and minority heroes and even nonhuman heroes, it also includes spotlighting the villains.
The good news is that studios seem to be acknowledging this need for better movie villains and are slowly moving towards addressing it. Last week we learned that, after years of rumors, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson will be portraying Black Adam in the upcoming Shazam film. I definitely agree with Joshua Yehl's recent editorial that Johnson could have played a great Shazam. The idea of a kid's mind inhabiting the body of a magical strongman plays well with Johnson's comedic sensibilities. But ultimately, I'm happy that Johnson chose Teth-Adam over Billy Batson. Why he couldn't have played both characters is beyond me, but that's another story.
The thing about Black Adam is that he's developed a fundamentally more interesting and complex character than his enemy. DC has struggled for decades to take the cheesy Captain Marvel/Shazam character and spruce him up for a more contemporary audience. It's debatable whether such a thing is even possible without going full-on dark and gritty, Miracleman-style reboot with the property. Billy Batson is an orphan boy bestowed with the power of six gods. That's all fine and well, but Adam is a former pharaoh who sacrificed all to protect his family and his homeland and damned himself along the way. Black Adam is a pretty bad person. He's known for ripping off the limbs of his enemies, among other things. But every dark deed he performs is done in service of what he sees as the greater good for his kingdom. It's been a treat to see Adam built up, torn down, and built up again in books like JSA , 52, and Black Adam: The Dark Age in recent years. What's become apparent through stories like that is that Adam is a more flawed and identifiable character than Shazam. You can't blame Johnson for latching onto those qualities.
Sony also made the interesting announcement this summer that their next Spider-Man project won't be Spider-Man 3, but a villain-themed Sinister Six movie. On the surface, the idea of a Spider-Man-less Sinister Six movie sounds a little ridiculous. What exactly is the point? And based on the quality of Sony's last three Spider-Man films, I'm not entirely convinced there will be a point. But the potential is at least there for a very fun and very different kind of superhero film. In an ideal world, the Sinister Six movie will take its cues from a book like The Superior Foes of Spider-Man. That series has had very little to do with Spidey himself. Instead, the emphasis has been on various C-List villains like Boomerang, Shocker, and Beetle as they struggle to make their collective reputation and land a big score. The series is as much about black humor as it is superhero vs. supervillain action.
Hopefully there's a way to channel that appeal while still crafting a film that the younger toy- and video game-buying crowd will also want to see. The Sinister Six movie doesn't have to be as sardonic as Superior Foes. Nor does it need to rely on lesser-known villains. It just needs the right combination of good villains who can form a compelling dynamic. Frame the movie around Harry Osborn's desire to escape his father's shadow and build his own legacy, throw in a few complex characters like Sandman and Doctor Octopus, and you're good to go.
We can only hope that Marvel's gradual build-up to a Thanos-centric Avengers movie is a sign of big things to come for that villain. Sure, Thanos has the physical strength to toss Hulk and Thor around like ragdolls, but that's not what makes him interesting. Thanos is a great villain in the Marvel tradition because he's so fundamentally flawed. He has a pathetic, unrequited love for a woman who no one else can see and may not even be real. And he has a latent self-loathing streak that causes him to routinely attain absolute power and then let it slip through his giant, purple fingers. We haven't seen those qualities in play with these movies yet, but with any luck we will in a few years. Handled properly, Thanos could serve as a shining example of how to handle villains in superhero films.
Done right, films like Sinister Six and Venom Carnage might inspire not just a renaissance of compelling supervillains in Hollywood, but a wave of new films framed specifically around villains. If characters like Magneto, Sinestro, and Deathstroke can have their own ongoing comic books, why not the occasional movie or two?
Supervillains are appealing because they serve as foils to the superheroes of the world. They make heroes better, and they ensure that there are consequences when heroes fail. But the best villains are the ones who are fundamentally interesting in their own right. Just because they happen to fall on the wrong side of the good/evil spectrum doesn't mean they can't have thoughts and feelings and desires of their own. Hopefully we'll see more of these movies start to reflect that fact. We need less one-note villains plotting destruction and more complex foils for our heroes. Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor needs to be less "real estate scam" this and "Miss Tessmacher!!!" that and more like the complex, flawed Luthor we know from the comics. Ultron's plot to destroy humanity in Avengers: Age of Ultron needs to be tempered by the villain's familiar Oedipus complex and hatred for his human creator.
We can't keep expecting the Batman and X-Men franchises to shoulder the burden when it comes to great Hollywood villains. And we can't keep sitting through superhero films where the villains aren't pulling their weight
Source: IGN Comics