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Sunday Discussion: The Villains Reign Supreme in Hollywood!

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August 3, 2008

Sunday Discussion: The Villains Reign Supreme in Hollywood!

With the incredible box office success of The Dark Knight as well as the continued popularity of the San Diego Comic-Con, we all know that comic book movies have hit mainstream in Hollywood. However, over the last few weeks I've started to notice a trend, no doubt fueled by the Joker, of focusing on villains more than heroes. As I just mentioned, Heath Ledger's Joker is part of what boosted this focus into the spotlight, but over the last few weeks, we've seen Warner Brothers focus their first trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince entirely on the young Tom Riddle (who eventually becomes Voldemort) and Sony announced plans to develop a movie based on Venom. While one could easily call this a temporary fad, I'm amazed to see that the moviegoing public praises villains just as much, or even more, than the hero.

While anyone can trace the history of villains back to the first movies (such as Rotwang in Metropolis), there's no denying their importance in cinema. Of course, when a villain is a character with as much emotion as the hero, the film tends to be better than one where the villain is just a nobody. I think the start of this most recent trend that I'm addressing today actually began with No Country for Old Men, where Javier Bardem won an Oscar for portraying the ridiculously cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh. Bardem was praised for his performance and although Chigurh is not a character anyone could sympathize with, his performance is partially what put No Country in the spotlight. Now half a year later and Heath Ledger's Joker is the latest villainous craze. I think Ledger is on his way to winning a posthumous Oscar, which yet again puts the villain in The Dark Knight as the focus - and that's not at all a bad thing.

For those who are intricately familiar with The Dark Knight, one of the many reasons why it's such a brilliant film is the way the Joker cuts in and out, causing Batman to react to what he does and causing the story with every other character to progress. Although Spider-Man 3 was not necessarily as good as The Dark Knight, I remember noticing that people were much more interested in seeing Venom than Spider-Man (and now Sony realizes how big that was and is developing their spin-off). And that happened again this July when I watched crowds of moviegoers march into midnight showings of The Dark Knight - there were more shirts with the Joker than Batman. Instead of looking at this as a bad thing, I'm actually very drawn into this recent focus on villains, which is why I enjoyed the new Harry Potter trailer so much.

So what does this all mean? Well, truthfully, I'm writing this today because I don't even know the answer to that question myself. However, the fact that I enjoyed the Joker in The Dark Knight so much and that I'm interested in seeing Sony's Venom spin-off as well as Fox's Magneto spin-off means that the focus on villains is a very good thing. In terms of marketing, I think it's going to help the new Harry Potter movie hit another high point in its franchise, because after five movies we're very familiar with Harry himself, but we all want to know more about Tom Riddle and Voldemort. He's the one who has caused Harry to do nearly everything he has in the previous movies and is such an intricate part of the plot all the way through to the end. Obviously without him, there would be no Harry Potter. And it's a testament to Ralph Fiennes, yet again, that he's captured the interest of moviegoers young and old.

I think I've already established the importance of villains enough by this point, so it's time to turn our focus back on to the idea that Hollywood has latched on to villains as the big selling point. I'm curious whether this a just a marketing gimmick that the studios have picked up on, or whether this actually means something. Has our society changed so much that we do attach more to villains than heroes? Or have we just found that screenwriters tend to put as much effort into shaping the villain as a character as much as they do the hero? Two very intriguing questions that I invite you to answer. I think we've reached a point in cinematic history where the development of villains has become so fine tuned, that they actually sometimes become the star of the movie. Will villains continue to reign supreme?

