It’s often said that a hero is only as good as his villain. I think.But it’s true, a good villain can make or break a hero. This year saw the big screen debuts of several comic book super villains who either served to elevate the story they were in or to hinder it.
On the Marvel Studios side of things we had two back-to-back smash performances, one from Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous Loki from Thor, as well as one from long-time geek favorite Hugo Weaving as the maniacal Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger. Both of these actors gave outstanding performances that brought the characters to life in a way that comic book readers had only dreamt of.
Meanwhile, across the aisle at Warner Brothers, Green Lantern floundered without any sort of interesting or even tolerable foil for the hero to stand against. The film, starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Martin Campbell, should have been a sure thing. But when it came time for a villain to enter the picture, we were given a ruthlessly annoying performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond and an intergalactic fart cloud named Parallax. Both characters lacked any solid motivation and both were ejected from the plot just as carelessly as they had been brought into it.
In addition, Mark Strong was brought in to play Sinestro in what should have been the best villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker, but the character was hardly used. Even his brandishing of the infamous yellow power ring during the mid-credit sequence lacked any clear motivation aside from just looking cool, and felt like too little too late.
Next summer a new slate of comic book movies will be rolling into theaters. First is The Avengers in May, followed by The Amazing Spider-Man in June and The Dark Knight Rises in July. With Avengers and DKR being the climax of two of the most popular comic book film franchises of all time and Amazing Spider-Man being a 3-D, down-to-earth reboot of another one, next summer might be the greatest movie-going summer that comic book fans ever experience (I have one friend saying the comic book film genre can only go down hill after 2012). However, if the villains aren’t up to snuff, it could be one of the most disappointing summers movie seasons yet.
But of the three films, the first villain audiences will see next summer will be Loki in The Avengers. As I’ve said already about Hiddleston’s performance in this year’s Thor, this is a solid character. Hiddleston was able to bring a level of sympathy to Loki that made it all the more tragic to see him lose his way and give into his villainous tendencies (an arc better executed here than across three whole films with the character of Anakin Skywalker). When you have a movie about a cross-promotional super-team filled with A-list actors, you need a pretty killer villain to balance the movie out, and I’m pretty sure Hiddleston will pull it off. I am a little worried that they could relegate him to the background only to be brought out as a moustache twirling heavy at major plot points (like with the character of Nero in 2009’s Star Trek), but with proven sci-fi writer and fanboy Joss Whedon helming the film, the odds are against it.
Next up will be The Amazing Spider-Man, whose villain this time around will be Dr Curt Connors, the deadly Lizard. I’m not very familiar with the actor playing the Lizard, Rhys Ifans, but I’m sure that won’t be the case once the world sees him in the role. We also haven’t seen anything yet in they way of promotional art showing how Lizard appears in the film, although a few miscellaneous pictures leak out very recently, including a Lizard Pez candy dispenser showing how he might look from the shoulders up and a piece of alleged concept art showing him… totally naked. Both show a design that seems to favor the humanoid Steve Ditko iteration of the character rather than the more recent, dinosaur-esque rendition of him. There was also a trailer shown for the film during this year’s San Diego Comic Con International, and while word of mouth descriptions for the character seem to match the face on the Pez dispenser, leaked photos from the trailer appear to show something a little closer to Venom.
While not a lot is known about how the Lizard will ultimately appear in the film, his character in the comics has never been a favorite of mine. I appreciate him as one of Spider-Man’s oldest rogues, and I understand the importance of his relationship to Spidey and his struggles with being a husband and a father in addition to being a supervillain, but I think maybe only one good Lizard story has ever been told in my lifetime (the recent “The Gauntlet” story by Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo). I know that the filmmakers have a big story to tell between re-hashing Spider-Man’s origin and establishing his relationship with Gwen Stacy, and I know they must want to put some distance between the new series and the old series before they start using major villains like Green Goblin again, but I hope this villain is legitimately ferocious and not just filler.
The final villain will be Bane, portrayed by Tom Hardy of Inception fame. Hardy’s brutal, sadistic turn as the titular character in the film “Bronson,” about the world’s most violent inmate, makes him spot on for the man who broke the Bat. As with The Lizard, fans don’t know a whole lot about this version of Bane so far, but he seems to be portraying a more militant-minded, less luchador-ian version of Bane, which can only be a plus. I’ve personally never been a big fan of Bane, and always thought of him as a character that was brought in to serve one simple function, namely to disable Batman, and then never had much of a use beyond that. However, doing more research recently I have found a new appreciation for his character and how he can almost be seen as the negative version of Bruce Wayne. With this being the third and final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, and with Bane being previously used in the worst Batman film of all time, “Batman and Robin,” it would be easy to expect this movie to crash and burn. I, however, am keeping my faith in Nolan and hoping that he can pull off a thrilling conclusion to his Batman trilogy.
As next summer approaches, comic book fans and movie goers are moving toward a sort of crescendo in the superhero film genre. It could turn out to be the summer movie season that justifies the last 12 years of comic book movies, and show Hollywood the heights that properly executed superhero film franchises can achieve. It could also squander all of the good will that they have built up by delivering movies that fall flat of the audience’s expectations, and the surest way to do that is with a weak villain. Let’s hope that the filmmakers have kept that in mind and are working hard to bring audiences the movies that they are hoping for, otherwise the real villain might prove to be the one… behind the camera (clever, I know).