Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is out and with more superhero movies (Wonder Woman, Thor, Justice League, Spider-Man) to hit theaters in 2017 it’s the perfect time to answer the question, what is the best performance, portrayal, character realization of the superhero villain in a film?
When I was a kid there wasn’t much in the way of superhero movies. The closest thing was the Adam West sixties Batman TV series. It had outlandish villains who were completely over the top and cartoony. I ate it up. Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Vincent Price, Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar were awesome. Who doesn’t love a great villain? Finally, in 1978 Superman: The Movie hit the theaters and Gene Hackman played Lex Luthor and the modern comic book villain in film emerged. We have had some great ones and some real duds, sorry Arnold and Tommy Lee. In some of today’s comic book mash-ups (i.e. Suicide Squad, The Avengers, and possibly Justice League) we have had some nondescript villains with hordes of alien invaders: boring – we need compelling villains!
General Zod (Terence Stamp) Superman II – 1981
“I win. I always win. Is there no one on this planet to even challenge me?”
When I saw Superman II as a kid, I was blown away, it was awesome, Superman fighting three villains of equal strength (General Zod, Ursa, and Non). It was campy and fun. Looking back on it now it doesn’t hold up as well, but its still fun and I do enjoy it even among today’s slick and sometimes seriously dark superhero movies. It may still be the best Superman film and it’s partly due to the villain. Terence Stamp’s General Zod is the ancestor of the modern comic book villain and he kicked it off strong. He plays Zod as a serious bad-ass, so although the movie has camp it’s mostly not with Zod. He is confident, arrogant, ruthless with a giant ego and he conquers earth. His demand to the U.S. president to have his Superman come and “kneel before Zod” is iconic. He wants total subjugation. They have a memorable first battle in Metropolis where Zod who is clearly the smartest of the three learns that Superman cares about people and uses it to his advantage effectively. In the climax at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman tricks Zod into losing his powers and Superman crushes his hand before throwing him into a crevice. Zod’s face when he realizes that he has been tricked is priceless. Terence Stamp is great and brings his classically trained style and menace to Zod. Every time he speaks it’s powerful and scary. I still sometimes say Zod to someone saying “oh God” almost 40 years later. It’s a very simple characterization, he wants to rule the planet and then get revenge on the son of his jailer – no other motivation needed. When I heard that there would be a General Zod in The Man of Steel and I saw the preview with Michael Shannon yelling “I will find him”, I had goose bumps but as good an actor as Shannon is, it was just not as good as Stamp’s.
Bonus: In 2001 Stamp turned from playing Superman’s best onscreen foe to playing the voice of Superman’s father Jor-El in TV’s Smallville. If you want to see a really good Terence Stamp performance check out The Limey.
MG: Nice reference on The Limey, by the way. Other than Star Wars films, I think Superman II was one of the first films I saw twice in the theater. I loved it, and it was awesome seeing Superman go up against villains he couldn’t defeat in battle. Zod was a great villain, and a good contrast to the snarky/jokey Lex Luthor. Yes, it’s dated, but I’ll take the camp over the heavy handed treatment of this story-line in Man Of Steel.
The Joker (Jack Nicholson) Batman- 1989
“Tell me something, my friend. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
By 1989 there had been zero credible superhero films since Superman II. I don’t count the last two horrific Superman films and the atrocity of Supergirl (but Helen Slater). Then Tim Burton made Batman. Now able to drive myself to the movies, I saw Batman twice, which for me then was a big deal, it joined a club with Die Hard and in 1990, Total Recall. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was campier than Stamp’s Zod. Nicholson went full on over the top but he still played the part as a cold killer. Once he turns into the Joker, Nicholson’s every word is to be heard, he is funny and evil. He is not as goofy and harmless as Cesar Romero but less psychopathic than Heath Ledger. Despite Ledger’s Oscar nomination, this is still the definitive Joker for me. Whereas Ledger’s appears to just be crazy, Nicholson’s has a motivation: crime, he wants money. I know this may be blasphemy but I was just not a fan of The Dark Knight, it’s my least favorite of Nolan’s and I love Batman Begins. Nicholson is playing against type and he pulls it off. The character is totally quotable and my friends and I will still blurt out “Mirror!” or “Never rub another man’s rhubarb!” This movie and his portrayal were the springboards for other studios to start to think about how they could bring these comic book characters to life in a way that was believable and fun.