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  • Iron Man Fan
    Villains are more interesting than heroes because the have no morals. Heroes are always worried about responsibility this and safety that, ant I think audiences are tired of that. I know I am.
  • Kelly B.
    "Although Spider-Man 3 was not NECESSARILY as good as The Dark Knight..." Talk about an understatement. Spider-Man 3 was the blackened dump that The Dark Knight took after a night of heavy drinking. There is no comparison between the two films. None. As far as villains go, I agree that they seem to be taking center stage more and more. I think its fantastic, and I usually love watching great villains more than great heroes. I think people are drawn to villains because they are so different from ourselves. Very few people are actually evil, so when a living, breathing incarnation of evil villainy takes over the screen, we can't help but be enthralled. Also, going off of Iron Man Fan's comment, their lack of morality also plays a big role. Their lack of moral obligation makes them much more unpredictable than heroes, especially in the case of a psychopathic anarchist like The Joker. I think Heath Ledger deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him, because The Joker was the most mesmerizing villain, or character for that matter, that I've seen in a long time. Long live the villains.
  • Spajo
    The importance of villains in movies has risen, at least I think, because it's much more interesting to watch a hero struggle with a villain who is competent and capable of winning. In The Dark Knight the argument can be made that Batman lost to the villains (the Joker and Two-Face) and I think that's a large reason why the movie is so great. Watching villains who just really suck at everything and present no real threat to the hero is boring. I don't think villains are the stars of their movies but they now have a more shared and equal role with the hero. Maybe the central character in a film will soon become central characters and we get to watch the development of the protagonist and antagonist as they fight to one up each other. I also agree with what Iron Man Fan said about villains being more fun because they have no rules. In the world we live in we follow all sorts of rules. Don't speed. Don't hurt other people. Don't steal. The villains don't go by any of those so watching them is in a way living out a secret fantasy that most of us have.
  • Djo
    Good villains are more interesting as characters because, if developed thoroughly, they're inevitably Tragic. They're the hero who fell, or the path gone astray, or the soldier/warrior who's lost hope. Heroes are made better & more interesting when they are challenged by truly interesting villains. Batman is now transformed, having survived 'the Joker killings' intact - and having endured w/ a renewed sense of mission, self, & purpose. Harry Potter is a great character b/c he's grown w/ the readers. Harry himself is seen in different light w/ each new stage in his coming of age yarn. Venom, on the other hand, I have some doubts about. Sam Raimi himself said that Venom would be difficult to develop, specifically because he has no morals. His motivation is simply to kill spider man. I understand that he wasn't fully realized in Spidey 3, but whereas Magneto has a talented actor AND a checkered, mysterious path that's worthy of exploring in an entirely separate film, I just don't see Venom having the depth necessary to hold an entire franchise. For one - I don't remember him ever having a Solo Book; and if he did, it was obviously unmemorable and not very long-lasting. Is that really the standard by which Marvel wants to sink its hard-earned change? If they want to re-boot Spider Man, just make a movie of Kraven's Last Hunt. That's the single most amazing arc Spidey's had, in which the hero is challenged to his core to defeat a complex villain (countered by the secondary villain of 'Vermin') who is absolutely bent on his destruction. THAT's what I call a film-worthy arch-rivalry. Venom himself? They'd better think long & hard on that one, if they want it to succeed. Punisher, for example, started as a villain, and after a decade of books exploring his anti-hero depths, they had enough material to make an almost decent movie. Venom. A rival photographer overtaken by alien who wants to kill spider man. Maybe if they have Weta- do the FX, a complete lack of script can be overlooked by whiz-bang gore & slimy freakiness. I dunno. Guess I just don't really see it- unless somehow they make Venom into a hero. In which case they may as well just make a good, new Spider Man movie instead! Kraven's Last Hunt, Marvel. It's your ace in the hole.
  • Darrin
    marvel villans can't top any other villans. those comic books are lighter, and less complex than villans from dc universe.
  • Djo
    (oh boy, it's time to break out the schoolyard jive-talk:) Magneto would rip Lex Luthor into a million little pieces.
  • Ray
    A villain is what makes you want to care and root for the hero. As was stated above they have no moral fiber. They live only to create chaos. Without a real villain who would care what goes on in the heroes life. The more evil the villain the better cause it makes the hero reach his/her potential in defeating or bringing order out of the chaos that the villain has created.
  • Villains are invariably more interesting than heroes in the films in which they appear. Vic
  • Batman was the focus in Batman Begins. Harry Potter and his friends were the focus of all the Harry Potter films, except this one. Iron Man was the focus of the Iron Man film. I think it's just coincidence.
  • big r
    I think spajo said it best. I love the villains in movies. The joker in batman was just phenomenal. I have always been a big fan of venom as well. It is entertaining to see someone crazy or chaotic, heroes are so predictable now a days in movies it is getting a big boring. They needed to have venom in spiderman 3 as much as the joker in batman. I don't know what they were thinking with spiderman 3. It does seem like this is the direction that movies are following for the foreseeable future. I am very excited for the comic movies to come.
