'The Dark Knight' Broke Superhero Movie Villains

The superhero flick antagonist really hasn't been the same, if you think about it.

Opening Credits Joker

The superhero flick antagonist really hasn’t been the same, if you think about it.

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Here’s a new working theory to start your Tuesday. We have not seen, nor are we likely to see the kind of villainy portrayed by Heath Ledger’s The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight again, full stop. This is something to which I often return — just about any time a new superhero film is released into the world. It’s not hard to see why Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as Batman’s most iconic foe was so masterfully realized. What is hard to see, however, is who (if anyone) has picked up the mantle of “Ultimate Antagonist” and run roughshod through some superhero’s big coming out party. The answer is that very few have even come close. So much so that we’re caught in a loop of discussion around the various “villain problems” of the numerous cinematic universes populated by super-men and super-women.

It’s a debate reignited once again with Wonder Woman, a splendid offering to the gods of tentpole cinema. Its hero is a towering figure of hope, delivered with sincerity, grace, and wit. Critics appear to love it, audiences have responded well, and we’re all ready for Patty Jenkins to continue making any and all superhero movies as she desires (some of us hope she chooses Superman). But even a film so splendid as Wonder Woman can have a villain problem. It has three baddies, none of whom quite move the needle in the categories of imposition or memorability. It’s frustrating, especially as one of her villains exists as a divine counter-weight to her goodness. Over the course of her two and a half hour adventure, it’s easy for Wonder Woman’s conflict with Ares, the God of War, to feel slight, as it’s always hovering in the background. A myth that comes to life all-too-quickly in the film’s perfunctory final CGI blow-out.

This frustration doesn’t mean I don’t still love Wonder Woman. I do. But it’s evidence of a certain numbness to lackluster antagonists. In the years since Ledger’s Joker became the personification of chaos in The Dark Knight, we’ve been treated to several dozen more superhero films and not one of them has delivered a villain worthy of the moniker. There have been a few highlights, but even those have been carved out of one of three basic templates:

1. The Amebas World Killer: This applies to any villain that is personified by a giant entity coming to swallow us all. Because every superhero film these days must threaten the entire world, there must be some sort of living planet or army of nondescript aliens who descend upon Earth and threaten at least 3-square blocks of its people. This is often delivered in the form of a giant CGI glob — see Doomsday in Batman v Superman, Ultron’s army in Age of Ultron, or 47-pound of make-up and 67-tons of swirling dust on and around Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse.

2. The Hyper-Committed: This is where you take an often-brilliant actor and allow them to take the entire situation far too seriously. Performances like Michael Shannon in Man of Steel, Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy, or Mads Mikkelson in Doctor Strange come to mind. Kevin Bacon in X-Men: First Class is another fine example. They can be menacing, but they’re doing Shakespeare while the rest of the film is often doing Looney Tunes. It creates a vacuum of joylessness and more times than not, an imbalance in the film’s tone. Not to say that I don’t enjoy watching them go to town on some cosmic jargon. I do. They just never seem real.

3. 12-Pounds of Christmas Ham: Where there is a Hyper-Committed element of the force, there is also the Hyper-Aware. These performers — again, often of an elite quality thanks to putting your fandom tax dollars to work — appear to be aware that this is all very silly. They are content to ham it up all the way. This often manifests in sublimely self-aware performances such as Tom Hiddleston as Loki, but can also include the less intentional humor of Tom Hardy as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. A new personal favorite is Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Get out there and do your thing, I say.

Despite finding either joy or a sense of existential dread in these many villains, it’s almost impossible to find both. The fun ones aren’t particularly threatening, while the threatening ones are so much less fun. And many are amorphous, interchangeable blobs of third-act excess. The Dark Knight‘s antagonist, a combination of story construction, performance, and execution, is the last great example of getting you a villain who can do both. It’s the great challenge of superhero films of the future. Giving us a towering, gleaming heroic beam of light appears to be somewhat easy. Punching them in the face with a villain worthy of equal standing is another task, entirely.

Today in Pop Culture History

On this day in 1998, Sex in the City premiered on HBO. The plot of the pilot involved Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) deciding to “have sex like men, without feelings.”

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Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Con Air. It was, for some, the beginning of Nicolas Cage’s era of being NICOLAS CAGE!

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According to author Brian K. Vaughan, there’s a “phenomenal draft” of a Y: The Last Man pilot by Michael Green for the slowly gestating FX series based on Vaughan’s graphic novel series. We’re told to stay tuned.

Amazon has picked up the rights to Linda and Monica, a film about the relationship between Monica Lewinski and Linda Tripp based on a 2016 Black List script from Flint Wainess. Start your fan casting engines!


Our latest crop of interns started this week, which means all kinds of lovely new faces in the bylines of FSR. Here’s Sheryl Oh on why Sense8 deserved more time from Netflix and Jasmine Ballew on what to expect from Wonder Woman 2.

Orphan Black is about to begin its final season, which makes yours truly very sad. Sadder still is this Orphan Black season five death panic index by our Jacob Oller, because Clone Club is in a great deal of danger at the moment. Consider me sufficiently panicked.

A new video essay works to undo the male gaze in cinema. Personally, I’m more for a balance of the various gendered gazes, myself.

Shot of the Day

20-years later and he still won’t put the bunny back in the box.



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