Why We’re All Wrong About Multiple Villains in Films

Bane and Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin

In 2000, we found a new hope for a modern era of superhero and comic book movies with the release of X-Men. The reaction was so strong that the explosion of comic movies was both immediate and long-lasting. Nearly a decade later, we are inundated with high-quality films – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight all breaking barriers as to what a superhero movie can look and feel like.

Then came the sequels. It was shaky ground for a while, and we were all unsure as to whether the bubble would burst, but it didn’t. Some said the sequels were even better than their predecessors. So the bubble kept growing.

Maybe it was hubris. Maybe we just didn’t see it coming, but we should have been more careful about our zealotry once third installments started coming around. Now, we see it all too clearly – the mistakes of the past we’ve been destined to repeat again. And the worst offense, perhaps the sure-fire way to destroy an otherwise brilliant superhero franchise, is having multiple villains for your hero to face.

Two-Face and The Riddler in Batman ForeverIt’s almost universally agreed upon that Multiple Villain Syndrome is a killer. It’s as widely accepted as being a colossally bad idea as Flames on Batman or Nipples on Optimus Prime. Maybe even worse. It weighed down Batman Forever and Batman and Robin back in the day, and even though it wasn’t directly responsible for X-Men 3 biting the big one, it was clear they were scraping the barrel with Kid Omega, Callisto and the barely-there storyline for Angel. The hardest hit, of course, was Spider-Man 3, which was completely hobbled by the presence of not one, not two, but three major villains.

So we all agreed – multiple villains are a death sentence for any film.

Now I understand why that’s wrong, and it has everything to do with The Dark Knight. In fact, my main argument for why Multiple Villain Syndrome can be a great thing is comic books themselves. It’s a different medium, sure, but comic books and graphic novels are constantly creating issues that feature multiple villains fighting a main superhero. “The Long Halloween”, “Batman: Year One” and “Arkham Asylum” are all fantastic graphic novels that feature the caped crusader battling a plethora of super-villains. Granted, they don’t need much in the way of introductions, but perhaps that’s the actual, root flaw of Multiple Villain Syndrome in films. Directors assume we need to know where the villains come from in order to care about them in a deep, meaningful way.

Sandman in Spider-Man 3Of course we need to learn who the villain is, but it’s not necessary (and, in fact, weighs down the story completely) when director’s take fifteen minutes of screen time to take mild-mannered/slightly disgruntled guy and turn him into Super Villain/slightly insane/more disgruntled guy. The Riddler’s origin story took far too long in Batman Forever, Sandman’s story seemed tacked-on and completely ruined the flow of Spider-Man 3, and the horde of villains in X-Men 3 were doomed to having neutered abilities and playing questionable roles in fights (and in the plot).

Now we stand on the verge of yet another third installment possibly being made. The conversation has started again, fans lamenting even the thought that the next Bat-film would strive for a trio of villains, but if any film can do it, it’s this series. If any director can pull it off, it’s Christopher Nolan.

Batman villains lend themselves to living only in the present. Far from simplistic, they are still mostly flat characters that represent evil or chaos or good old-fashioned lunacy. We wouldn’t need to know where Bane comes from to understand he’s a threat or how Mad Hatter went crazy. Penguin is creepy enough without having to know he was an orphan, and Cat Woman – although compelling – doesn’t necessarily need much backstory. In fact, it’s been Nolan’s MO since Batman Begins. Scarecrow is already doing what he does by the time we pick up the story. R’as Al Ghul doesn’t need to tell us his entire childhood to make us understand what he stands for. We didn’t need thirty minutes to see them transform from human to Super Villain to know they were seriously scary threats. The audience didn’t even need to know how Fear Toxin works. We got it. Spray a mist and people hallucinate scary things. Check. We’re on board.

The Joker in The Dark KnightWhen you leave out all the clunky backstories and explanations for how their powers work, the streets of Gotham could be flooded with Freaks in the best way possible. They could even be relegated to the background and sidelines – the fans would have added excitement, and the uninitiated crowd would just chalk it up to more crazies roaming the streets committing violent crime. Present a world flooded with lunatics, and the audience will go along with the chaos. Along the way, Batman could engage in skirmishes with several Super Villains all vying for the glory of removing Batty’s head.

The problem with so many other films is that they try to create meaning for villains even if they are background characters. Audiences end up not caring about the character anyway, and valuable screen time is lost. Screen time that could have been used to blow something up.

So my vote, respectfully submitted, is to see a dozen villains in the next Batman flick (if there is one). Give some of them depth and emotions, display their psychopathology through their actions instead of hefty origin stories, and keep a handful for the background. Picture it: a scene where fire and bullets rain down on the streets of Gotham. Civilians run in terror. Batman punches Bane hard in the chest, and in the background, a lunatic in a bowler hat and cane lobs a bomb into the nearest building. The police attempt to subdue the rabble. It’s unorganized and violent – the villains haven’t teamed up, made no alliances, they just all happen to be living in the same city and taking to the streets. The building explodes and collapses as a feline presence glides off into the distance.

Harvey Dent in The Dark KnightStrip down the backstories and let the crazies crawl out of the woodwork.

Unpredictable Freaks can ravage the city, and Batman can’t be in a dozen places at once. Even if I wasn’t a Bat-fan, even if I’d never heard of these villains, I think I’d catch on pretty quick when a gruesome, avian man-beast in a monocle stabs a bank teller with an umbrella that he’s an insane person bent on doing wrong. Consider them character cameos. Brief glimpses of iconic figures. We wouldn’t even have to know their names. Those who get it, get it. Those that don’t are still terrified.

If The Dark Knight is any indication, and it should be every indication, Christopher Nolan and crew would handle the chaos with incredible skill. I think if they chose to fall prey to Multiple Villain Syndrome in order to up the ante in the next film, they could be the crew that pulls it off, and makes us think differently about the weight of all those bad guys. Showing it as a strength instead of a weakness, it could be the best example of how having way too many evil-doers can be a great thing. As long as they don’t put all the villains in a room together and give them a dehydration gun, I think it could turn out destructively, chaotically well.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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