  • I hardly consider Rotwang to be one of the cinema's "first villains"... maybe the heel robbers from The Great Train Robbery in 1903... and what about Thomas Edison and his Trust? Now that were some real baddies! Very interesting article!
  • Caged Wisdom
    "The only real way to live in this world is without rules" i can answer your questions. Well the 1st one. Society has changed. There now sooo many rules in the world its limiting what freedom we have as humans to do what we want. Im not talking the big sensible rules like; no speeding, no robbing, stuff like that. Those are great rules because they save life. Im talking the little rules; "dont walk on the grass", "dont play football here", "dont lean on the wall"... As humans we all have an inner bad guy, that most, if not all, of us will never get to release in quite the way we want. Movie villians, on the other hand, do it all. They have NO boundaries. Thats the key. NO boundaries. This is my requirement in making a great villian. NO BOUNDARIES.
  • Prem
    You see the same heroes again and again but its the villain who brings a variation to the movie and its what he/she does that matters the most....
  • Kail
    Arliss Loveless is the best villain ever
  • PimpSlapStick
    "marvel villans can't top any other villans. those comic books are lighter, and less complex than villans from dc universe." #5 are you high or something? Marvel is built on the foundation of depth of characterization and that includes the villians as well the themes. DC's heroes and villians were and many still are pretty paper thin and shallow in character, aside from the Joker and Lex Luthor most of DC badguys are pretty damn boring. As a matter of fact DC pretty much stole the 'Marvel formula' and started bringing more depth and meaning to their stable of characters after the fact. The Joker was nothing more than a gimmicky bank robber and Lex a typical mad scientist, then Marvel came with Magneto, Dr. Doom, Gen. Ross, Red Skull, Apocalypse, Doc Ock etc...all extremely interesting and layered villians with actual motivations some of whom gave good arguments for their views points. So a blantant statement of "Lighter and less complex" is idiotic, What's "less complex" about a Holocaust survivor, who discovers he was born with great power and seeks to protect his kind only to become just like the monster (Hitler) who slaughtered his own family? I guess the twisted father/son/mentor/villian relationship of Spidey and Goblin isn't complicated enough for ya? Get outta here
  • I think villians are more integral to plots nowadays and also they are pretty cool. What would you rather be, a superhero or a supervillian???
  • Daniel
    I am glaad that they are focusing on the villains. They try so hard, but more attention is on the heroes.
  • PimpSlapStick
    #16 I'd rather be a hero
  • brandon
    Speaking of spiderman, I believe the Green Goblin said it best. "They found you amusing for a while, the people of this city. But the one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying." We all know batman and spiderman and the other good guys are going to prevail in the end. It's just how things go. We all know that we're 'supposed' to be good like them (not dress up and fight crime, but show some sort of inner strength). So we turn our attention to the man who has the means to make our said hero fall, or may even be a fallen hero himself. The man in the shadows, the man with a secret, and even though the secret will make us flinch, or lose sleep, we watch.
  • thugnasty25
    This isnt a new trend. antagonists in comic book and fantasy movies have always shown to be an important part in their stories and also their marketing. look at movies like Batman or Spider-man. the main character stays essentially the same but what makes the story interesting is the villain. they are the embodiment of conflict in a story. strong villain = strong story, lame villain = weak story. even before a movie starts development people immediately discuss which villain(s) are going to appear. its (usually) exciting to see a classic villain represented on-screen. The schumaker batman movies are loathed to a great extent solely because of the characterizations of villains like two-face and mr. freeze. Spider-man 3 drew so many people not because of Peter Parkers relationship problems or even villains Harry Osbourne and Sandman. Venom was who many people had waited for and eventually got to see. This isnt really anything new. Half-Blood Prince is all about Voldemort so its common sense theyd have him in a trailer.
  • LeeMan
    people have gotten tired of the good guy winning all the, now its finally time to give the equally popular bad guy a chance, which i love. instead of the same old hero saves the day story, why not let the villain steal the show, because most people at the end of the film will applaud for how maniachal and sinister the joker or voldemort was than how batman or hp once again saved face
  • Ken
    Villain have been around since the first printed word. We love the base evil they represent, its what we want to see, and we mostly (not openly) want the villain to win, thats why venom, The Joker, Green goblin, ect thrill us all. And venom did have his own comic for a while but it was so bad we ignored it.
  • Shige
    The whole base of this article is Joker. Remove The Joker in the latest batman flick and you would not write anything. You are still spinning the whole TDK marketing thing. How can you call the beginning of this trend (which is non existant btw) with Javier Bardem ? You might as well begin with Denzel in Training Day or why not Al Pacino in Godfather, etc. Magneto is not a villain exactly. Voldemort was never the focus of any HP flick and kiddos go to see HP to look at some shiny CGI and to see their book heroes come alive. On a side note, I really hope Ledgers performance wont win an Oscar although he was great. There are far better performances out there this year
  • Magnum
    Its not just in movies, its everywhere. the new season of Heroes the tv show is focused on villians (which is what this season is title) i think that this is what people have been wanting for years. we can see different movies (Dennis hoffman in Hook) and tv shows try it out. however i think it took the huge success of the joker in TDK to make holly wood realize they could actually pull it off. i also agree that Javier Bardem set the tone in No Country. He was phenomenal.
