Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What's the Matter with Superheroes, Part 3: The Villain Problem

I’ve tried my hand at writing a superhero movie from scratch, and quickly found that it’s a lot harder than it looks. One of many problems you have to solve is this: where do the villains come from? It’s hard enough to dream up a situation that would create and motivate a super-hero, but now you have to create an equally powerful super-villain and quickly smash them together. There are, of course, short-cuts that will get you there, but those short-cuts create their own problems.

Let’s start by looking at the different types of super-villain origin, pro and con:

Completely separate origin from the hero: Superman, All three of the original Spider-Man movies, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3, Fantastic Four 2
  • Pros: The hero is in the clear morally. Somebody would have needed to stop this bad guy, so it’s good that the hero was there.
  • Cons: If it’s the first one, it takes an awful long time to set up two origin stories (think Green Goblin in Spider-Man 1), and even later it distracts from the story a lot (think Sandman in Spider-Man 3)
Same incident creates both: Superman 2, Fantastic Four 1, the new “Flash” TV show, “Smallville”, all six X-Men movies, Captain America 1 (the Red Skull, that is. The rest of the Nazis are in the previous category), The recent Spider-Man reboot
  • Pros: Much easier to write and more streamlined.
  • Cons: It’s all a bit of a wash, isn’t it? One part of the problem wipes out another part of the problem. Civilians still would have been better off if the whole mess had never happened.
Villains creates himself or his weapon using the good guy’s stuff: Superman Returns, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk
  • Pros: Ironic. Fairly streamlined.
  • Cons: Even worse than the previous category, because now the hero deserves blame for leaving his stuff around. The villainy results from his negligence.
Hero flat-out creates the villain: Avengers 2, Green Lantern (his organization, anyway)
  • Pros: It’s ironic, it’s painful, it speaks to our fears of power spinning out of control.
  • Cons: So many! Not only is every death in the movie is the fault of the hero, but each of those deaths has to be subtracted from the tally of lives saved in all the other movies featuring that hero! (There’s a reason why the body count in Avengers 2 was so low!)
Okay, so let’s look at the super-villains’ plans, pro and con:

Street crime: Daredevil movies and TV, most Batman movies 
  • Pros: We all understand it. It’s an independent threat that would have happened anyway, so the hero is really a hero for stopping it.
  • Cons: It has to be big enough to justify super-hero-ing, or else it will make the decision to put on a costume seem really weird.
Big evil plan that has nothing to do with the hero: Superman, Spider-Man 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3
  • Pros: The hero is in the clear morally, and he has a fun mystery to solve.
  • Cons: It requires a bit more plotting, but there’s very little downside. This is the way to do it. There’s a reason that those are four of the best.
Just attacking the hero, civilians get in the way: Spider-Man 1, X2, Man of Steel, Dark Knight Rises, Thor, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 2
  • Pros: Much easier to write. The heroes don’t have to go on patrol, or track anybody down, or summon up any motivation—they just have to defend themselves against the enemies who show up on their doorstep.
  • Cons: They aren’t actually heroes anymore. In fact, they’re just the opposite: they’re needlessly endangering civilians just by being around them.
I never understood why the villains were doing what they were doing: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, Thor 2
  • Pros: If you move fast enough, audiences won’t care!
  • Cons: And hour later, they’ll say “Wait…What??”
Ultimately, super-villains have to be the flip side of the hero on some thematic level, but if they have the same origin, or it’s just a grudge match, then you’ve lost the “hero” part. As I said before, action movies require civilians…and ideally those should be civilians that the hero didn’t personally endanger!

Obviously, this was one of the biggest problems with Avengers 2, but to a certain extent that was by design: it helps that this is the middle movie in a trilogy, and it’s clearly supposed to be a low-point. Still, it would have been better if Tony Stank had suffered real consequences and/or guilt for causing all this evil, instead of the car-commercial final scene he had.  Presumably, the consequences will hit later. 


Harvey Jerkwater said...

