The Villain Problem is a Retcon Problem

You’ve got to plan for success.
By  · Published on November 17th, 2017

You’ve got to plan for success.

The superhero movie genre has hit some highs (and lows) recently, but in one regard it still runs into a more-or-less universal stumbling block. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the Villain Problem. Back in 2008, Heath Ledger’s Joker took the potential for comic book movie villainy to new, Oscar-winning heights, and it’s been rough sailing ever since. Sure, there have been some better ones, and even some genuinely good ones, but most have been total duds. Which begs the question—why? How have so many talented filmmakers and accomplished actors managed to leave behind a string of yawn-inducing antagonists?

Let’s try looking at the data. Since that banner year of 2008, which also launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it with Iron Man, a grand total of 40 live-action films based on Marvel and DC comics have been released, which gives us a pretty sizable data pool to work with.

Some villain-related issues and trends have already been discussed. Here on FSR, I’ve already gone over how motive is the name of the villain game, just like for any other character, and that the standard power-driven rule/destroy the city/world/galaxy/(adjust blast radius to taste) plot faces two pretty significant problems. First, when there are multiple future films on the release slate assumedly set on Earth (and probably the U.S., because Hollywood is like that), you know the planet isn’t going anywhere. Second, if super-villains cut from this cookie cutter were somewhat uninspired, to begin with, the fact that they show up at least a couple times a year is only making them more and more unpalatable. But a lack of originality isn’t the only reason why movie supervillains have been so consistently underwhelming.

Remember this guy?

Motive, with a few exceptions—some of which work and some of which do not—requires backstory, and as the MCU and the DCEU keep soldiering on, villain backstories are becoming more and more dependent on retroactive continuity, or retcon. In simplest terms, retcon is the introduction of new information regarding previously described or especially, in the case of movies, previously depicted events. It’s not that it can’t be done well—there are definitely occasions when it has—but even when it is done well it doesn’t exactly work.

Let’s imagine hypothetical villain X, who shows up in the third installment of a film series. There is no reference or mention or allusion to the existence of X in installments one and two, but as his backstory in three tells us, villain X has absolutely definitely been there the whole time. Maybe it will just be explained in a speech, or maybe the film will go the extra mile and re-enact certain events from one and two, showing how X fits into the mix. But unless there was some nugget of information—some odd little detail, some suggestive hint—buried in film one and/or two for the filmmakers of 3 to tie their backstory to, the post hoc nature of the narrative they are spinning rings through loud and clear.

Of course, we’re dealing with huge-budget PG-13 mass-marketed Hollywood fare, not the ninth episode of a Game of Thrones season, so as a general rule we know that our villain is screwed and the good guys—the main ones at least—will be fine. They might be pretty dinged up and few city blocks might be totaled, but they are going to end the film by walking off into the sunset to go eat shawarma or something along those lines. On some level, we know this. However, ideally a supervillain should be compelling enough that we can kind of forget we know this for at least a little while.

The issue when a villain needs to be completely retconned into a narrative is that their status as a monster of the week becomes just that much more obvious and difficult to ignore. They are so clearly sketched on top of the narrative as opposed to actually being properly embedded in it, of course, they will be erased from it with ease.

How about this dude?

Looking back at some of the worst supervillains of recent years, the vast majority of them involve some serious retcon. Malekith the Accursed in Thor: The Dark World. Whatever names the villains of Iron Man 3 actually were since the Mandarin was a total fake-out. Oscar Isaac under five billion pounds of makeup in X-Men: Apocalypse. Between The Dark World, Apocalypse, and Justice League, can we please all just agree that the whole “by the way there’s this ancient evil we hid/buried/thought we destroyed so long ago that we never even thought to mention it, whoops, it’s awake now,” is just a bad idea.

I’m not saying you can’t have an ancient evil demon/elf/god as a supervillain—I mean that’s basically Sauron to a degree and that is some pretty Grade A villainy right there—I’m just saying you can’t retcon it. Superhero movies alone have tried it no less than three times in the past five years and each one has been somehow even worse than the last.

But if I’ve actually got a point here, the trend has to work both ways. It does. Let’s think of the great cinematic supervillains of the past fifteen/twenty years: Magneto. Heath Ledger’s Joker. Loki.

Magneto and Loki are both introduced right off the bat, alongside the heroes, while the Joker is set up blow our minds in The Dark Knight by leaving his calling card at the end of Batman Begins.

Setting up a villain: kid Thor and kid Loki

When movie series and franchises actually take the time and effort to lay the groundwork for a villain—even with something as simple as leaving a calling card—it pays off. When you set the groundwork for a villain before they show up, it sends the message that they matter. That they are part of the bigger picture as opposed to an afterthought, and that they truly have the potential to inflict some serious damage.

To illustrate this, let’s take a look at a villain we’ve barely even met.

How do we know Thanos is a big deal?

“The comics,” you might say. Well, a moment of truth, I haven’t read those. Then you might fairly list the various maybe-spoilers and fan theories floating around or the fact that Infinity War will be not one but two films meaning that Thanos is serious business and at least one of our major heroes is toast. (As the MCU currently has two Stevens, two Peters, and two Jameses who don’t go by James, my money’s on at least one of the doubles getting knocked off—and Vision. I mean, Thanos needs the glowing stone in the dude’s head in order to level up, right?)

But say none of those existed. Say we only had the MCU movies themselves—no comics, no commentary, no set rumors. We would still know Thanos is a really big deal because they’ve been setting up him and the Infinity Stones in ways evident even to someone who has never read a comic since The Avengers—and in slightly less obvious ways even before. By the time Thanos finally does emerge as the Avengers’ primary antagonist next year, that will be over six years of painstaking setup. You don’t do six years of setup for a flash in the pan.

Six years of setup is not necessary. It is arguably even somewhat excessive, but that is another argument for another day. The point is that in order to get better villains we need some degree of setup. And in the world of comic book movies, that’s actually somewhat easier than it would be otherwise because villains aren’t being pulled from thin air, they’re being selected from a pre-existing pool of characters. Every villain does not need to be planned for in the larger narrative the painstaking way Thanos has been. It could be as simple as scattering more villain-related Easter eggs throughout the films—a cutaway shot here, a seeming throwaway line there, a large mural of an epic battle against some ancient evil in the background (maybe they want to try it a fourth time, but, you know, better). It wouldn’t involve any binding contracts or narrative deviations, but it gives future installments something to work with if they so choose, an opportunity to go “hey, remember this?” instead of having to play the “hey, there’s this person who is totally 100% a big deal and serious threat although you’ve never ever heard of them before” game. It wouldn’t entirely remove the need for retcon, but it would give creators a thread to which they could actually tie villain backstories—an existing foundation to properly build on, even if it’s no bigger than a calling card.

‘Batman Begins’ setting the stage for ‘The Dark Knight’

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.