  • Dave Lister, JMC
    I'd say the focus on the villains started (atleast in my memory) with Darth Vader. At 6 years old, I found Vader to be one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, even if he was the villain This view was only solidified three years later when The Empire Strikes Back came out. A film which also soilidified the coolness of the anti-hero, in the character of Han Solo. In modern blockbuster history, Darth Vader was the first cool bad guy.
  • maxxx
    I AGREE WITH 25 EMPIRE is when BAD became good as to quote Danye Hicks from Clerks Empire had the better Ending Luke got his hand cut off and Han was taking away from Boba Fett is ends on such a Down Note. as long as there are heroes Villains will reign supreme in some way like the dark Knight the JOKER WON even though Batman triumphed over evil the joker won.
  • Mada
    I think it's because we want the hero become more powerful or cool, and the only way to do that is by giving stronger villains, we know that the hero will win eventually, I mean can you imagine that in the end the villains who win? But we just want a complex winning story, plus some new features or gadgets or things from the hero that can surprise us to defeat the villains. No matter how brilliant the villains, the heroes will win, eventually.
  • Joker
    #27 Yes the hero usually does win but in TDK Batman did not win in the publics eye at least he became the one thing he hates the most, and in the process broke his one rule in the publics eye. And about the DC/Marvel villian thing as a big marvel fan all I got to say is "When villians want to scare other villians they tell Joker stories."
  • Uncle Bea
    There is absolutely nothing new about villains being more interesting than heroes. When Verdi wanted to adapt Shakespeares Othello into an opera he wanted to call it Iago because Iago was far more interesting than the title character. You can go back to Dante, where hell is far more fascinating than paradise, or Milton where the devil is the main character in his poetry, or even beyond. The difference now is that in a post-modern milieu, where we look to the margins for meaning and are distrustful of a simplistic black/white world, we need not be ashamed of the fascination we hold for the mirror that these villains hold up for our darker selves.
  • dave13
    I was looking forward to reading this article because you mentioned it ahead of time. However, after reading, I was disapointed. You could have gone much farther with your own topic. The comments were more interesting, and better informed as well. I agree with above. the first villian all the kids wanted to be was Darth Vader. Sure we had scary monsters, but they weren't villians persay. and I know that when I was on the playground as a kid, I wanted to play the villian in our little games of pretend. The villian was so much more interesting and fun to portray. What will he do next? Who will he try to harm next? and how? the suspense. Yet equally interesting is the suspense the villian creates around the hero. What will the hero do to stop this villian? Will he, or will he not break his own moral code and rules? Will he, as Harvey Dent said, "live long enough to become the villian" himself? That conflict too is interesting, and I feel that has been my favorite part of many comic book tales. I grew up on my dad's old comics from the 60s and 70s, when Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc all followed their morals. Sometimes they'd find themselves in a situation where many a man would lose his morals, for the end result: defeat of the villian. Then the 90s came, and we all know how bad mainstream comics became. Why? I think because the hero lost his morals. Suddenly we were finding covers full of Batman with evil eyes and a bloody corpse in his hand, Superman (somehow) covered in blood, both his and his enemy's. They would destroy things and people with little or no reason/motivation. I ran from DC comics, because they had destroyed the comic book heros I first loved. The villian is loved for the moral conflict that he puts the hero in, not just because he is chaos. I could go on for a while on villians and heros, but I'll leave it at that.
  • Djo
    "Chillin' like a Villain." That phrase says it all.
  • Conrad
    I'm glad of this turn of events. Remember in the original "Batman" that Tim Burton directed? That's was a excellent wasn't it? It was because The Joker played by Jack Nicholson was the main star of the movie plus he gets first billing the movies credits. I think writers are beginning to remember that and they're putting it back into play. I mean, Joker in TDK had more character that Batman did. - Which is a good thing! We were entice with the Joker's "plan" and actions. Spectacular work! I think if they get the proper writers, "Magneto" could be boss. But don't take out the characterization, I want to get to know the villains as much as I do the heroes.
  • ANTHONY
    villains have more fun period joker rules!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Darknight
    many peoples complaints about the superman films is he never faces a Villian that he can beat the hell out of and the villian do the same.
  • KittyTheHitwoman
    But of course villains are more fascinating than heroes! It is the villains who plot and scheme, who construct brilliant, elaborate plans to abuse institutions and people for their own gain. The purpose of a hero is to stop, to destroy all that. A hero is a defensive creature, while the villain is the offensive. A hero is, then, by definition, less creative than the villain. His behavior simply upholds society's already-established moral code. Really, I mean, look at the protagonists mentioned in this article. Harry Potter is, all magic aside, an extremely average teenager, who despises his fame and wishes for a normal life. In the Dark Knight, Batman is ready to retire (mild spoiler, forgive me) before The Joker rolls into town. Without villains, these heroes are nothing. But without these heroes, the villains will change the world; they will burn it or rule it. They deserve the spotlight. Oh, and yes, Heath deserves an Oscar. A really really really big Oscar, too.

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