Resident evil

Every comic book hero needs a memorable villain

by Julie Hinds

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

16 July 2008


Being bad may never have been this good before.

The early consensus is Heath Ledger is nearly perfect as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” the new Batman movie that opens this week.

Ledger is “mad-crazy brilliant,” according to Rolling Stone. “He’s out-villained Hannibal Lecter,” raved Gary Oldman, who plays Lt. Jim Gordon in the film, to Access Hollywood.

RATING THE VILLAINS Scary good: Ian McKellen (Magneto). If comic books are an underrated art form with all the passion and depth of Shakespeare, they deserve an actor like McKellen, who plays “X-Men” nemesis Magneto, a tortured master of magnetism, like Hamlet crossed with Macbeth. Jack Nicholson (the Joker). Nicholson sits at the top of the acting pantheon, so, of course, he tends to go over the top. His clown prince of crime in Tim Burton’s “Batman” is too colorful, too demented, and, in a delightful way, too much. Alfred Molina (Dr. Octopus). A fan favorite, Molina’s Doc Ock is an emotionally nuanced villain who wreaks havoc before rediscovering his humanity. Plus, it’s cool to watch him multitask with his mechanical arms in “Spider-Man 2.” Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman). Although she filled out her catsuit nicely, Pfeiffer’s real talent in “Batman Returns” was fleshing out the source of her feline rage. It was a smartly feminist take on how nice girls (like Catwoman’s alter ego, Selina Kyle) finish last. Scary bad: Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor). Love him or hate him - and the debate can get heated - Hackman’s Luthor is heavy on the ha-ha as Christopher Reeve’s foe in “Superman” - especially compared to Kevin Spacey’s Lex in “Superman Returns.” Nick Nolte (Bruce Banner’s father). His complicated speeches and messy hair may be the stuff of mad scientists, but Nolte’s screen time in the pretentious “Hulk” sometimes seems like a re-creation of his crazy police mug-shot photo. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze). In what’s probably his most camp-tastic role ever, the future California governor puns his way through “Batman & Robin” with lines like, “You’re not sending me to the cooler.” Brrr.


For once, the hype seems deserved. The glowing praise is fueling speculation that Ledger, who died in January, could be nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar.

The buzz also is a reminder that villains are crucial to the success of superhero movies. The good guys in tights may get all the glory, but their cinematic franchises would be nothing without the evil adversaries.

This has been a standout summer for comic book adaptations and the dastardly rogues that fuel them, says Daniel Ptaszek Jr. of the Comix Corner in Fraser and Rochester Hills, Mich.

The heavies in “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man” and “Hellboy II” have brought rich psychological dimensions to those action films. “Even with the high price of movies, everyone is pretty satisfied,” says Ptaszek.

That’s not always the case.

Villains are tricky roles, as misfires like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in 1997’s “Batman & Robin” prove. But it’s possible to be deliciously evil, if you follow these 10 rules

1. Take the job seriously. Those who’ve seen previews of “The Dark Knight” say Ledger immerses himself in the Joker, nearly disappearing into melting makeup that reeks of moral decay, creepy lip-licking mannerisms and an eerie, taunting voice.

Instead of being afraid of comparisons to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 “Batman,” Ledger tackled the role with the same intense dedication he brought to films like “Brokeback Mountain,” creating a character whose mayhem is all the more terrifying because his motivations are so mysterious.

“It’s a totally different villain than you’ve seen in comic book movies before,” says Rob Allstetter, whose ComicsContinuum.com Web site is a popular source for comic book news. “He’s chaos, is what he is.”

2. Add a dash of sympathy. One of the most popular villains around is Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as Dr. Octopus, from 2004’s “Spider-Man 2.” As a scientist whose wife is accidentally killed during the experiments that lead to his super mechanical arms, Molina captures the pathos of a man whose quest for knowledge and power ruins his life.

Like many fictional evildoers, Doc Ock doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy and, eventually, his warped humanity redeems him.

“Although the tentacles screwed with his mind, he thought he was building something that helped people,” says Allstetter.

3. Be faithful to the source material. Comic book fans are sticklers for accuracy. That’s why the best-loved villains stay true to the print versions of the characters, says Chris Marshall, 38, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., whose “Collected Comics Library” podcast focuses on collected editions and trade paperbacks.

Marshall thinks Julian McMahon’s villain in the 2005 “Fantastic Four” didn’t work, not because the “Nip/Tuck” actor lacked charm, but because his Victor Von Doom, a quip-spewing CEO, wasn’t close enough to the arrogant monarch of the comic books.

