comic book movies

Superhero Movies: What makes a great comic book villain?

what makes a good comic book movie villain?

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.

nicholson vs ledger joker comparison

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.

avengers age of ultron trailer 2 screenshot

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.

what makes a great comic book movie villain

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.

what makes a good superhero movie villain

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.

marvel cinematic universe death

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….

bane the dark knight rises

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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20 replies »

  1. I think the number one indicator of if the villain will be good in a comic book movie is whether or not that same villain is a great villain in the comics. Joker is a great villain in the comics, so its possible to make him great in the movies. Ditto to Bane, Magneto, Loki.

    But Yellow Jacket is a junk villain in the comics. How can you expect a villain whose no good in the source material to be good on screen?

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  2. I think it always depends on what kind of villain you want. Loki for example is perhaps the most difficult to pull off, the kind of villain which has multiple layers and with whom the audience still sympathises on a certain level. But for a basic villain, you actually only needs three things:
    1. He needs to be threatening (that’s what went wrong with Malekith and Justin Hammer, they were way too pathetic). He doesn’t necessarily need to physically intimidating…in fact, a smart villain is always preferable.
    2. A memorable design (what is Darth Vader without his helmet? Maleficent without her horns?) or a compelling performance (Hannibal). He just needs to own the scene as soon as he turns up.
    3. An understandable motivation. A creative one is even better, but good old greed usually works. You can even simply say “that’s the mistress of all evil” and it will work. The important thing is that his motivation is clear and stays consistent.

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    • Yeah agreed, I think that a lot of the Marvel villains just don’t seem that threatening which is a big problem. I’m hoping that Thanos ends up ticking all those 3 things because he definitely has the potential to

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      • I am not worried, because the writing team which will write Infinity War is the same which does the Captain America Franchise. And that one is ripe of good villains. Red Skull, Alexander Pierce, Dottie Unterwood, Crossbones….I am sure they can handle Thanos, too.

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  3. Ultron in the movie was more or less like any James Spader role, be it hero or villain: a rascal with a wicked wit, hence the one-liners. This is why changing his creator from Hank Pym to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner is a problem, because Hank Pym is the one with the brilliant but damaged mind and that lead to his brain patterns causing to make Ultron what he is. Although, judging from Pym’s line to Cross in the Ant-Man movie about why he shut him out, saying he “saw too much of himself” in him, kinda implies that Pym may not exactly be all that pure and to comic readers about his involvement with Ultron, as well as his other work for SHIELD. Plus, in AOU movie it’s never directly stated whether Stark and Banner are Ultron’s OG creators because it just comes up as a project that’s been passed around.

    Darren Cross was a pretty cool villain, but because of the movie being a heist movie, focusing on the mission at hand, he was almost one-note but at the same time was also not exactly a “truly evil” villain, more or less a guy caught in the middle of another Hydra plot to take over the world [insert Street Fighter movie M. Bison meme “of course” here] and someone, while having a damaged mind like Pym, wants to make a name for himself at any cost. Plus making him Yellowjacket just seemed like another way to address all the different identities that Pym and others have undergone.

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    • Iron man should have used more fireballs and flash kicks to beat Ultron. Why did he not tag in Kylie Minogue or Jean Claude at all? He wasted his whole life bar and all his credits. What an idiot!

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    • Yeah I think that Yellowjacket definitely had potential, they dropped some interesting things surrounding his past and relationship with Hank, it just never was explored properly. Ultron actually had a fair amount of screen time, but you’re right they spent a lot of time on him being witty etc but not enough on the important things like motivations etc.

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  4. Justin Hammer kind of came off like more of a dork than a villain, and whiplash is forgettable at best. Malekith is so much more fun in the comics, at least in Jason Aaron’s Thor run. He’s basically in love with the fact that he’s a villain and he takes great joy in being evil.

    I thought Ultron was a good villain, but I also feel they shouldn’t have killed him, just damaged him so that he could return. Also when you have 10 superheroes on the Avengers team, there isn’t all that much room to explore how it affects Iron Man specifically in a 2 hour movie. If there isn’t an extended edition to release, hopefully someone will make a fan edit that adds in a bunch of the deleted scenes to expand on Iron Man’s relationship with Ultron, if those scenes exist.

    I generally prefer Marvel over DC, but so far, at least half of Marvel’s movie villains are either underdeveloped or lame even in the source material. The villains that work so far: Loki, Red Skull, Winter Soldier, Hydra and Ronan. Even Ronan could have used more development, but he wasn’t flat; his character development was just a bit too subtle for such a charismatic villain.

    With DC, their movies have a better track record with villains. I didn’t like Man of Steel, but I’ll admit that Zod was one of the movie’s better parts if only for his motivation level. Pretty much every movie version of the Joker (including 1966 Batman) takes a part of the Joker’s personality and makes it work. It’s to the point where people still debate which version of the joker is the best. Lex Luthor’s been portrayed well also, even in Superman Returns (he was one of the few parts that really worked about that movie).

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    • If they characterised Malekith like that in the movie it would have been a lot better. But yeah it’s kind of annoying that they always seem to kill off their villains after one movie, so I’m glad we’ll be seeing Winter Soldier again in Civil War. I have high hopes for Thanos because he will be getting 2 Avengers movies in Infinity War to be better fleshed out, and has already been set up in the universe through his cameos.

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  5. What is it with superhero movies having their villains killed? I get it doesn’t happen with all of them, but it seems to be the general trend. Tim Burton’s Batman started it and it’s been carried on ever since. It’s not showing the hero as a hero but kinda a murderous sociopath. Granted in some cases the hero doesn’t always directly kill em but it’s not like they do anything to prevent it. And yeah like with Green Goblin they also accidentally kill themselves (and that was adapted well from the comics). I get it’s usually done because using the same villain over and over (cough*Lex Luthor) can get stale, but sometimes can also be pretty well done if used right like Loki and maybe even Doctor Doom if he’s done right

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    • Yeah that’s one of my major problems with Marvel is that they create such one and done villains. It’s good to create longer stories with these villains, heck in MOS Zod got killed but he still has a presence in BvS. Marvel should try having more impactful villains in their universe that last a little while longer

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  6. I should also mention Magneto as a long-running villain done right, though to be fair I wouldn’t call him a villain as much as a guy that just simply doesn’t agree with the X-Men. Stan Lee, Magneto’s co-creator, himself said that he never saw Mags as a villain, just a guy who’s mad as Hell and can’t take it anymore (bad joke but you get the idea). Heck, in anything he’s in, be it comics or adaptations, he’s always either with or against the X-Men, because they have common interests, just different methods. And then you got the guy who’s just a plain old fart asshole as depicted by Grant Morrison, because sometimes when all is said and done, Magneto will just go “fuck it” and wreck everyone’s shit because he’s an asshole on drugs (though thank you Marvel for messing up that idea and making it seem like it was an impostor doing it and not the real Magneto; could’ve been handled better but made it needlessly complicated). And that’s just the beauty with guys like Magneto and Loki, you NEVER know what side they’re on. You know they’re devious, but you don’t know to trust em or not, though it can get annoying when they end up going “fuck it” and wreck everything almost EVERY TIME. Seriously Apocalypse better keep Magneto on a leash or something lol.

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