With the astounding success of THE AVENGERS worldwide take already past $700 million, Hollywood moguls most assuredly will be greenlighting more superhero movies. Perhaps even that long gestating version of DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE will finally get off the ground now. Or a big screen version of WONDER WOMAN. We can only hope. But why do some superhero films fly so spectacularly like THE AVENGERS, while others crash and burn like THE PHANTOM? There are many reasons: casting, storyline, relatability, and good costume design. (Believe me, a bad costume can sink an effort. Right, GREEN LANTERN?) I also think the best of the bunch more often than not have outstanding villains.
|Tom Hiddleston in THE AVENGERS|
A great nemesis can make or break any horror movie, a James Bond sequel or any comic book adaptation. The most successful graphic novel to screen versions tend to be the ones where the hero’s nemesis is a credible and legitimate foil. I think one of the very best aspects of the new AVENGERS film, and of last summer’s smash THOR, is the villain Loki played by the sly and insinuating Tom Hiddleston. Thor’s half-brother is not some one-note, sour and surly baddie. Instead, he’s a charming, handsome and intelligent man who just happened to be born second and smaller than his he-man sibling. The black sheep aspect is something most of us can relate to, and Loki’s vulnerability is what drives his anger and villainy. Any similarity to the devil, the fallen angel Lucifer who so wanted to be as powerful as God, is purely intentional. It gives Loki great depth, innate sadness, and incredible memorability.
|Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN|
Like all the best comic book villains, what motivates Loki is relatable to an audience. We understand what makes the bad guy tick because it’s something we’ve all felt at one time or another ourselves. We don't mean to hurt anyone, we're just protecting our own interests. And those who act really bad may be selfish and even monstrous, but they always do so with similar justification too, don’t they? No one sees himself as the villain, but rather as a victim, a trapped animal who has to lash out to save his own skin.
Lex Luthor, played imperially by Gene Hackman in three of the four Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies, is punishing the world for failing to recognize his genius. So he’ll show ‘em, by dropping California into the drink by setting off a bomb right in the middle of the desert. It’s not his fault he’s so bad, it’s San Andreas' fault!
|Ian McKellen as Magneto in X-MEN|
The standouts of super hero villainy are always those that wear their humanity on their sleeve. Magneto (Ian McKellen) made such an impression in the X-MEN movies because he’s a victim of Auschwitz. His pain is literally on his sleeve, or tattooed on his wrist, as it were. We accept his motivations because he’s a victim of horrendous prejudice.
|Michelle Pfeiffer in BATMAN RETURNS|
Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is abused by her sadistic boss Max Shreck in BATMAN RETURNS and the reason she becomes bad girl Catwoman is to turn the tables on him. Terence Stamp’s General Zod is driven by resentment for not getting his due on his home planet of Krypton in SUPERMAN II. That's why he comes to earth to wreak havoc on his foil's son. And even Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, the villain in IRON MAN, is just a corporate wonk who feels terribly overshadowed by the great Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Who among us hasn't been passed over for a raise or a promotion at some point and wanted retribution for the slight? “The man” always keeps the good people down, right? That’s exactly how villains think too.
|Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT|
Heath Ledger is arguably the greatest villain in any comic book movie for his Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. In it, the Joker brags about how he got his ghastly scars, changing his story every time. Just what the truth is we never find out, but it’s the ambiguity of the tale as well as the sadness of it that makes the clown prince of crime all the more fascinating and tragic. If only he had gotten more love, perhaps he wouldn’t be so zealous in wanting to watch the world burn.
|Alfred Molina in SPIDER-MAN 2|
For me though, my favorite super hero movie villain is Dock Ock in SPIDER-MAN 2. The well-meaning scientist starts out as an exuberant nerd who has created four electronic arms to do good but then sees them go haywire and affix to his back permanently. He’s turned into a deranged psychopath, driven by his ego and octopus-like appendages. Alfred Molina plays his villain with a contained cool, but never lets the humanity leave those amazingly soulful eyes of his. When he dies at the end, saving Manhattan from going up in flames, I got a lump in my throat. His death is utterly tragic and really moved me. Even villains in comic book movies deserved to be mourned.
How effective will the villains be in the remaining superhero movies due this year? Whether or not the nemeses from DREDD, MEN IN BLACK 3, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES live up to the likes of Loki and these others remains to be seen. But if they are successful, it will be for the following reasons: a terrific storyline, spot-on casting, and villainous motivations that we can all relate to. And so can the super hero. The closer the good guy and bad guy are to each other in background, spirit and drive, the better.
Bring ‘em on!