Bonus: Tim Curry, David Bowie, John Lithgow and James Woods were all candidates for the Joker and Robin Williams actually campaigned for it. Burton made the right choice with Jack.
MG: Nicholson was over-the-top, but he also imbued the character with palpable menace. Practically every one of his lines is quotable: “This town needs an enema!”, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”. This iteration of the Joker is a perfect combination of writing, acting, directing, costume design, cool weapons/gadgets, clear motivation and match-up with the hero. It’s too bad the Batman franchise went off the cliff after this, until Nolan successfully resurrected it.
Loki (Thomas Hiddleston) Thor- 2011
“What, because I… I… I am the monster parents tell their children about at night”
Of the three of my choices, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the only one to have appeared in several films and more are coming (and yes, I know Terrance Stamp was briefly in Superman). Why is this? Is he critical to the overarching Marvel stories? No, not really. It’s simply because he is a fantastic villain and Hiddleston is great as the mercurial trickster. The audience wants more of this character. Loki is the adopted son of Odin and brother of Thor. He is witty, insecure, and extremely jealous of his stronger, higher regarded brother and thus his villainous motivation. He wants to destroy Thor and become his father’s favorite and heir to the throne of Asgard. Marvel keeps finding ways to bring him back, first in The Avengers, again playing the antagonist, and then working together with Thor in The Dark World. Hiddleston uses his classically trained British charm to make Loki a likable yet scheming villain. Why do the Brits make such good villains? The character is well-formed balancing pure evil with what good Loki may still possess. Loki can also be funny, he is not the psychotic killer of my other two choices but he doesn’t care for people at all, especially outside of his kind. To top it off he has a great look, something out of a prog rock band of the 70’s circa Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. When I watch The Avengers, Loki is really the most interesting character and the only thing at this point keeping my interest.
Bonus: Hiddleston actually was gunning for the part of Thor, he had added weight and gotten into a Thor-like shape before director Kenneth Branagh thought he made a more perfect Loki.
MG: I was highly entertained by The Avengers when I first saw it theatrically, but you are right, Loki is really the only compelling part of that film now. Even though I’m still murky on his motivation in that film, Hiddleston made it work. Villains are often more interesting than the good guys in comic book films, but Thor is a particularly bland hero, so thank gods for Loki.
Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) Superman: The Movie – 1978
Marvel may lord over the box office right now, but DC Comics always had better villains. Lex Luthor is the OG of the comic book villain, and Gene Hackman’s version set the standard. I love that Luthor has no powers whatsoever, he’s just a criminal mastermind, perhaps “The” criminal mastermind of all time. When the comic for Superman came out in 1939, having Luthor as an adversary was probably a not-so-subtle allegory for science challenging brute force, or something along those lines. Anyway, Hackman’s creation of this character in the film was perfect – brimming with confidence, always one step ahead of the good guys, and he enjoyed it. I like brooding, dark villains when it’s done well, but sometimes you just want the guys to lighten up a bit. What’s the point of being evil if you can’t have some fun? What’s also great about Luthor in this film, is that he has a plan that you can understand and see how it will gain him power/money. He just wanted to cash in on the beachfront real estate, at the expense of a few million Californians that were in the way. It seems like the villains of recent years just want to destroy the world or even the whole universe, and it’s often with some vortex in the sky that spins and sucks up random things. My message to screenwriters out there – c’mon, we can do better than that. Tone it down a bit, give the villain a (relatively) modest goal with a realistic plan that the audience can understand.
