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Superhero Movies Have a Villain Problem

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | August 9, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | August 9, 2016 |

I would not consider myself a “superhero movie” person, in the sense that I didn’t grow up reading comic books or watching superhero cartoons. I have, however, seen every modern superhero movie because I make it a point to watch all movies that leave a cultural mark. I’m much more of a generalist. I don’t rate superhero movies against each other, I rate them against all movies, which means that a great superhero movie like The Avengers may not rate as high for me because I’m comparing it to Nice Guys or Sicario, but movies like Suicide Squad also benefit because they’re being compared to Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates or Zoolander 2. In other words, relative to Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad may have sucked. Relative to The Divergent series, I’ll take Suicide Squad any day.

Truthfully, I end up liking most superhero movies, especially those that bother with character development or the occasional moment of levity. I liked Suicide Squad, too, although my favorite sequence in the movie was the bar scene, where Deadshot tapped into the humanity of these supervillains and rallied them to fight together to save the world. I found the ensuing violence and chaos, however, to be anti-climactic, because it basically amounted to 20-minutes of set destruction. How much shit can we blow up?

Truthfully, I find that to be the case with most superhero films, and not just the DC movies, either. I almost always prefer Act I to Act III, because Act I is where we get to know the characters, discover their motivations, and chart a course. Act III is just knocking down dominoes with as much firepower as possible.

In fact, my biggest quibble with almost any superhero movie is in the choice and characterization of villain. The Dark Knight is the Citizen Kane of superhero movies for one very good reason: Heath Ledger’s The Joker. I love Captain America 2 because of Bucky Barnes. The Avengers 2 was much less successful than the original The Avengers because it didn’t have a Loki. Superhero movies work best when the heroes are pitted against actual characters instead of indestructible forces of nature. This is exactly why Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been so great on Netflix. They’re battling real people, who also may have some meta-human powers.

Look: The Enchantress was terrible. She was basically a giant wind machine that could apparate. I don’t know what that thing Lex Luthor unleashed in Dawn of Justice was, but it was remarkably dumb. Once he put on his giant suit, Obadiah Stane ceased to be interesting in the original Iron Man. Zod should’ve worked because he was played by Michael Shannon, but any and all interest in him dried up as soon as he began his 45-minute punching match with Superman. I barely remember the villain from Guardians of the Galaxy, but I remember the dance sequence, and that’s what salvaged the last act. I have almost no recollection of Malekith in The Dark World. The last X-Men movie was a shit-show in large part because it all culminated in another battle against a giant, indestructible force. Even Deadpool — my favorite superhero film behind The Dark Knight — faded in the final act as Wade Wilson laid waste to Ajax and Angel Dust (thankfully, Ryan Reynolds at least made the punching fun).

The problem with almost all of these superhero films is that the good guys and the bad guys don’t match wits in the end, they match physical strength, and who gives a shit who is strongest or who has the best superpower? It’s not interesting to see everything a movie has built up over the first two acts reduced to a loud, nonsensical, 30-minute CGI-heavy fight sequence. It’s not plot. It’s rearranging set pieces, and the outcome is never in doubt.

I liked Suicide Squad, but the waste of it for me was in using the two best villains in the post Man of Steel DC Universe as heroes facing off against another limp villain. A Superman vs. Deadshot film could’ve been amazing. The death of Deadshot would have resonated emotionally because, for all his evils, he’s a loving father. Likewise, I want to see Harley Quinn face off against Batman, and I want to see her win not by brute force, but by out-scheming The Bat. You know who should be the villain in the Wonder Woman movie? Amanda fucking Waller.

That’s what most of these superhero films are missing: Schemes. Heists. Capers. Who cares about good guy vs. bad guy? I want to see the criminal vigilante square off against the law-abiding prosecutor willing to let a few bad guys win for the good of the system. I want to see a family of innocent Afghanis rise up against Iron Man because their village became collateral damage when a Stark Industries weapon took out a terrorist.

I like comic-book characters, but the movies too often fail to do them justice because the villains aren’t people. They’re McGuffins. They’re walls to knock down instead of people who need to be outsmarted. Their weaknesses are rarely in their psychological makeup, and more often in the way they are engineered. Instead of using a villain’s narcissism or greed against him, superheroes have to land a direct hit on that one vulnerable spot in their armor. That’s not intelligence. It’s precision.

I badly want to see another Suicide Squad movie, but I don’t want to see another Enchantress. I want, instead, to see the Suicide Squad break into a terrorist’s compound and steal back the $1 billion the U.S. Government paid for the release of hostages, and then I want to see the Suicide Squad disappear with the money. I want David Mamet to write it with Jonathan Nolan. I want to see Batman pull off an Argo or Peter Quill hustle his way out of a debt. Fight sequences are great, but they should be the grease that moves the plot along instead of the entire point of a superhero movie. I want to see superhero movies that not only make $1 billion at the box office, but that rightfully compete for Academy Awards. Cut the special effects budgets in half, and make writers and directors earn their endings instead of blowing them up. The movies would be better, and the profits would be richer.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.