Why we love comic book supervillains
Bad guys, anti-heroes, mischief-makers and maniacs – they’ve never been more popular on screens and streams. But is this shift to the dark side a sign of the times – or is there something more sinister going on?
Is this the age of the comic book supervillain?
We’re certainly seeing a shift to the darker end of the spectrum – after antihero outings for the Punisher and Deadpool, this year’s Venom is just the first of an upcoming raft of pics to focus on a single bad boy. Warner Bros has somewhere between three and six(!) Joker-related films in development, including an origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix, a solo effort for Jared Leto, and one or two featuring Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
Suicide Squad 2 is already filming, there’s a Deathstroke movie starring Joe Manganiello on the ‘maybe’ pile, and The Rock himself is set to star as villain-turned-antihero Black Adam in his own film. Meanwhile, the bad guys are increasingly finding audiences sympathetic to their plans, however badly thought out or straight-up bonkers: Reddit’s ThanosDidNothingWrong community still has 565k subscribers even after culling half of its users in tribute to old ribbed-chin himself, and it wasn’t long ago that #KillmongerWasRight, a tribute to Black Panther’s antagonist, was trending on Twitter.
So are the bad guys getting better, or are we (and the world) just getting worse? There’s definitely an argument for the latter: in a world where people get away with everything from pushing in at the buffet to destroying the world economy and walking away with an enormous bonus, it’s tempting to think that if we could be just a little bit more villainous, we’d be the ones making the enormo-bucks and monopolising the good hummus. Turn bad, whispers your brain, and you could do whatever you want – no more separating out the recycling and worrying about what your end-of-year-report’s going to say, just shamelessly manipulating people and lying your way to the top.
Alternatively, you can look at modern villains as up-ending the status quo that heroes are often all-too-happy to prop up. “Many stories of villains and outlaws are appealing because they represent fighting the establishment.” says comic artist and writer Stephen Sonneveld. ”When 1% of the population controls 99% of the wealth, many of us can relate to wanting to strike at the establishment.” Say it a few times, and “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” almost starts to sound like
“On a fundamental level, I think film franchises are drawn to villains because writers find it so difficult to imagine benevolence and heroism from the inside – as a complex and interesting way to structure a character,” says Adam Kotsko, author of Why We Love Sociopaths. “One reason that people tend to sympathize with Killmonger, for instance, is simply that T'Challa's character is dull as dirt, and to me that reflects a deeper social problem of being unable to really ‘get’ someone with positive motivations. It feels a bit like a failure of imagination – but that’s where we are culturally.”
Every really good villain is the hero of his own story, and the most modern bad guys come with their own internal ethical codes that make them, if not strictly nice, then at least morally consistent. Thanos thinks he’s discovered the only practical way to deal with overpopulation (unite the Infinity Stones, disintegrate half of the universe), Killmonger’s taking aim at inequality (by giving oppressed communities Wakanda-grade military tech) and even The Dark Knight’s Joker has a sort of logical consistency to his madness (he’s aiming to prove that anyone’s willing to abandon law and morality, given the right circumstances). And even if their plans are insane (Wakanda starting an all-out war with the rest of the world isn’t going to help anyone, and surely the Infinity stones can produce food or terraform planets or something, right?), well, at least they’re trying. “People love superpowered characters that reflect the times and change themselves or the world through revolutionary action,” says Monty Nero, author of Death Sentence and regular writer on X-Men and The Hulk. “Golden Age heroes used to do this. Movie Batman works when he does this. The Joker, Thanos and so on do this. Being a villain or a hero is no determinant of popularity.”
And really, isn’t this the thing? Villains are always appealing because they set their own agendas, go after the status quo and get things done: but the good guys, when they’re really good, can do that, too. We like our villainy à la carte, and when we’re rooting for the bad guys, we’re picking and choosing what to cheer: the cool one-liners and lack of real, actual concern when the chips are down, not the girlfriend-murder and blowing up hospitals and intergalactic genocide. The Joker – whether we’re talking Nicholson, Ledger or Leto – is unassailably bonkers, but he’s a good brand. IRL, sociopaths have a terrible time: bereft of social connection and unable to form proper relationships or meaningful long-term plans, they might get stuff done on fraud and charm alone, but whether they’re enjoying any of it is a much more open question. Meanwhile, it’s pretty well-established that doing good deeds releases feel-good endorphins, promotes better mental health, and makes you happier over the long-term. The moral of the story, if you’re looking for one, is clear: we could all use a bit more assertiveness and willing to take action, but for our own sake we’d better be acting on the side of the angels. Oh, and: don’t ever push in at the buffet queue. Nobody likes that kind of villainy.
The Best Of The Worst
With at least a (dirty) dozen supervillainous films on the way, which ones should you actually be excited about? These. These ones...
Forget Jared Leto’s scenery-chewing emo mime for a second: Joaquin Phoenix’s alterno-take on the Clown Prince of Crime looks set to explore a more experimental take on the character, via an origin story where he’s dressed, in the press shots at least, as a traditionally ‘circus’ sort of clown. You know, the kind most children are frightened of.
With Shazam! set to land in early 2019, his arch-nemesis is set to get his own film in the terrifying shape of Dwayne ‘Four pounds of cod a day, please’ Johnson, probably playing the trying-to-clear-his-name version of the DC anti-hero. Smart money’s on him to make at least a token appearance in Suicide Squad 2, which just might be enough for us to get back on board with the series again.
Gotham City Sirens
After Harley Quinn became the breakout star of the otherwise-potboiling Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s set to reprise the role in any number of upcoming films, including a project where she teams up with Catwoman and Poison Ivy, possibly tackling Batgirl, Black Canary and the Huntress. Because, apparently, only lady-superheroes can fight, erm, lady-villains now.
With his stock on the rise after several guest appearances in Stephen Amell’s Arrow, mercenary Slade Wilson made a blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo at the end of Justice League, played by the ever-jacked Joe Manganiello. The Raid director Gareth Evans is signed up to direct, so if it ever happens, expect knuckle-scraping fight choreography and plenty of unpleasantness.
After endless Spider-Man reboots muddled the production history of Silver & Black (a buddy film planned to feature villainesses Black Cat and Silver Sable), the Spidey-fan favourite is set to go it alone in a solo effort, but it’s yet to start filming. If it ever gets off the ground, expect an ultra-obscure rogues gallery to co-star, including Chameleon, Tombstone, and, er, Robot Master.