Without villains, heroes lack punch

FRIDAY, MAY 3, 2013

‘Iron Man 3” might have dibs as the first blockbuster of 2013, but Tony Stark won’t be the only superhero bursting through multiplex screens in the coming months. Already scheduled for release this summer and beyond are “Kick-Ass 2,” “Thor 2,” “The Wolverine” and the Superman reboot “Man of Steel.” It’s a crowded marketplace.

Each summer, more masked crime fighters and caped crusaders populate the movie landscape. The “superhero movie” is now a genre unto itself, and producers will continue to pillage the back catalogues of Marvel and DC comics until they’ve totally exhausted their resources – pretty soon they’ll be devoting whole movies to Aquaman’s distant relatives or Mr. Fantastic’s chiropractor.

These films may draw huge audiences, and if nothing else they’re reliable, undemanding action delivery systems. But there’s one element that most recent superhero movies can’t quite master, and it’s a crucial one: the villain.

Here’s a test. Quick, name the bad guy from “Captain America.” Or “The Incredible Hulk.” Or “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Had to think about those, didn’t you? And even if you did recall their names, do you remember the actors who played them, or a particularly memorable way they affected their respective plots?

The lack of a credible villain isn’t a reason to disregard these movies completely – although none of them is that remarkable anyway – but the inclusion of an intimidating antagonist, a character who truly tests the limits of our hero’s powers, will only throw the good guy’s daring deeds into sharper relief.

Too often filmmakers try to coast by on the physical look of the villain or the novelty of the actor playing him, rather than creating an absorbing character from the ground up.

“Iron Man 2” (2010), for instance, cast comeback kid Mickey Rourke as Whiplash, an evil genius with as much talent for weapon design as our hero, Tony Stark. Rourke could have made a tremendous foil, but there are long stretches in the movie where he is curiously absent, so that he never develops into a true flesh-and-blood threat.

There’s also the case of cramming too many villains into the same movie, in the desperate hope that one of them will make an impression. Take Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” (2007), which had Peter Parker going toe-to-toe with the Sandman, Venom and another iteration of the Green Goblin. It’s all too much: Raimi had much better luck with Doc Ock as the primary villain in “Spider-Man 2” (2004), a compelling study of a weak man consumed by his own technological creations.

The great exception to this practice is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008), which features Heath Ledger’s famous, Oscar-winning interpretation of the Joker. He is pure menace, a maniac whose primary ambition is creating the utmost chaos, and despite his name, there’s no humor in this Joker’s demented energy.

Nolan brings the Joker into the foreground of the story, to the point where he nearly elbows Batman off the screen. By forcing us closer to Gotham City’s most malevolent resident, Nolan brings a stimulating sense of pessimism to the Batman mythos, and “The Dark Knight” is all the better because of Ledger’s deeply committed portrayal.

Superhero movies are usually as good as their villains, and if one can develop a complex, flawed, deeply interesting superhero, the least it can do is give us an equally intriguing antagonist. Even last year’s smash hit “The Avengers” failed to deliver on this front, pitting Iron Man and company against Thor’s spurned brother Loki, who is so easily defeated that hardly any tension develops.

Sure, Superman seems to be infallible, but when he’s up against the one guy who can bring him to his all-American knees, the drama increases tenfold. And as there can be no good without evil, great superheroes cease to exist without formidable villains. Here’s hoping Hollywood finally gets wise.

Nathan Weinbender is a Spokesman-Review correspondent and movie critic for Spokane Public Radio.

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