Why Do Superhero Movies Keep Having Such Terrible Villains?
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Suicide Squad.]
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Unfortunately, its pair of chief villains are not among those good parts — with Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and her brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine) continuing a frustrating trend in superhero cinema, which has produced plenty of memorable heroes, but severely lacks in the bad guy department.
Many viewers agree that the first act of Suicide Squad — which focuses on the backstories of bad guys like Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Deadshot (Will Smith) — moves along at a nice clip, and is actually a lot of fun. The problems arise when the team is dispatched to put a lid on the evil plot from Enchantress and her brother. They are ancient beings from another dimension, who have a vague plot to destroy the world by building a doomsday machine, which manifests as pretty lights in the sky (a familiar trope for anyone who has seen Ghostbusters or The Avengers).
It all builds to an end fight that is among the least compelling in the past decade of comic book movies. (It's not the worst. This is the worst.) At no time do you really believe the team will fail (or really care if they will succeed or not). You also don’t get a sense of what these two villains are all about … other than they are evil and magic-y? And want to destroy the world? And they really like to make zombie armies out of asphalt or something?
Having a villain commanding a faceless army of goons makes sense for a PG-13 team-up movie. You don't want audiences feeling bad that your protagonists are killing hundreds of actual humans. But it also lowers the stakes significantly. People loved The Avengers (2012) — but to this day mock the faceless Chitauri alien army. By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) came around, having the Avengers fight yet another faceless army of drones (this time, they were literally drones) caused audiences to react poorly.
Ditto with doomsday plots. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is among the most beloved MCU movies, but Ronan (Lee Pace) and his plan to destroy Xandar is the most common point of criticism from fans. The same goes for Thor: Dark World (2013). At no point do you particularly care if forgettable villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) succeeds in destroying the universe (or whatever he was planning on doing). The villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) in this summer's X-Men: Apocalypse was highly anticipated, but many fans were left confused by his plan to wipe the Earth clean and only leave the strongest. And don't get me started on Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Villains work best when they test the hero in a personal way. Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) is the greatest foil to a superhero ever committed to screen. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the arrogant and ambitious trickster brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), remains the only Marvel Studios villain people rave about. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) and the tragic and personal relationship between Cap (Chris Evans) and the brainwashed Bucky/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) helped make it one of the MCU's most acclaimed films. Things get even more personal with Captain America: Civil War, with the chief villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl) never doing physical battle with the heroes, but instead forcing them to fight each other. Even Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel (2013) manages to have a real, personal reason for doing what he's doing — his doomsday machine is the only way to bring back his species, whose protection he is genetically programmed to ensure.
Though Suicide Squad fell flat on the villain front, it did introduce a number of intriguing bad guys (namely, Jared Leto's Joker) who have potential to be the antagonist in future films. Perhaps all of them will even go up against the Justice League on the big screen someday.
It's actually the MCU that has potentially the biggest villain hurtle coming up, with fans already growing fatigued over the build-up to Thanos (Josh Brolin), who first appeared onscreen in 2012 — six years before he'll finally become the big bad of Avengers: Infinity War. Even Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi has tapped into fan frustration over the passive Thanos, noting in a Thor mockumentary at this year's San Diego Comic-Con that the villain "doesn't like standing up."
It's going to be a challenge to bring depth to a guy whose goal (at least in the comics) is to become a god and destroy half the life in the universe, but when Thanos does finally stand up, let's hope he lives up to the hype. (Note to Marvel: ask Jim Starlin's advice on how to make that happen.)
by Carolyn Giardina
by Alex Weprin
by Rick Porter