Superheroes are here to stop supervillains. If the heroes are mythic embodiment of what’s good and righteous in humanity, then villains are the devil, the stand-in for our worst impulses and our darkest desires. The wish we have that power really is the ultimate good, and that we had the ability to exert it. Or the wish that doing what thou wilt really could be the whole of the law.
In other words, superheroes and their villains are inextricably connected, two sides of the same coin. As much as the hero that they choose to fight defines the villain, so does the villains and their pushback against them define the hero.
The bastards and broken people that fight Batman are a reflection of his own psyche, and more specifically that he rose above his pain to become something greater. His villains allowed themselves to give into the darkness and sink into it. Part of the reason they attack him is that he repudiates the monstrosity they’ve become.
The best villains of Superman are all reflections of his power. People who are strong enough to have done good, but chose to exert it against the world rather than work for it. Lex Luthor is the peak of humanity, yet he chooses to spend his vast intellect and resources battling Superman rather then bettering humanity as he could, out of nothing but petty spite and jealousy.
So, with all that in mind, we’re left to ponder why the hell the modern superhero movie seems to have such a villain problem.
Namely, that the modern superhero movies seems to completely neglect the supervillain.
There are a few exceptions of course. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a standout, a charming British aristocrat with the mind of a sociopath and an axe to grind against the world. Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo is still likely to rest as one of the only villains that ever won the movie, and was a phenomenal performance to boot. And Michael Shannon’s General Zod was a bright spot of a fairly mediocre film, and a compelling and over-the-top presence that asked interesting questions (even if they didn’t necessarily need to be).
But on the whole, superheroes don’t have much to define themselves against or fight anymore. Villains are largely cardboard cutouts, with a few trainwrecks mixed in. Mostly there as narrative or plot devices, much less informative of thematics or character work. Marvel Studios has born the brunt of this criticism, which they’ve earned thanks to villains like Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll), Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), and Malekith (It doesn’t matter who I put here, you would have no way of registering who the hell this is).
And remember those trainwrecks I mentioned earlier? Those mostly rest over at DC Films (quelle surprise). Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy embarrassment for an actor who does know better, Leto’s Joker was an absolute nothing from an actor that I’m no longer convinced does. This isn’t even speaking to Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Doomsday (Tim Lumpygraymonster), who almost aren’t worth discussing as cinematic entities.
Anyone not mentioned pretty much runs the spectrum in between. Those that approach good fall short at the last minute, and there’s just no weight to them. No threat, no fear, no thematic resonance that our villains give. They may fill out the film around them (think Age of Ultron), but they don’t enhance it. They fail to hit compelling and land somewhere around interesting. Villains used to be the reason to watch the movie, now we’re lucky if they don’t actively hold them back.
Now, I’ll grant that I think this really is a problem with blockbuster filmmaking in general. The last iconic blockbuster villain was probably Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, excepting Loki or the memetic afterlife of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
Perhaps maybe that’s where we can first start. The long shadow that Heath Ledger has cast over this genre and over blockbuster villainy in general cannot be understated. But like all things of great complexity, it’s been hard to find the ineffable quality that worked in that performance, so actors and creators have seized on various ideas to varying degrees of success.
The majority approach has been to take the two-fold approach of a method performance with a modern updating of the character. Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan took a character that had been many things and corralled him into a specific and terrifying conception. A very lived-in, thought through Joker with a series of ticks and patterns that couldn’t be matched, and that Ledger went into headfirst. The kind of performance any actor would kill to have out there.
But almost as importantly, he was turned into something the audience could understand. His Joker was a terrorist. Someone seeking to make a point about his twisted view of the world by any violent means necessary. Something the post-9/11 audience could wrap their head around.
Which is where we come in with the chief problem of some of these villains, I’m thinking Lex Luthor and Leto’s Joker specifically, but I think even Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser could hit that. There’s too much of an attempt to replicate that specific Ledger alchemy to the point where you missed what originally worked.
Besides the fact that Luthor and Leto are very specifically copping from Ledger, both are operating off his same guiding statement without the specific ideas that made him work. It makes sense that Luthor might be more of a Zuckerbergian figure nowadays, but the physicality felt off against Cavill’s Superman, and there was never a specific conception of what exactly guided him, meaning that the path that was cut by his performance never became clear. The same process didn’t get the same result at all.
But not everyone is just living in the shadow of Ledger. The other problem is just that so many of these films look past the storytelling potential of villainy.
Marvel Studios has done very well for themselves by defining their films by a set of well-cast, incredibly likeable, nuanced heroes. These are heroes that have to continue from film to film and we need to have some conception of them.
The decision to make these hero films means that these become films that are based in character work, that function narratively on our love for the characters. They’re not necessarily plot-driven films, which is often where villains reside and how they become defined.
Essentially, villains have become outmoded in this style of storytelling, because external conflict isn’t necessarily king. The struggles and thoughts and relationships of the heroes drive the story, and the villains are left out.
Which is short-sighted, in the long-run. The story and development of a villainous character can be just as interesting, and having them develop across films can have just as much weight. But the potential has been ignored in favor of one-offs that allow the hero to develop instead, and the villain to die at the end, rather than come back for another round.
What it all comes down to is that we’ve lost sight of what villains can do. Villains can define our heroes, villains can be thematic, and villains can reach a place even more primal than the desire to do good, which is the fear of those who do evil. If we want to keep these hero films going, we need to start actually telling a story with their battles, rather than coasting on good will.