So I was wondering what I could rant about for my next blog entry when I was subjected to numerous viewings of the latest Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailers. This actually sparked two subjects in my mind, but since I was recently thinking about what makes a good villain, I realized I forgot (or need to expound on) one criterion – credible threat.
Actually, this criterion is broader than just the superhero genre. If the obstacle or antagonist standing between the protagonist and his/her goals is not credible, then the drama falls flat. I say “obstacle” because in some stories is no antagonist or the nature of the antagonist isn’t as clear as a villain as such but the principle still applies. A couple of those examples:
1) Romantic Comedy – Gal and Guy want to get married. Antagonists are Gal’s Evil Rival who wants to marry Guy herself and Guy’s Dudebro Buddy who wants to keep Guy single. If Evil Rival has no redeeming qualities (i.e., there’s no reason for Guy to even begin to be interested in her over Gal), then Evil Rival is not a credible threat. Likewise, if there is no reason for Guy to listen to Dudebro Buddy (i.e., there’s no longstanding friendship or tight bond), then Dudebro Buddy is not a credible threat either.
2) People vs. Nature – Gal/Guy/Group either sets out on a dangerous journey or ends up in a dangerous situation. The goal is of course survival, but if it turns out Gal/Guy/Group is lost in a city park, that’s not a credible threat.
In other genres the principle is a little more obvious (in horror, the stereotypical collection of attractive young people vs a monster, etc.). I’d like to note here that the story itself may not be aware that the obstacle/antagonist presented is not in fact a credible threat. That judgment is made by the audience, which brings me neatly around to the point of this essay. I’m going to focus on the superhero genre because of the aforementioned trailer.
I’ve said before that a superhero is only as good as the supervillain. One of the reasons a villain may fall flat is because the villain doesn’t come across as a credible threat to the hero. Superhero movies struggle with this. But on the surface, this seems like it should be a non-issue. Just match the superhero, right? If the superhero has the Brick power set, then the villain should be a Flying Brick. If the superhero is a supergenius, then the villain should be a hyper-supergenius. Of course it’s not so simple. Especially in the medium of a comic book, having nothing but two people beat each other up for 20+ pages is not going to hold the attention of the reader for multiple issues no matter how well drawn. Such a match would work better in the visual medium of a movie but again big brawls are of limited interest the audience (probably). Genius versus evil genius works great in the comic book medium (provided the writer/s is/are good) but doesn’t translate well to the big screen (or, at least, is not easy to do well). For example, in the big-budget “Sherlock Holmes” movies, the creative team replaced detection with action movie tropes that really didn’t make any sense for the character because showing an engaging mystery and battle of brains is hard to do.
Generally in comic books the heroes and villains are opposite in terms of strengths. If the hero is brawny, the villain is brainy (i.e., the Hulk versus the Leader). If the hero is brainy, the villain is brawny. This makes the stories more interesting, but can make it more difficult for a villain to be a credible threat. Let’s look at two cinematic corporate villains – Lex Luthor and Norman Osborn. Lex’s archenemy is of course Superman and Norman’s is Spider-man. How do these two pose a credible threat to their archenemies?
a) Lex Luthor – on paper, Lex should lose every time. He has no superpowers except all the money (although that’s a pretty good one). Superman is, well, Superman. Lex is a credible threat because he has the money and technological know-how to compensate (more or less) for his lack of superpowers when he brawls with Superman. He also uses his genius and political and financial know-how to scheme in a way that’s extremely difficult to thwart because everything is done in smoky rooms or back alleys. Superman is a physical paragon and he’s got a good brain, but a detective he is not. Lex is a credible threat to Superman because he poses problems that Superman can’t just punch his way out of.
b) Norman Osborn – on paper, Norman is a bit more evenly matched physically with Spider-man thanks to his alter ego of the Green Goblin (and depending on which writers at which time, more than a match physically). But the Green Goblin owes his existence to Norman’s superpower of all the money. What really makes the Green Goblin a credible threat to Spider-man is that he knows his secret identity. That has caused more trouble for Spider-man than any pumpkin bomb.
However, this doesn’t mean various interpretations have quite come across as a credible threat. Norman Osborn in the first “Spider-man” was definitely a threat. Unfortunately, since then, most corporate CEO villains have come across to me as little more than knock-off Norman Osborns (even the one in Amazing Spider-man 2). The first two Fox “Fantastic Four” movies failed for just this reason. Sure, in that movie “Doom” did manage to separate and individually defeat each member. However, he had no greater plan or scheme. He wasn’t credible as a threat because there were no other stakes. The FF just had to get their act together and defeat him. They didn’t have to stop a Kree nega-bomb or prevent the Annihilation Wave.
“But wait,” I pretend to hear you say, “the narrative convention in superhero movies is that the heroes win. How can any villain be a credible threat?” Well, that’s a good question. Whether or not the villain is a credible threat doesn’t play into the ending of the movie in this genre. However, the audience should still be emotionally invested in the story even if they know good will triumph over evil. So in the case of “Doom” (this is true in the Fox reboot of their own franchise), I never had any doubt the FF just needed to pull together to win. But “Doom” in the first two, as I said, was clearly just a plot point to bring the team together, not a real threat. “Doom” in the reboot was meant to be a threat to the world, but the high-stakes finale was so at odds with the evil government superhuman assassination program plot of the rest of the movie “Doom” was reduced to just another obstacle.
So how does this tie into the trailers I cannot escape right now? Well, the more I see of this interpretation of Lex Luthor, the less credible a villain he becomes. I know, you can’t always judge a movie by its trailer, but the trailers make Lex look like a twerp. I don’t believe this is the actor’s fault since his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg was a more credible supervillain than Lex Luthor right now. I liked practically nothing about Man of Steel, but I will say that movie did establish General Zod as a credible threat to Superman.
I could be wrong. This could be a fiendish new take on Lex Luthor that will redefine how corporate villains are portrayed in movies. But I’m not going to hold my breath.