As box office numbers and ratings rise, and extended universes become even more expansive through film and TV, it’s a good time to be a consumer of any form of mass, commercially driven media. We’ve been able to see some of our biggest fantasies leap from the page on screen—from Batman and Superman locking horns in battle, to Spider-Man whizzing around in the air with Iron Man. The business of maintaining hype for these properties has brought in big bucks—there's no doubt about that. But something under the surface should be bothering us all: the villains suck. All of them.
We are far removed from movie and TV villains who reach the despicable or charismatic qualities of, say, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman (1989). This year alone, we’ve seen more antagonists written with paper-thin characterization and even more murky motivations than ever. Superhero movies have gotten it the worst. Suicide Squad’s Enchantress (played by Cara Delevigne) just existed to do weird dance moves in front of a green screen, and the same goes for Doctor Strange, where Mads Mikkelsen was wasted with expository dialogue that was secondary to more CGI effects flying at your face. Even more “thoughtful” characters like Baron Zemo from Civil War were bogged down with overwrought plots that barely made sense, all to bring the titular characters to blows. Zemo’s Rune Goldberg-esque plot was as elementary (read: dumb) as they come—requiring the heroes to act like idiots and somehow fall into impossibly planned out coincidences that they probably would have seen coming within the first act. Bombing a building while impersonating a wanted assassin and not getting caught? Yeah, that’s a little too farfetched, even in a movie with costumed men and women punching each other.
While TV shows like Westworld gave us thoughtful, conniving baddies like The Man In Black, there's been more bad than good. The Walking Dead has all but fumbled fan favorite Negan, saddling Jeffrey Dean Morgan with lots of cuss words and the promise of bloodshed, but not much else. In the short time he’s been onscreen this season after the ridiculous season premiere, he hasn’t been a force of nature but a plot contrivance to remind us of the flimsy #stakes the show is balancing on. In reality, all he does is kill characters that we hated (bye, Spencer) or serve as a catalyst to kill characters that we don’t care about anyway.
These movies and TV shows are being written to sell people on heroes and heroines first—and the villains fall by the wayside. It’s bad to keep using Heath Ledger’s Joker as a proper example of how a villain was done “right,” but far too often are we are given the edgelord badass anarchist who doesn’t give a shit about anyone, or we’ll get a crummy C-level hero that writers can’t wait to kill (Rohan the Accuser, anyone?). Do a cursory glance of any villain in a Marvel movie that hasn’t been killed at the end of their respective movie, and you’ll be left with just under ten (Hi, Loki!). But as the roster of available superheroes, survivors, and warriors on TV and film bloats to an incredible level, creating a nuanced universe of equally interesting villains is an immediate necessity. I mean, you can’t have Thanos sitting in a chair or Negan killing redshirts forever, right?
There are no stakes in these shows and movies, and going into a new year of adapted media into television and movies, the lack of memorable bad guys has the potential to stifle any excitement that die-hards have for upcoming properties. Using The Walking Dead as an example again, they’ve belabored the need for compelling antagonists by killing beloved characters, completely missing the point of what makes a storyline good. Building a fortress of immediately recognizable or underrated characters is easy, keeping them interesting is much harder.
Just as important, these movies and shows seem to hide their antagonists. Properties like Star Wars revel in their rich history of go-to villains. Most recently, Rogue One built a sense of dread when Darth Vader appears, and managed to give viewers an interesting peek into the power struggle and machinations behind the Imperial army from the ground level. In an Iron Man or Thor movie though, at best, the audience gets a ham-fisted origin story that barely weaves in and out of the central premise to pad out a season or sell some more toys. As much as people hated Jared Leto’s portrayal of Joker in Suicide Squad, he was at least given the respect to be written as a real fearsome threat—something that we barely see when it's an actual supernatural being that protagonists have to defeat.
There’s a level of dissonance between what the audience wants to see, and what companies want to sell. It’s completely understandable that these products are vehicles to drive more money, or rather, a means to an end. But if the overall quality of storytelling is going to suffer, I’m not sure I want to be on this train anymore. Heroes can’t always fly away with minimal losses, staring at the burning carcass of their enemy. They have to go through real loss, and we deserve to have a legitimate reason to feel for them. Villains don’t always have to be mustache-twirling badniks, or tragic foils—but in 2016, they haven't even felt like they matter in the grand scheme of things, which is one of the saddest developments of the year.