Is a Supervillain Always Evil?

At the time of writing this piece, I have not yet seen Iron Man 3. It’s Wednesday right now, and I just bought my ticket for a 7 p.m. screening of the film on Saturday. However, I have been informed of an epic spoiler for the film pertaining to its highly-anticipated antagonist, The Mandarin. So, of course, spoiler warning beyond this point if you haven’t watched Iron Man 3.

So, it was explained to me yesterday that the Mandarin is, in fact, not the Mandarin at all in the new movie. He is actually just a British actor with a substance abuse problem, one who has assumedly donned the the role of a terrorist mastermind who threatens the well-being of the United States at the request of a third party.

It kinda sucks that I got this information before seeing the movie. I wish I hadn’t. I consider myself lucky that I don’t know any further context surrounding this grand revelation. But I have to admit, in spite of being privy to this information, I don’t feel all that disappointed. It doesn’t seem unfair to me that this was the direction they took with the Mandarin. I have been anticipating the villain’s appearance since I saw the first installment of the franchise in 2008, and it would be reasonable for me to cry foul at Marvel for pulling a bait and switch like this. But I’m not. Partly because the Mandarin has always been just a goofy relic of the yellow peril period from World War II and the Cold War, and so for him to make sense in this more Ultimate-style movie universe, they’d have to give him a reasonably drastic overhaul (turning him into a corporate supercomputer with ten rings of, I don’t know, influence or security or whatever, as was the case in the recent Ultimate Comics: Iron Man written series by Nathan Edmondson, just doesn’t cut the mustard for me).

But the other reason I wasn’t too upset by the news of the Mandarin’s true nature, and even felt more than a little intrigued by it, relates to something actor Ben Kingsley, who portrays the bearded baddie, said in a recent interview at Comic Buzz:

“I think the rule when one is approaching, what is rather lazily called the “bad guy,” is that the actor has to accept that those characters are the polar end of a film that kind of anchor, a dark anchor of the film. They have a sense of righteousness that actually normal, good people don’t have. Normal, good people are really quite modest about themselves and rather self-deprecating like our hero and heroine are. They don’t take themselves too seriously. But, the evil nature, the destructive nature tends to be – can we go with this chopper? It’s rather fun. They tend to be grandiose, narcissistic and totally immersed in their sense of rightness.”

Holy crap, he’s right. Whether you’re a “hero” or a “bad guy” depends entirely with upon you fall on the ego scale. People who are more egotistical, who tend to take themselves and their causes very seriously and who see little value in the people around them are usually the kinds of people that we would classify as “the bad guy.” On the other hand, the less seriously a person takes himself and his beliefs and the more willing he is to sacrifice himself for others, the more we are inclined to label that person as a “hero.”

This is what made Tony Stark/Iron Man such a compelling character for so long. He was constantly moving around to different points on said scale. He started out very ego-driven and self-absorbed, and was sort of a lovable jerk. The kind of guy you could admire to a certain extent, from affair, but whom would never actually want to spend any time with in close proximity. His experiences as a POW dramatically changed his outlook on life and he began to take himself less seriously and to put more effort into helping others. At some point we’ve all found ourselves wavering a bit too close to the “bad guy” end of the scale, and have had to issue some kind of a course correction, just as Tony has had to. This makes the character more believable and more interesting. So then, wouldn’t a villain who isn’t actually a villain be just as interesting?

Let’s look at recent superhero film baddies. The first place for me to start would have to be the hands-down greatest screen villain in recent memory, Heath Ledger as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This guy was all bad. I read once that prior to the filming Ledger kept a Joker journal that included a list of things that The Joker would find funny. If I remember correctly, one of the items on that list was children who are born with AIDS. Yeah. Pretty evil. We didn’t know who this character really was, where he came from or why he was doing the things he did. He showed no remorse for the murders he committed and seemed to be motivated solely by the desire to upset the established order and to cause as much panic, disarray and destruction as possible. He was a terrorist for the sake of being a terrorist.

And we loved him for it! He stole the show, and absolutely outshined the other villain of the piece, the tragic character of Harvey Dent, who fell from grace after having his fiance murdered, and who would go on to become just as bad as the criminals he had once sworn to fight. One character is very black and white, the other is somewhere in between, and for some reason the black and white “bad guy” is the one that captivates us, unlike in the case of the hero, when we usually gravitate toward a little grey.

The Red Skull, who Hugo Weaving recently portrayed in Captain America: The First Avenger, is another villain who is cut from the same cloth of absolute evil as The Joker. In a recent interview on writer Kieron Gillen’s podcast, Decompressed, Uncanny Avengers scribe Rick Remender described Red Skull as a truly evil creature with absolutely zero compassion, a being who has not one good thought in his head. This works well with this character because, well, he’s a Nazi. The word “Nazi” has become synonymous in our culture with a being whose ego has become so terrifyingly out of control that for us to find any common ground with him would only serve to pollute our own soul. We don’t ever want to empathize with those guys. Not ever. But not every villain is a Nazi.

