Wednesday, June 11, 2014

#751: Seven Reasons - Movie Supervillains

In the thirty-plus years of superhero movies, the constant challenge has always been to create supervillains as compelling as the superheros.  Without further preamble, here's my list for the seven best to date:

1. Heath Ledger's Joker (The Dark Knight)
I was always a fan of Ledger as an actor, but it took everyone else and one great role to make him immortal, sadly right before his passing.  The genius of his Joker is that it went completely against the grain, a villain who was less interested in being obvious (which is what virtually every other supervillain does in these movies) and more understating...pretty much everything.  No origin.  Slapdash clown makeup.  First scene he's introduced seemingly as just another goon.  There's nothing I don't like about the performance, the part, how it fits into the rest of The Dark Knight.  Instantly the gold standard for movie supervillains.

2. Tom Hiddleston's Loki (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World)
I've been lukewarm on the Avengers movies from the start (Iron Man does not have a representation on this list), but one of the elements I loved instantly was also one of the most unexpected ones: a supporting character in Thor.  I didn't expect great things from Thor.  It was fine.  But it just seemed, right from the start, like a kind of pointless excuse to add to the cinematic Avengers cycle.  Without the rest of the team, would anyone really care that much about the guy?  But his troubled brother Loki?  Even with an arc that still hasn't gone anywhere three appearances later, the dude oozes charisma.  He's a bad guy who's really easy to love (I mean, even blatantly stealing from Terence Stamp's iconic Zod in Avengers with the whole "kneel before me" thing doesn't hurt him).  I would watch a whole movie headlined by Loki.  Easily.

3. Thomas Haden Church's Sandman (Spider-Man 3)

Everyone knows Spider-Man 3 is the black sheep of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.  Yet I've always been a fan, and it's mostly thanks to the reinterpretation of Uncle Ben's death.  Turning the story around has a number of intriguing possibilities (arguably Marc Webb's Spider-Man films have benefited greatly from them), but here this means we actually get to sympathize with the villain, which is certainly rare enough.  Haden Church had just experienced a career resurgence thanks to Sideways, which had the effect of finally exposing his dramatic potential.  He's the rare supervillain actor to have been given the chance to explore that side, and because of all the other things going on in the movie, he's free to focus exclusively on that.  He nails it.  I would watch a Sandman movie, too.

4. Tom Hardy's Bane (The Dark Knight Rises)
I've long been a fan of Hardy's, so I was already expecting great things from him, although even for me (see above) it was a tall order to follow Heath Ledger.  He did it.  He knocked it out of the park.  There have been various criticisms, such as Bane's hard to hear (he really isn't) or being revealed as Talia's henchman weakens the character (it really doesn't).  Like Ledger's Joker, Hardy nails the ability to create a character who clearly doesn't mind calling attention to himself without making a parody of a character, which is what happens far too often with movie supervillains.

5. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman (The Dark Knight Rises)
A real argument could be made for Dark Knight Rises being...a Catwoman movie.  Every one of Hathaway's scenes is fantastic and as a whole carry a full story.  Her status as a villain fluctuates throughout the movie, although for most of it there's no real question.  A lot of people have long praised Michelle Pfeiffer's version of the character, as many who have maligned Halle Berry's.  Neither really has a ton of subtlety, which is something Hathaway accomplishes easily despite most of her scenes calling for high emotion or pithy remarks.  If any movie supervillain has approached Tom Hiddleston's Loki, it would be Hathaway's Catwoman.

6. Ian McKellen's Magneto (X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of the Future Past)
The whole reason I couldn't really get into Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class is because he wasn't nearly as compelling in the role as McKellen.  McKellen's Magneto isn't even my favorite role from the actor, but c'mon.  The man knows how to act.   Aside from Hugh Jackman, he's the actor who helped the X-Men films really take off in the first place.  Without him, most of their dramatic weight would be gone, and these are movies that need that.  I argue that the Avengers movies are less successful creatively because they don't have a Magneto.  If Loki were more prominent, instead of the guy who keeps stealing movies, I'd like them a lot more.  I like the X-Men movies more when McKellen's Magneto is around.

7. Jennifer Garner's Elektra (Daredevil, Elektra)
I think the whole reason Daredevil quickly lost mainstream support is because Garner stole the movie.  At the time she was best known for the TV series Alias.  In a lot of ways, her Elektra is exactly like her Sydney Bristow.  Like Hathaway's Catwoman, she's not really a villain.  In fact, even less so.  But the story often pits Elektra and Daredevil against each other, and every time, Elektra easily holds her own.  When she received her own spin-off a few years later, it was a nonevent.  Everyone wanted Daredevil to show up.  That's a testament to Elektra's appeal, that it wasn't just her alone, but how she fit so well in Daredevil's story, how essential she was to him and he to her.  The more people disassociated them, the more they only thought about Ben Affleck, who played Daredevil.  At the time he was on the verge of a career decline, and so pretty much everything he did was interpreted unfavorably.  But watch this one again.  It's great.  And Garner's Elektra is a huge reason why.  She's a villain who's not really a villain.  They say all villains see themselves that way.  This is a chance to see that make some sense for a change, cleverly turning classic Hollywood romantic comedy tropes on their head.

I do have a number of runners-up:

  1. Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor (Superman, Superman II, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace)
  2. Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor (Superman Returns)
  3. Terence Stamp's Zod (Superman II)
  4. Michael Shannon's Zod (Man of Steel)
  5. Colin Farrell's Bullseye (Daredevil)
  6. Jack Nicholson's Joker (Batman)
  7. Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond (Green Lantern)
  8. Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2)
  9. Liam Neeson's Ra's al Ghul (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises)
And all of them I could wax fantastic about.

Who're your picks?


Pat Dilloway said...

The only argument I would make is that Dr. Octopus should at least be in your Top 16 somewhere, if not the top 7. I liked the Sandman but he got short-changed by too many villains in the script, something that seems like it will be more of a problem in future movies.


Great List!
I agree with Sandman he was shafted by the villain overload.
I would include Karl Ruprecht Kroenen from Hellboy. No lines and I have no idea who played him he was superbad. Along with The Winter Soldier Sebastian Stan stole every scene he was in.

Maurice Mitchell said...

I agree with your stand on Sandman. He was unappreciated villain. The part where he reforms himself for his daughter is so touching. I also agree with Pat. Dr. Octopus was awesome. I hope you have a smokin' Wednesday Tony!

Tony Laplume said...

Except Doctor Octopus was kind of the reason I never really enjoyed Spider-Man 2. A smidgen better than Green Goblin in the first one, as far as I was concerned, playing at being relevant to Peter Parker but ending up a villain that went all cuckoo post-transformation (which is also the problem I had with Lizard in Amazing Spider-Man but actually the reverse of what happened to Electro in its sequel). Harry Osborn was the other MVP from those movies. And was pretty cool in his second incarnation, too.

The Armchair Squid said...

I'll admit, I don't know most of these movies. But I absolutely agree that Loki is the secret of the success of Marvel's current movie run.

Tony Laplume said...

It was a case of perfect casting.


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