Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Can Villains determine the entertainment value of a Super Hero Movie? part 3

There is a moment in Iron Man (2008) where the villain of the piece, the Iron Monger aka Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) picks up an SUV to hurl it at the worn down Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Morton Downey Jr.) where I went, "This is a very cool villain." Although the movie was not exceptionally action packed and the fight between Iron Man and the Iron Monger is not particularly long, nevertheless the Iron Monger was a flat out cool villain.

It was his coolness as a villain that turned the movie from another, "Oh, it was nice to see but...I don't know if I would see it again" type fare into, "When that comes out on video, we are buying that one!" because it is one that will stand up to repeated viewings. He is an interesting villain and a capable one. But the reason he is interesting is because they took the time to flesh him out.
On first viewing Obadiah Stane is a believable family friend. There is an obvious familiarity and camaraderie between Stane and Stark that is fun to watch and believable. His motivations make sense...he wants to preserve the business. He wants to maximize his own power and, as it turns out, is willing to harm those who get in his way such as Tony Stark. Their conflict thus flows naturally and is easy to believe.

That is the hallmark of a strong villain. They are not specifically seeking to test their wits against the hero. The conflict that arises between Super Hero and Super Villain arises organically as the respective parties pursue their own goals. A great example of this would be the villains who fought Spiderman.

It started with the first Green Goblin. He was not specifically seeking out Spiderman. He was simply angry at the failure of his schemes and, mentally unhinged, he lashed out. Spiderman sought him out and took the fight to him. This changed a bit when Harry Osborn sought revenge for his fathers' death but by then the paradigm of Spiderman versus the Green Goblin had been established and would itself have been believable motivation. By having the character arcs intersect seemingly by chance rather than just creating a villain who simply wanted to battle a hero we were presented, if not a 3 dimensional then at least a complex 2 dimensional character who seems to act in their own self-interest as opposed to some villains of movies past who seemed to exist solely to provide a foil for the hero and whose motivations were not particularly believable.Dr. Octopus is a further example of this. Far from just some cartoonish villain, when we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina) he is in fact a hero of sorts. It is only after his experiment goes awry that we see him become evil. But it is a tempered evil...he does not suddenly become a maniac or psychopath...he simply tries to set things aright and makes poor choices which lead to his turn to the path of crime which then is exacerbated by his interactions with Harry. Their interactions which fit very well with each character's personal motivations.

Thus Doc Ock is not just random villain X with no interests of his own. In truth he is someone we can care about, even if eventually that care is that he be defeated. Of course, in the flick he eventually redeems himself, a fact which for many fans of villains actually condemns him, but that is for another piece. Until then, Doc Ock follows the Spiderman villain pattern,

Contrast that with a villain such as Bullseye (Colin Farrell) from Daredevil (2003). He is a more stereotypical villain.His motivations? Money and hitting everything he shoots at. He has to hit the bulls eye with darts, paper clips, shuriken, and even pencils. On the bright side he is quite entertaining. His method of disposing of the old woman on the plane was quite amusing and his quip about the guard he killed with pencils memorable as well. And there is no denying he has a very cool look. Colin Farrell nailed this role.

On the downside he is pretty much a 1 dimensional character. He serves as nothing but a goon, a hired thug brought in specifically for a job. His one motivation is anger when Daredevil (Ben Affleck) makes him miss. That is a weak motivation indeed.

It is possible that weak villains such as Bullseye and the Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) had a lot to do with the weak box office done by Daredevil. Their motivations were irrelevant to the movie and thus it lacked the depth that has set the good Super Hero movies apart. Or perhaps not. After all, a very popular arch-villain in a current movie has far more in common with Bullseye than with the better developed villains of Spiderman and Iron Man.

Is there any question the Joker (Heath Ledger) will go down in the annals of movie history as one of the greatest antagonists of all time? He mesmerized the audience while on the screen and haunted all the events occurring off it. He made The Dark Knight (2008) into must-see entertainment even for non-fans of comic books.In many ways, he was everything a good villain should be. He was dangerous, he was a threat to the existence of the hero, he caused the protagonist existential quandaries as well as physical opposition, and he performed actions that screamed "villain" in ways that are usually reserved for the most depraved individuals.

Yet if we take a step back we quickly realize he was actually a pretty one dimensional, almost cartoonish villain. His role has more in common with Bullseye than it does with even the Green Goblin.

He does not care about money. He does not care about power. He does not even particularly care about his own life. Check out the way he screams, "Hit me! Hit Me! HIT ME!!!!!!" As Batman roars towards him on the Batcycle. Or the way he aims a loaded gun in his mouth and puts it in the hands of Harvey "Two Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhardt). He is willing to die to corrupt people.

That is his entire motivation. To corrupt people. That is about as cartoonish as it gets yet he is still an undeniably entertaining villain, thus demonstrating you don't have to have a rounded villain if the movie is handled correctly.

The Hellboy franchise is one that seems to have gotten that often touchy line correct. Villains range from Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Ladislav Beren) to Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) to Wink (Brian Steele). At one end you have Wink and Kroenen...
They are stereotypical goons. It is hard to say what their motivations, hopes, dreams or desires are because those are never mentioned. They are just muscle, just obstacles for the hero to overcome. At the other end of the spectrum is Prince Nuada. He is a complex villain. His desires make sense and might even find a few viewers who sympathise with him in the current social paradigms. He knows his choices will be unpopular yet he believes in them so strongly that he ends up killing his Father while professing love for him. He is strong, intelligent, and cares for his followers. His story is really what draws you in while the love story of Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) is almost a sideline. A villain who is over half the story is complex indeed. And that adds a great deal of interest even to movies which are more interested in providing a fun experience for the viewer than a great or deep storyline.

And that brings us to the Abomination (Tim Roth).

Is he a good guy at the beginning of the movie? Or is he just a villain who does not yet realize it? The path he takes from super soldier to what you see pictured here is every bit as important to the story of The Incredible Hulk (2008) as even that of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) himself.

The downward spiral as he tries to amplify his own power to compete with the Hulk seems to be part of what corrupts him. The process as his ego compels him to attempt things beyond his strength makes for an entertaining tale. And at the end his sheer strength leads to one of the most entertaining Super Hero battles to hit the big screen yet.

From Bullseye to Abomination, from the Joker to Wink, villains are a crucial part of the world of the Super Hero. Without a proper villain a Super Hero movie is pretty pointless. It behooves the prudent writer to put some thought into their villains.

Coming up next:assessing the tweeners...are they heroes or villains?