Joker’s successor, Bane, played by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, was a terrorist as well, but one with a purpose. Like his predecessor, Ra’s al Ghul (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins), a character who perfected the bait-and-switch identity swap long before the Mandarin came around, Bane just wants to control the course of civilization. According to his cause (and in actuality, the cause of Ra’s daughter, Talia) Gotham is a rotting cesspool of corruption that should be amputated from the rest of the world like a gangrenous limb. While he was also physically intimidating and a merciless killer, this touch of grey wasn’t enough to make him as captivating as The Joker. In fact, I’d say he was actually a pretty dull character aside from Hardy’s phenomenal performance.

Who’s left? Loki was the bad guy in both Thor and The Avengers, and while he started off as the bratty kid brother who nevertheless has his entire world stripped away from him when it is revealed he actually the son of a Frost Giant, once we see him maneuvering an entire army of Skrulls in The Avengers, he’s found his niche as the silver-tongued trickster god that we all know and love. While he might currently be written as a bit of a wild card in Gillen’s Young Avengers, his film counterpart is more or less all bad. On the other hand, just about every Spider-Man villain that the wall-crawler has fought on the big screen, from the Green Goblin in Spider-Man to The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man, is a flawed character with a good heart who becomes redeemed in the end. The only exception is Venom in Spider-Man 3, who starts out bad and even admits later in the film that he enjoys being that way. But that guy sucked.

Perhaps the character who makes the best use of moral ambiguity is X-Men’s Magneto. This is a character who spent the early part of his life being tormented in a Nazi concentration camp. He was forced to watch his mother be shot to death in a failed test of his mutant abilities. And then, in a tragically poetic twist, he went on to adopt the visage of the man who killed her. Magneto is an excellent analogy for war itself, how being the oppressed can easily turn into being the oppressor, and often both extremes are simply two sides of the same coin. His rival, Charles Xavier, knew this, and opted to break the cycle by training his students to find compassion within themselves for those who would wish them harm. Magneto just wants to revisit that harm upon his would-be oppressors tenfold.

Aside from Magneto, most of these villains are not entirely sympathetic. And it of course says a lot that the most captivating one so far, Heath Ledger’s The Joker, is unequivocally, objectively evil. There is nothing in him to sympathize with or relate to, he’s just an abstract force of malevolence and carnage. Meanwhile, our heroes tend to creep more and more toward the darker end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s a sign of how cynical we have become in our modern, post-9/11 society that we like our heroes dark and our villains pitch black.

On the other hand, maybe there’s room for some flexibility in our idea of what a villain is. I haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet, but already the idea that a villain can be a total farce is intriguing to me. In some ways it’s almost the total opposite end of the spectrum from The Joker. If the terrorist mastermind from Iron Man 3, the bearded, knot-topped old man in an olive drab outfit who threatens the security of the United States, is actually a paid actor being fed a script, doesn’t that raise a lot of questions about what good and evil really are? Doesn’t that raise questions about what a “good guy” or “bad guy” really is? Doesn’t that kind of subvert the whole concept of terrorism and the media and war in general? For all this talk of good and bad and black and white and right and wrong, what if we’re all just pawns working off a script? I mean, come on guys, there’s definitely subtext there. This is actually a pretty bold decision. It’s at least more bold than trying to shoehorn the angry Asian character with the 10 space rings from the ‘60s into a popular American film franchise.

Hopefully Iron Man 3 has does a good enough job asking these questions. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting my hopes up here and expecting it to be this layered, nuanced piece that toys with our ideologies and elevates the discussion of superheroes beyond which team the characters are playing for. At the end of the day, it’s still just a movie put out by Marvel to be fun and to entertain people, a movie that hopefully fans can appreciate. Either way, I’m sure that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin will be a character that we will be discussing for quite some time.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. This movie, to me, had so many “What? Oh…” kind of moments where I was constantly thinking, “How are they going to take this in a modern direction?”

    Nolan DC has always come off to me as ultra realistic, which makes wonder how they will do Man of Steel, but with Marvel there is this campy, yet believable substance enmeshed within the universe. That being said, I thought making Pepper into this geno-supersoldier at the end was really goofy, in that they explain it away in like 10 seconds. What about Dr. Banner? Can’t explain that away?

    Anyways, I feel like both movies (Iron Man 2 and 3) deal with real world problems. I just felt the second one was more relevant. cheaply replicating the iron man armor is a big deal, and it should be as an analogue to the arms race in the 80s. But making a customized Bin Laden and using him to generate a demand for weapons contractors is goofy and arduous to work with. The movie was incredibly enjoyable, as all they Iron Man movies. It was more of the boring, awkward period in which new ground was being lain for better things. Iron Man 3 to me was Venture Bros Season 4. More or less.

    • Cody Walker says:

      I saw the Mandarin as a symbol for how we have to create celebrities of our villains just as much as our heroes. He even sort of admits this as he discusses how Guy Pearce created the Mandarin persona. Kingsley was a little goofy with the character, but the idea of creating a face to justify an escalation in the arms race seemed pretty realistic to me. I think I would have preferred if he wasn’t a real person, though. If the Mandarin were just completely made up through the magic of computers, that would have been a little more profound to me.

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