What Makes Film and TV Supervillains Tick?

There's more to a supervillain than their plot to take over the world. To be a match for their opponent, their conflict has to be personal.

For more than a decade, superheroes have been a staple of cinema and television. Audiences are thrilled and inspired by an everyman donning spandex to overcome great difficulties and save the day. Nevertheless the majority of superhero films are plagued by one persistent stumbling block: a villain problem. In the MCU only the charismatic Loki (Tom Hiddleston), merciless Hela (Cate Blanchett), resentful Vulture (Michael Keaton), and rage-filled Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) were more than thinly defined enigmas of evil. Whilst the DC film universe has opted to embrace CGI ‘Big Bads’ that appear out of nowhere during the third act. It’s fair to say that neither universe has succeeded in creating  villains as complex or endearing as their heroic counterparts.

One of the main factors contributing to cinematic supervillains inability to make an impact is their lack of motivation. Guardians of the Galaxy’s antagonist Ronan (Lee Pace) hated Xandar and wanted to destroy the planet for reasons never explained; and Thor: The Dark World’s Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) aimed to bring darkness to the Nine Realms, why not? They only exist because the film required a villain for the hero to defeat. The motives of DCs’ CGI villains are even less defined, not extending beyond destroy everything. Even the MCU and DC’s greatest villains, Loki and the Joker (Heath Ledger), had relatively simple motivations; the former’s jealousy of his brother and the latter wanted to prove a point. Petty, but supervillains can’t just write passive aggressive Facebook posts. The ‘Why’ of the antagonist’s villainy doesn’t need layer upon layer of complexity to begin with,it just has to be there.

DC’s TV Arrowverse ( Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow) explores the lives of villains in as much detail as the heroes. Of which the most interesting and well-defined are the villains that act as season long antagonists. Arrow’s first big villain, Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) manipulated events for his own gain, whilst balancing being a father. Deathstroke (Manu Bennett) was fuelled by his want for revenge for the death of the woman he loved. The Flash’s Reverse-Flash (Tom Cavanagh/Matt Letscher) was responsible for the death of Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin), and forced to train his arch-enemy to return to his own time period. Although they are clearly the villains of the heroes story, we are able to understand that they are motivated by more than their own evilness, and that their actions are misdirected.

Likewise the villains of Marvel’s Netflix shows possess a similar complexity, pursuing their own goals, and coming into conflict with the hero as a side effect. Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was the hero of his own story, a man who wanted to save his city, even if he had to incorporate crime into that agenda, in his own eyes he was still a good man. It was Fisk’s criminality that brought him to the attention of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), and his heroic alter ego. The two men are not dissimilar, with events of their childhood shaping who they are; in Matt’s case the loss of his sight and father, and in Fisk’s, the action he took to end the abuse of his mother at his father’s hands. In Jessica Jones, Killgrave’s (David Tennant) obsession with the titular protagonist drives their conflict. Their fates were intertwined when Killgrave physically, mentally, and emotionally  controlled Jessica (Krysten Ritter); until she became the villain’s only victim to build a resistance to his power. Earlier in their lives they were both victims of scientific experimentation, the source of their abilities. Trauma lies at the heart of the

hero and antagonist, their actions and personalities formed by it. Whereas, we see the heroes past propel them to do good, the villains use it as permission to take out their anger on the world.

Of course, not every villain in the Marvel and DC TV universes is a complex or misunderstood figure. For all the endearing villains in the Arrowverse, there’s a throw-away ‘Villain of the Week’. In Marvel’s The Punisher William Rawlins (Paul Schulze) was a typical corrupt government agent, and Iron Fist’s Harold Meachum (David Wenham) an all-too familiar evil businessman. This type of generic villain fails on all levels to provide an engaging threat for the hero, with their defeat never in doubt.

At the very least, in the Marvel and DC TV universes, we get to learn about the villains and the reasons why they chose their path. Cinematic villains, however, all too often remain ciphers solely defined as evil before they meet their inevitable end at the climax of the first and only film they are to appear in. Over time on Marvel and DC TV shows, we not only understand the villains and their motives but also get to see them develop: Wilson Fisk realised he wasn’t a good man, Deathstroke later recognised his vengeance as misguided; Loki is the only cinematic antagonist to show any signs of character growth. Following the model of their TV universes, Marvel and DC could create compelling and driven cinematic supervillains.

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  • David Tennant was the best thing about Jessica Jones season 1. Unfortunately, I think I feel the same about his fleeting appearance in season 2, too.

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