With a bunch of new superhero movies approaching, we’re going to be seeing a lot more villains, however the question is will they be any good? I’m a big fan of villains, so let’s dive into what makes a good comic book villain.
When thinking about who is the best comic book movie villain so far, the obvious answer is the Joker. The Dark Knight was more the Joker’s movie than it was Batman’s. For me, one of the great things about the Joker is his strong belief in his philosophy. The Joker is an absurdist. He believes that life is chaotic and pointless, and instead of fighting against that and creating a fake sense of order, we should just embrace our natural chaotic instincts instead. His philosophy strongly contrasted to Batman’s philosophy, who holds order in a high regard. So now the Joker is personally relevant to Batman as the Joker intends on disproving Batman’s philosophy.
A villain with a strong philosophy or moral code, a code that directly goes against the hero’s outlook helps create a stronger villain. Some superhero movie villains fall into the trap of just being evil without an actual reason as to why. Now that reason doesn’t have to be a tragic origin story but it should be something, and something interesting. What’s their view on life? What’s their philosophy and moral code? Things are more interesting when the villain has a unique outlook on life, rather than just wanting world domination for the sake of it.
Batman’s villains are often well noted because they represent distorted reflections of himself. Villains that represent the potential darker side of the hero have much more story potential than a villain who isn’t personally relevant to the hero at all.
That is one of my problems with the Marvel villains, they are often just one and done villains, when they could be so much more. Make the villain personally relevant to the hero in some kind of way, in a way that makes the hero genuinely question their self-judgement. For example Ultron had the potential to be a really great villain, had he actually had made a relevant point about the way The Avengers operated. I mean Ultron was Tony’s creation, perhaps themes of playing god could have come to play, to make Tony take a step back and consider how he uses his power over technology. But nooooo none of that, we get one-liners instead.
Another thing that makes a great comic book villain, though slightly obvious, is being genuinely terrifying. The problem with a lot of comic book villains, is that they can come off slightly too campy. Sure that may work in an actual comic book, but in film, not so much. And look say what you will about how Jared Leto’s Joker looks, I was pretty terrified from his presence in the Suicide Squad trailer.
A superhero movie doesn’t need to carve out time for a villain origin story if it doesn’t have time. Sometimes ambiguity of the “why” a certain character is the way they are makes them all the more terrifying, the most obvious example once again being the Joker. Not a comic book reference but think about Silence of the Lambs. You don’t know why Hannibal eats people, his origin story isn’t given (though unfortunately it’s given a few years later). He’s a great villain because he is genuinely terrifying and surprising. He can be charming, sophisticated and intelligent, like any gentlemen, but then can snap and start eating people like a monster. Constantly verging on the line of respectable man and monster makes him so interesting.
And like Hannibal Lecter, personality can be key to making a great villain. Take Loki for example, one of the reasons why he stands out from other MCU villains is his infectious personality. He can be smooth, arrogant, charming, funny and obnoxious all at once. Loki is the master of manipulation and that stems from his infectious personality. Fail to give the villain a personality they just become another “blah blah world domination blah” villain, which isn’t interesting.
So what can the future superhero movies do to create interesting villains for their story?
Give the villain a less cliché motivation: I don’t want anymore of the killing all of humanity to build them up again bullshit that we always seem to get. Or just world domination because they just happen to be power-hungry. What’s their philosophy? How do they view life? How do they view themselves compared to others? Magneto is a great villain because his motivation comes out of an admiration for mutants. He cares about his species and wants the best for them. It would be heroic if it wasn’t at the expense of humanity.
Let’s get to know the villain as a person, not a plot-device: What are their likes/dislikes. Make an actual character with a personality.
What can the villain say about the hero? Justin Hammer from Iron Man 2 was actually an okay villain as he represented one of the flaws of Tony Stark. Hammer was an arrogant rich guy who ran a tech company, and let his sense of entitlement and superiority become his downfall. Although what would have been interesting was if Tony actually learnt something from Justin Hammer’s downfall, unfortunately because of bad story-telling he didn’t.
Can the villain evoke a sense of sympathy from the audience? Some of the best villains are the ones that think they’re the hero of the story. Take Lex Luthor for example. He genuinely believes he can be a saviour for humanity, and doesn’t like Superman interfering with that. Luthor’s grandiose self-image coupled with his own insecurities creates a fractured man who wants to do the right thing, but in the worst way possible, that creates an interesting villain.
Make the villain a direct response to the hero or be personally relevant: Maybe the hero’s actions caused the villain to be who they are. Maybe the hero and villain had a personal connection beforehand. It will be great to see more of Bucky Barnes in Civil War. The transition of best friend to enemy was handled quite well in the Captain America movies, so it will be good to see them build on that.
Villains don’t always have to operate on a moral absolute, extremeness can be boring: There’s no need to make everything black and white when it comes to a villain. Maybe they’re not just plain old evil, maybe their logic is reasonable. Perhaps they are motivated by a noble cause?
Make their actions surprising: Superhero villains often have the most predictable plans, give them a good execution. Bane’s execution in The Dark Knight Rises would have been good had it actually had been his plan….
And of course actually be a threat: Let’s see our hero be in actual trouble, make us believe that maybe, just maybe the bad guy wins. Not only be a physical threat, but be an emotional and mental threat as well. Two-Face was an emotional and mental threat for Batman as it fractured his ideologies and beliefs. If the Joker was capable of corrupting even the greatest of men, what hope was there? What lesson can the hero learn from the villain?
Anyways I’m just hoping that we start getting some really memorable villains in the upcoming superhero movies. Bad guys (and gals) have always been some of the most interesting and memorable characters in film history, so let’s showcase that in the comic book movies as well. If you’re still in a villain mood you can check out my character analysis for Joker, Lex Luthor, Bane or The Riddler here.
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Categories: comic book movies