Bonus: It’s widely known that Hackman refused to shave his head for the role, and consented to a bald cap for the one prison scene. He also put up a fuss about shaving off his mustache, which director Richard Donner finally coerced him into doing.
DJ: Gene Hackman is a national treasure, and its too bad that he retired. He hams it up good here and is best in the one, by the fourth he is just picking up a pay check. Like my Stamp to Zod, Hackman is still the definitive Luther. Kevin Spacey who is fantastic plays Luther as a ridiculous caricature, a combo of Hackman and a cartoon. And don’t get me started on Jesse Eisenberg.
Bane (Tom Hardy) The Dark Knight Rises – 2012
People may debate about Hardy’s mumbling in this film, but no one can argue that this iteration of Bane is a million times better than the mute WWE version of Bane in the atrocious Batman and Robin. Tom Hardy’s Bane is one of the few onscreen comic book villains that really feels physically scary. Obviously, there was a lot of pumping iron, skinless chicken breasts and protein shakes to get his body into shape, but that physical menace goes beyond muscles and comes from his imposing movements and his raw fighting style. The fist fights between Batman and Bane are almost tough to watch, and you totally buy-in that Batman has finally met his physical match. The fight choreography and editing of these scenes are excellent – finally, you can see what is happening and it’s not just a bunch of quick cuts and wire work. In addition, Bane has his pre-Trump populist message of giving power back to the people, so long oppressed by the lying “elites” of society (Bane/Al-Ghul for president in 2020). Finally, in the last act, we get a humanizing of the brute, as we discover the horrors of his childhood being raised in a prison, and his allegiance to the real mastermind behind the elaborate plot to destroy Gotham, Talia Al-Ghul. (oops, spoiler alert).
Bonus: Hardy, at 5′ 9″ wore 3″ lifts to appear as tall as Christian Bale in their scenes together.
DJ: As I mentioned before my least favorite Nolan Batman was The Dark Knight but I was a big fan of The Dark Knight Rises and it was in part to Bane. What a great version. Tom Hardy was menacing and scary. He seemed to be a more realistic psychopath than a Joker, Riddler, etc…
Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) Spider-Man – 2002
It’s interesting how the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire iteration of Spider-Man is now often derided and written off, mostly due to the atrocity of the 3rd film. However, at the time of its release in 2002, Spider-Man was widely well-received by audiences and critics alike, and it was credited with revitalizing the genre, especially after the notorious flame-out of the Batman franchise in 1997. In the Marvel universe, Spider-Man definitely has the best cast of villains, and most of them, like Green Goblin, share the split identity element of the hero. In this film, that duality is more of a split personality, as the super soldier serum developed by his company Oscorp is what causes Defoe’s ambitious businessman to switch between Norman (normal?) and the insane Green Goblin. This insanity infuses this villain with a far less methodical approach to plotting mayhem, although he does try to lure Spider-Man into a partnership to rule the city. The mask, suit, and glider are all well-designed and given a semi-believable origin as prototype military hardware. The climactic one-on-one battle between Spider-Man and Goblin is still one of the best in the genre, as they seem evenly matched and we get to see them use their various abilities to try and gain an edge, including the Goblin using his famous pumpkin bombs. Too many recent CGI-heavy superhero battles are just two people pummeling each other and/or throwing each other around through walls and buildings. Constructing a complex battle around the abilities/weaknesses of both the hero and the villain makes these confrontations far more interesting, even if we already know who is going to win.
Bonus: Bill Paxton was close to being cast as Norman/Green Goblin until a few meetings convinced Sam Raimi that Defoe was right for the role. Defoe also did 90% of his own stunts.
DJ: I love Willem Dafoe but I think the best Spidey villain was Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus in part 2. I guess for me I didn’t like the suit, the Green Goblin for me was always the comics and cartoon versions and didn’t have an armored suit. I know a believable comics version is tough but it just didn’t look right to me. It wasn’t terrible and at least it wasn’t Jamie Foxx’s Electro.