When It Comes to Supervillains in Movies, Less Really Is More

Or: Why it's possible to have too much of a bad thing in superhero films.
John Romita Jr./Marvel Entertainment

Less is more, as the saying goes. Unless, it seems, you're talking about the number of bad guys in a modern superhero movies. With the addition of Bokeem Woodbine, next year's Spider-Man: Homecoming will have no less than three villains causing trouble for Tom Holland's friendly-neighborhood wall-crawler. Clearly, things are getting out of control.

The idea of the super-villain team-up isn't a new thing; in comic books, bad guys had been working together since the 1940s, with the Monster Society of Evil causing trouble for Captain Marvel back in 1943, Lex Luthor and Brainiac teaming up back in 1964 and Marvel even launching a series called Super-Villain Team-Up in 1975.

The concept had spread beyond comics; the animated Super Friends would regularly deal with the Legion of Doom throughout the 1970s, and even Christopher Reeve's cinematic Superman having to deal with a trio of Phantom Zone escapees in his 1981 second movie.

What separates Zod, Ursa and Non from the current trend of multi-villain movies is that the Phantom Zone criminals belonged together, and shared a backstory and direction. They were really one threat, made up of three different personalities. (And even then, Zod was the primary villain; Ursa and Non are essentially super powered minions.)

These days, when movies use more than one super-villain — which seems to be happening with increasing regularity — they form either an uneasy alliance, or find themselves working at cross-purposes with overlap only in the area of causing trouble for the hero of the day.

Perhaps we can blame 1992's Batman Returns for that, which paired Catwoman and the Penguin, who were linked by a third, background, villain — Christopher Walken's Max Schreck — and little else. That set the scene for random team-ups throughout the remainder of the 1980s/90s Batman franchise (Riddler/Two-Face in Batman Forever, Mr. Freeze/Poison Ivy/Bane in Batman and Robin). In more recent years, we've seen Spider-Man 3's Sandman/Venom, The Amazing Spider-Man 2's Green Goblin/Electro/Rhino, the X-Men movies' math of "Magneto + [Whoever Else]," and the Nolan Batman movies, which loved to double up on threats wherever possible, amongst other examples.

It's easy to see the thinking behind these decisions. Almost all of the multi-villain movies aren't first installments, and on paper, there's a certain logic to the notion that additional villains ups the ante from the last movie. But in almost every single case, the end result is a movie that feels too busy and tripping over itself in order to find room in which to fit the secondary bad guy in. (Even something like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the two villains were connected by the fact that Lex Luthor created Doomsday, seemed artificial and forced — although that could be said of much of that movie, villains or otherwise.)

In too many cases, there is little crossover between the villains in any given movie, meaning that filmmakers have to work in multiple separate sets of backstory and motivation in addition to whatever showdowns the villains have with the hero — or, in some cases, skimp on one or both, hoping that fans will be familiar enough with the character for things to make sense, and that affection for said character will be enough to carry the movie across whatever narrative plot holes exist as a result.

More often than not, movies that juggle a number of super-villains end up disappointing audiences, who end up with a variety of complaints: that their favorite villain was short-changed in favor of entirely separate plotline (Spider-Man 3), that the partnership between villains feels unconvincing and nonsensical (Batman and Robin) or reduces one of the villains to a glorified henchman (The Dark Knight Rises), or simply ends up a directionless waste of potential all round (The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

This isn't to say that choosing a single villain over a collective is the way to success — may I introduce you to last year's Fantastic Four as evidence? — but going the multi-villain route only complicates what is already a complicated route. It's not a decision to be taken lightly, or made without a clear plan of how to pull it off.

If there's cause for optimism, it could be in Marvel Studios' involvement in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Marvel movies, for the most part, have avoided the multi-villain format, preferring instead a primary opponent who can be vanquished at the end of the movie. Sure, the bad guy can have assistants, but the narrative stays focused on one core threat — consider Guardians of the Galaxy's Nebula, who was an antagonist, but clearly Ronan was the mover and shaker on the villainous side of the movie; similarly, Avengers has an alien invasion, but Loki was the focus of the wrongdoing.

Where there are multiple threats in Marvel movies, it's tradition for one to be placed in the forefront, while the other acts as a teaser for future events, such as Loki in the Thor movies or Thanos in Avengers and Guardians. It's possible that this is a fate awaiting at least one of the Spider-Man villains, reducing the sense of overload that an audience might feel.

Nonetheless, Spider-Man: Homecoming's three villains remains somewhat foreboding. This is a movie that already has to introduce Peter Parker's world to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including a supporting cast beyond Marisa Tomei's Aunt May and a status quo that explains how Spider-Man operates in a world where New York already has the Avengers, Daredevil and Jessica Jones defending it. That's enough heavy lifting to make ensuring space for even one villain seem like a difficult task — but to put three in there…? It's a choice that's either brave or foolhardy, and we won't know which until the movie hits theaters next summer.

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