Attention, cinematic universes: you still need more than Hollywood’s elite to make your villains to work.
Jessica Chastain is currently in talks to star in one of the next installments of Fox’s X-Men franchise, Dark Phoenix. She is reportedly up for the role of Lilandra, the leader of the alien empire Shi’ar. Simon Kinberg will be making his directorial debut after having penned and co-written three X-Men films in the past. Original cast members Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), James McAvoy (Professor X), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Alexandra Shipp (Storm), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightcrawler) are set to reprise their roles.
The announcement of Lilandra’s supposed villainy has already come under scrutiny, given the nature of her comic counterpart. But superhero adaptations take creative license with characters all the time. If Chastain is in fact up for playing a baddie, she would join the likes of Guy Pearce (The Mandarin), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Michael Shannon (Zod), and a league of acting greats who’ve played supervillains in the last decade.
Admittedly, the prospect of the film industry’s elite boarding tentpole films can be rather exciting. We’re talking about actors who rarely ever make blockbusters rather than those who regularly pepper them throughout their career a la Ian McKellen. There are big shoes to fill when playing a villain, especially if you only have one go at it, and these actors are brilliant enough to make lackluster lines work.
We live in a post-Dark Knight society. Heath Ledger set the bar ridiculously high with his version of The Joker. That landmark performance alongside the success of Marvel’s Phase One created a shift in how superhero movies began to be perceived.
While comic book adaptations still tick designated boxes, the ones that are really successful bank on being “smart” or at least endearingly witty. It’s an opportunity for actors to tackle character-driven stories while reaping the benefits of dizzying box office numbers and merchandising. Movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier are praised for deftly combining strong character arcs with politically conscious narratives, and doing so without losing heart.
Surprisingly, though, the bulk of superhero movies don’t actually have terribly memorable villains. This is despite the fact that there is a market for them within the industry. It’s no secret that actors relish in playing the bad guys, no matter the genre. It’s an even bigger opportunity for an actress to take a wicked turn. How often are supervillainesses even a thing? Suicide Squad certainly tried last year with Harley Quinn, Enchantress, and Amanda Waller. But the film’s collective failures overshadow any potential those characters offered. Cate Blanchett’s Hela will appear in Thor: Ragnarok at the end of this year, but generally these roles are scarce for women, in number as well as quality.
Many existing superhero foes are such filler characters that it’s almost a waste to cast such good people to play them.
In the era of multiple origin stories, it just makes already repetitive character tropes even more generic. They are saved from being labeled “tiresome” by sheer virtue of superheroes themselves. It is vastly important to ensure a protagonist is well-rounded. Leads have to come across as relatable people with dimensions and conflicts if we’re going to empathize with them. But who are they – as super-powered individuals – without their similarly gifted foes? What does it really mean when you already know who will come out a winner in a superhero movie?
There are ways around these questions. For instance, in The Winter Soldier, the S.H.I.E.L.D.-is-HYDRA reveal is rapturous. It makes the audience question their values as much as the characters’, as S.H.I.E.L.D. had been fighting the good fight. The stakes are highest when established bastions of justice crumble because they are usually unflinchingly trustworthy in these stories. Here, the dichotomy of good and evil is permanently disrupted. Redford not being typically menacing or even present in the film is actually forgivable — even warranted — because what Steve Rogers/the audience is really fighting is the establishment that built him/us.
But then there are films like Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, and X-Men: Apocalypse with perfunctory villains at best. To get talent like Christopher Eccleston, Mads Mikkelsen, and Oscar Isaac then squander it by having them stand around caked in makeup and effects is actually a travesty.
These filler films happen far more often for typical financial reasons. Superhero universes are so saturated in moviegoers’ consciousness that it takes little to get people in theater seats. Although such movies can still be enjoyable, the void left by unthreatening, inconsequential villains is glaringly noticeable.
It’s practically a knee-jerk reaction to compare any 21st century supervillain to Ledger’s Joker. Batman is proven to be monstrous throughout The Dark Knight and The Joker is his perfect match. His brand of recklessness and anarchy is frightening in its constant unpredictability as Batman tries to keep it together. It isn’t a twist at the end that gets to us but the feeling of inevitable dread that never actually relents. That’s the power of that villain, and what makes him so iconic to this day.
So, we cannot look at any supervillain casting murmur without apprehension. Studios aren’t prioritizing formidable foes, and many villains simply do not live up to the hype of their performers. Jessica Chastain is delightful when she’s diabolical (see Crimson Peak). It would be excellent to see her do it again. But it should at least be worth her time.