But Marshall liked Ian McKellen’s Magneto in the “X-Men” series because it was faithful to Magneto’s background as a Holocaust survivor and his twisted devotion to protecting mutants by destroying humans.

4. Find a great costume. Whether the approach is simple (Cillian Murphy’s ragged Scarecrow look in 2005’s “Batman Begins”) or elaborate (Rebecca Romijn’s seductive blue skin as Mystique in the “X-Men” series), the get-ups for villains have to be convincing.

A case in point is the design contest between two Spider-Man villains: Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin in “Spider-Man” (2002) and Molina’s Dr. Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.” They’re two strong performances, but Doc Ock had those flashy tentacles fused seamlessly to his body, while the Goblin’s disappointing masked disguise was less ominous than Dafoe’s own quirky features.

When a villain’s look is amazing enough, you barely need a real actor. The computer-generated Silver Surfer in the “Fantastic Four” sequel of 2007 was such a sleek triumph, fans wanted to root for him instead of Ioan Gruffudd’s stretchy Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards.

5. Don’t be afraid to go over the top. Villains have a mix of arrogance and intelligence that requires big gestures, but that’s OK. There’s nothing more fun to watch than an A-list actor unleashing his inner egomaniac.

And nobody plays crazy better than Jack Nicholson, whose disfigured Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman” was a classic, says comic book historian Ken Quattro. “He didn’t just steal the film; he devoured it.”

But such demented humor doesn’t work for everyone, and it didn’t suit Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face in 1995’s “Batman Forever.” “He’s a great actor, but it was just embarrassing watching him on screen,” says Quattro. “I cringed when I saw it.”

6. Don’t overshadow the good guy. Well-matched adversaries are more fun than a lopsided faceoff. McKellen’s Magneto and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X of the “X-Men” flicks are often cited as a perfect pairing. Although McKellen is frailer than the Magneto of the comic books, he gives the character an air of superiority and intelligence that complements Professor X’s equally laser-like smarts, says Quattro.

Less effective was the battle between Colin Farrell as Bullseye, the dead-aim psychopath, and Ben Affleck as the title hero in 2003’s “Daredevil.” Although Quattro says Farrell was the best part of the movie, his acting couldn’t disguise the fact the rest of “Daredevil” - including Affleck’s derring-do - was mostly forgettable.

7. Keep the camp under control. Villains like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler from the “Batman” TV series of the 1960s are fondly remembered by buffs like comic art expert Richard Rubenfeld, an art history professor at Eastern Michigan University.

But that style of humor has often seemed too broad for the big screen, starting with Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in 1978’s “Superman.” Although some consider it heresy to bash Hackman, others think he treated the role almost like a joke.

“It was like he was winking to the audience, ‘I know this is ridiculous and so do you,’” says Quattro.

8. Explore the love-hate nature of the characters. One of Rubenfeld’s favorite performances is Michelle Pfeiffer in 1992’s “Batman Returns.” Her sexy anger as Catwoman contrasts nicely with her vulnerable previous life as a put-upon single woman. When Pfeiffer is pushed around - and out a window - before her transformation into her black vinyl catsuit, you understand that vengeance is rightfully hers.

Liam Neeson is equally multidimensional as Ra’s al Ghul in 2005’s “Batman Begins.” The “Schindler’s List” star delicately reveals the duality of being Bruce Wayne’s mentor and eventual enemy. It’s a complicated relationship that Neeson underplays for maximum drama.

9. Look for the right director. Quattro says the comics community feels Joel Schumacher almost ruined the Batman series with his overly theatrical “Batman & Robin” (the one that put George Clooney in a batsuit with rubber nipples).

Similarly, Ang Lee rankled the superhero set by taking his 2003 “Hulk” into brooding psychological territory that reduced villain Nick Nolte to scenery-chewing as Bruce Banner’s mad scientist father.

The new breed of filmmakers grew up reading and enjoying comics, and their appreciation for the genre is leading to a better brand of villains.

“When they play it straight, when they treat the material with respect, it’s appreciated more by fans,” Quattro says.

10. Insist on a good script. When it comes to superhero flicks, the best acting in the world can’t hide lousy writing, says Rubenfeld. “A lot of the movies, to me, are like Teflon - no stick. Nothing is memorable about them except the special effects. It always comes down to a quality script.”

A poorly written movie guarantees one-dimensional caricatures, like Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in “Batman & Robin,” whose corny dialogue was stiffer than ice, and Sharon Stone’s cosmetics diva in 2004’s “Catwoman,” who set the cause of female treachery back a few decades.

Stone, whose character uses a beauty product that turns her skin into living marble, might be one of the worst villains ever, says Allstetter.

“Her power,” he says with a laugh,” was she had a face that wouldn’t break.”

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