The "same incident creates both," "villains create self from good guy's stuff," and "hero creates villain" have the appeal of adhering to the "Law of the Conservation of Weirdness," which makes sense for some genres but doesn't fly very well for superheroes. Heroic fantasies shouldn't contain the nagging feeling that it would have been better for everyone if the empowerment had never happened. Superhero stories are not good places to adhere to the Law of Conservation of Weirdness. Let a million bugnuts flowers bloom, man.

Also, for what it's worth, I think "dark mirror" villains are never as interesting as writers believe. We're interested less than "what would it be like if the hero went wrong" than the counterpoint of the hero, the embodiment of the anxiety that the hero is designed to combat.

Matt Bird said...

Crap, I just deleted a comment by accident! So sorry to the first commenter! (Blogger is flirting with a nested system, and I think it was nested in with a blank comment)

Harvey: Yes, I agree that the Law of the Conservation of Weirdness is usually good but can also be problematic for the reasons you state. Ultimately it's most necessary on a show like "Smallville" or "Flash", where you can't have new super-villain origins every week, so both shows rewrote the original stories so that the thing that created the hero could keep churning out villains as well.

j.s. said...

The greatest mirror image villain of all time is Bizarro. And I think it's because he's essentially a comedic figure. No matter how hard anyone tries, there's just nothing remotely menacing about Bizarro. Certainly nothing that trumps his outlandish retarded silliness. Whoever has the film rights to the character just ought to get Trey Parker and Matt Stone to write a script and Edgar Wright to direct it with, say, Danny McBride in the lead. Bizarro would be the antiheroic protagonist and Superman should almost be peripheral to the bulk of the story, coming off -- from Bizarro's POV -- as the smug douchey jock that he actually sort of is. Whereas Bizarro can be a kind of an autistic genius, uncovering our cultural hypocrisy with his relentless contrariness.

Unknown said...

I'm loving this series of posts! Nice to see such a thoughtful take on superhero movies. Too often, the genre is either condescendingly dismissed, or loved/hated with uncritical fanboy intensity. You're doing the genre a real service here.

I think that the more problematic scenarios you mention in this post("same incident creates both", "just attacking the hero, civilians get in the way", etc) could potentially make for a fine story, as long as they're utilized with the honest intention of reflecting on or critiquing aspects of the superhero genre. In other words, I think it's ok for the audience to wonder if the world wouldn't just be better off without the hero, or even without superheroes in general, IF that's actually, honestly, the POINT of the story.

The definitive example of this being done right is the original Watchmen comic, in which some of the superheroes turn out to be the true villains of the piece. Alan Moore wasn't trying to tell a traditional superhero story, but he wasn't just "updating" the genre to be "darker" or "grittier", either. He was, in fact, critiquing the whole concept of superheroes, and the implications of that concept when applied, however metaphorically, to the real world (might makes right, "enlightened dictators", etc). And since civilian casualties are mentioned in this post, it's worth noting that Moore actually went out of his way to name and humanize several of the civilians who, by the end of the story, would be unquestionably better off if superheroes didn't exist at all.

A problem arises when the filmmakers of superhero movies want to have their cake and eat it too. The superVILLAINS are made to be always darker, more disturbing, and wreak more and more havoc on society ... but this DOESN'T lead to much honest questioning of the traditional role of the superHERO. This is troubling, and makes no sense. As much as I enjoy The Dark Knight, I think it does suffer somewhat from this problem (and Dark Knight Rises took it to a whole other level).

Matt Bird said...

J.S.: I, of course, am the guy who pitched a (semi-)serious Bizarro series to DC. My take was that Bizarro (who had last been seen in deep space) gets grabbed by some aliens who want him to save their world, assuming that he's Superman, so now he's finally got the chance he always wanted to be Superman and he's got to live up to it. (I later realized that it wasn't that good of a pitch. Bizzaro is weird enough, so we should just let him weird on Earth instead of putting him on a weird world.)

Danny McBride could be great casting.

Peter: Excellent point. You can't deconstruct the idea of the villain if you're not willing to deconstruct the heroes too. (That's why you can't do "The Further Adventures of the Watchmen.")