Super Hero Movies and the Plurality of Villains

Been thinking about an interesting fact of superhero movies. They are all pulling from mountains of source material, comics and comics, which are always having to come up with new plots and new enemies as the story continues. Because it’s that or start over, right?

Usually, the heroes only have to deal with one problem at a time in the comics. There’s only so much real estate to have things going on in a monthly format like that – you focus on something, then move on to something else.

In the movies, they do something very different. They do lots of villains. Do you agree? Let’s look at a few examples!

Spider-Man 2 and 3

Here we have Doc Oc and Green Goblin in the second movie, and Sandman and Venom in the third. In many ways, they seem to use one only as an accessory to the other, and still have one main villain. But that villain can’t hold the whole screen time – they need another for the plot.

Like Osborn turning to Doc Oc for help – which is really more of a plot-point for Oc to find out more about Spider-man. Or dealing with Sandman as a moral problem for Spider-man, which leads to the creation of Venom, our real villain. Who then didn’t get enough screen time.

It stands out, then, that the Lizard is the only villain in the Amazing Spider-man.

Tim Burton’s Batman and the ones that followed

The Joker is the sort of villain who can carry a plot on his own, and was the only villain in Batman. But after that, it’s like their goal was to fit in every Batman villain ever made, and they did a decent job of it.

Catwoman and the Penguin in Batman Returns, the Riddler and Two-Face in Batman and Robin, and Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane in Batman Forever. Again, many of these villains felt like they were being used as plot-points and filler for the other villains, snuck in as fan service or because they would never get a movie of their own as the villain.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy

So then, you might think that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would have handled this differently, as part of being distant from what had come before not so long before. Not so. Each movie had at least two villains.

Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, Joker and Two-Face in The Dark Knight, and Bane and Talia al Ghul (and Catwoman if we’re counting her from the ranks of villains) in The Dark Knight Rises. And though these villain uses seem all to have real-world reasons behind them, it’s still one villain serving as a plot point to another villain’s schemes.

X-Men Trilogy

Okay, now back to Marvel. The X-Men, as a team, often do have a team of villains against them – so I won’t necessarily count Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants against them in X-1.

However, Stryker and Lady Deathstrike in X-2, with Magneto and company still around,  definitely counts as a lot of villains in one place. And X-3 had the Dark Phoenix and Morlocks and Magneto and all sorts of people running around, like Juggernaut. X-3 in particular felt like an attempt to squeeze as many references as possible into one film – dropping tag-lines and characters in left and right.

There seems to be a backlash

Rather than continuing to point out movies – like the Iron Man films, which have industrialist enemies and super enemies – I want to point out that there seem to be a little bit of a movement away from this. For instance, as I pointed out, the Amazing Spider-man pulled off one villain.

Spoiler alert, we just went to see Man of Steel.

They pulled off Man of Steel with just General Zod as the villain. They gave him enough of a plot that he made sense as the enemy throughout. He had a reason to do what he did, and the power to do so, and the motivation.

I will be interested to see what comes of movies like Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as much of Marvel Phase 1 was lighter on throwing in lots of villains. Or, some of the villains were races or mind controlled – so like, Frost Giants, the Destroyer, and Loki in Thor could be looked at as all Loki, or as cramming in a lot of stuff from Thor canon.

It’s an annoying point of perspective, but it still is the case that they don’t really seem to let one villain be enough. Like, within a two hour movie, a hero should have defeated a single villain far sooner – or else the villain should have won. But if there’s more than one, we validate how long it takes. One as a smoke-screen or distraction from the other. But also, a bit of fan service.

What do you think of the number of villains used in super hero movies? Too many? Not enough? Depends on how they’re used?

3 responses to “Super Hero Movies and the Plurality of Villains

  1. What I’m surprised you didn’t mention, was the tendency to start with one villain on the first movie where you have a lot of hero story to cover, but expand to more enemies on sequels, when they have less time for the hero to cover. This almost never works well. Amazing spider man is not a move away from the more villains trend it’s a reboot. It’s the first movie in the series. The second is already set to have at least two villains. Man of Steel is also the origin story.

    That’s why the reboots work. People love the character growth in the origin story, even if… no strike that, especially if, they know the origin story like their own life.


    • Good point, because yeah, Spider-man 1 was also just one villain, then the sequels had several. They have a plot in mind for the origin – because as you said, with many of the heroes, we all know it and could all have written it – and then in the later movies they invent a mash-up plot with multiple villains.

      That’s part of what was impressive with Iron Man 3, though they still worked in two villains instead of sticking with the one; but Extremis was a comic book plot and similar to what they put on screen.


  2. Pingback: Man of Steel and Superman: Birthright – A LitFlix | Comparative Geeks

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