Sunday Discussion: The Villains Reign Supreme in Hollywood!
by Alex Billington
August 3, 2008
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?