There is a worrying trend, in modern film and television, to skive off creating in a substantially threatening villain.
More often than not, villains are written as secondary characters rather than one on equal fitting with the hero. As a result, the central conflict between the warring forces falls on deaf ears and appears wholeheartedly numb. The problem? The worrying trend of defensive comedy that undermines the villain.
Writers are afraid to create villains that terrify, frighten or take attention away from the hero. They want the focus to be on the protagonist. When the hero is larger than life and engaging, the villain problem doesn’t seem that severe. But when the villain needs to be a major player, the blemishes become scars that have no intention of ever healing.
To best illustrate this point, we must take examples from popular media, both on the big screen and the small screen. Some studios and productions will pop up more than once highlighting a huge issue within that particular conveyor belt. But make no mistake … this is not an isolated problem.
Let’s take Pirates of the Caribbean for instance. It is true that this Disney-backed production has a weird and kooky tone throughout, from hero to villain. But does it need to be this way. The undead crew of the Black Pearl and later Davey Jones have a real and inherent eerie quality to them. A quality the film doesn’t pull on enough. Instead of utilising this fear factor, thus highlighting the substantial threat posed to Captain Jack Sparrow, we get villains who misplace glass eyes, take parley seriously and bumble around as much as Sparrow. The threat never feels real so when the film tries to craft tension and excitement, you laugh and have fun, rather than feel the dread a villain is meant to make you feel.
Transformers is one of the worst examples of this. Remember that scene, who cares which instalment it was, when the humans and Autobots are facing off against a behemoth of a Decepticon, when the situation seems ominous and the sheer scale of the antagonist appears crazy to behold, and director Michael Bay decides to inject the tense and impending scene by showing as the Decepticon’s robotic scrotum? It sucks all the tension out of the scene, not that there was any to begin with, and leaves us laughing or rolling our eyes when we should be chewing our nails and worrying for out heroes.
Iron Man 2, the first but by no means least entry by Marvel, is a huge culprit as well. Iron Man 2 doesn’t work for a ton of reasons but one of them has to be the consistent defensive comedy of Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash. Vanko could have been used to show the dark reflection of an already spiralling Tony Stark. He could have been used to show Tony the evil path who could stray towards at his lowest moment. Instead, Vanko was used as a punch line for much of the film. When he first appears he is defeated by Happy using a car as he, Tony and Pepper scream hysterically but jokingly. The rest of the film ties him to Justin Hammer, the film’s comedic relief, and the recurring bird joke. He never feels like a threat but rather a pest.
Having said that, there are examples in which Marvel makes the comedy work. Take The Avengers for example. Joss Whedon sufficiently balances the character of Loki as being off beat and menacing. His subjugation speech in Germany, beautifully delivered by Tom Hiddleston, works in that very moment but when Loki recedes and the true threat is revealed the film is allowed to mock him via the Hulk. These are comedic beats that works because you’ve done the menacing already and you’ve done it well. When it is only comedy or comedy without a solid basis, it becomes a hollow experience.
For instance, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan the Accuser is defensive comedy without the solid foundation. The film, whilst one of Marvel’s best, never creates a fully fleshed out villain. Ronan is introduced and we’re told he’s the villain because he comes out of a black pool and he looks angry doing it. The rest of the film just certifies his angry persona and never makes him into anything more than a physical threat. So when the time comes and the film decides to distract this big bad with a dance off, in the wake of thousands of deaths mind you, it feels unearned. No doubt everyone laughs, I did, and it fits with the tone of the film entirely but it undermines the villain and undermines what all the Nova Corps officers died for. It is, once again, the writer/director/studio no going for it and not taking the risk.
And where The Avengers balanced comedy and menace with Loki, Age of Ultron strayed too far into comedy with its villain, Ultron. Ultron was consistently cracking jokes, making ridiculous statements and even setting up punch lines for others hat it completely counteracted his better moments as a villain. His emergence in a new shiny body as he destroys his old model feels wasted when the Hulk punches him after he expresses remorse. Moments like this are frequent and often in Age of Ultron and it’s a sign that the writer didn’t have the balls to go all in with a truly dominating villain.
But this isn’t a Marvel hate train. Their competitor, DC, is also guilty of the same crime. There are a whole host of problems with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s haphazardly plotted, confusing and overlong. One of the big problems is the villain, Lex Luthor. Instead of portraying the billionaire as a power hungry and cynical xenophobe, the film went for a weird take. Piss jars, candies and Jesse Eisenberg’s horrible performance made the character into a joke rather than a major chess player in this iconic game. You’d think with the relentlessly dark and gritty DC Cinematic Universe, they would have gone all in with Luthor.
It’s a problem on the big screen and a problem on the small screen as well. Doctor Who spin-off Class features the intimidating villains called Shadowkin. They begin as shadows and reveal themselves to be hulking cosmic warriors. So, all good so far. But the show decides to throw in a lewd sex joke and the villains are zapped of all viciousness.
Arrow’s fourth season featured Damien Darhk as the big bad. His mystical powers and boundless Force like powers crafted a scary sight. But his tendency to crack arrogant jokes at every turn and appear a douche dampened his villainy.
This is an issue and trend with endless examples and numerous connections. It’s a larger problem in the entertainments industry that no one seems to be talking about between the laughs and the guffaws.
It is no surprise that when really good villains are produced, they are loved, cherished and cosplayed. Why? Because villains are as important as the hero. From Voldemort to Loki, Joker to Joffrey, Sylar to Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter to Wilson Fisk, Hans Gruber to the Cigarette Smoking Man, the T-1000 to the Cylons, villains are a huge part of the story. When they’re taken seriously as characters and they fulfil their potentially, they can steal the show. When the writers, directors and studios place a safe bet and fall on comedy to keep the villain from flying, you get a hollow conflict.