We all love a villain, don’t we? The guys and girls who make being bad look good. Villains get to misbehave, they get to chew on the scenery, they get all the coolest songs — and best of all, despite all of their evil doings, they get to make the heroes look boring in comparison. So why is it that studios always fall short when it comes to making movies based on villains instead of heroes?
Sony’s Venom is an interesting case study. On the surface, the Spider-Man spin-off was a great success, enjoying the biggest October opening weekend ever, with a sequel a near guarantee. But, let me ask you this: did you actually see Venom? Despite Tom Hardy’s best Acme acting, it’s a total mess: the plot is all over the place, the pacing is dreadful and the whole thing feels like it was scripted by eight different writers who hated each other. In spite of its success at the box-office, a great cast and a killer concept, something about Venom just didn’t feel right.
This is because movies that feature villains as the main characters fly in the face of traditional filmmaking logic and storytelling values. And just to be clear: we’re not talking about anti-heroes here — anti-heroes are just regular heroes who disguise their heroism with apathy. True villains do not leading men make. Audiences have become so accustomed to standard three act tales of heroism, when a movie comes along that goes against the grain, by design or necessity, cinemagoers tend to react like a cat being stroked backwards. Either that, or the movies must force themselves to betray the values that made their villains villainous in the first place. Where’s the fun in that?
Villain-centric movies are an increasingly popular way of rebooting properties for new audiences without telling the same old origin stories. In the comics, Venom is one of Spider-Man’s deadliest foes, but the movie version needs audiences to root for him, so it casts him as a “loser” and finds us an easily disposable antagonist he can safely eat — meanwhile, Spider-Man is nowhere to be seen for contractual reasons. Sony’s proposed Sinister Six Spidey spin-off never even got off the ground, presumably because a world without heroes is not a playground any self-respecting supervillain — or screenwriter — would relish playing in.
IT’S GOOD TO BE BAD
Disney kickstarted their live-action remake line with a Sleeping Beauty reboot told from the point of view of the film’s villain. Maleficent essentially retconned the original story to make the wicked character sympathetic, wronged by an arguably even bigger villain; it was a story tweak which allowed the movie to follow the standard redemption template but at the cost of that character’s evil legacy. (The sequel to Maleficent arrives in 2020, and Disney are also planning a standalone movie based on Cruella De Vil, starring Emma Stone as the chain-smoking villainess who presumably was bitten by a rabid Dalmatian when she was young).
Suicide Squad is another villain ensemble that, on the surface at least, wants to hang with the bad guys — it wanted to have its poisoned apple and eat it. Cast entirely with villains, the finished film was a frightfully convoluted botch job which had no recognisable character arcs, no audience surrogates and no coherency whatsoever — the team of bad guys are only introduced to combat the threat which they themselves posed. Though it made for a cool trailer, Suicide Squad proved that you can’t make proper movies without following at least some of the rules. By definition, bad guys are only the bad guys because the good guys already exist.
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
Heroes might be boring and predictable, but they at least give a movie grounding. At the risk of sounding like a tedious pseud, the concept of The Hero’s Journey, from Joseph Campbell’s book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces,’ is an archetype that has been serving all manner of storytelling for decades. When you’ve got a spare 15 minutes you can bosh through the TV Tropes entry, but in short, The Hero’s Journey lays out a story pattern that can be traced back to ancient mythology but still applies today: the hero’s call to adventure, the departure of the familiar, the crossing of the threshold, the road of trials, the hero confronting the diametrically opposed villain, yada yada yada.
It basically highlights the invisible building blocks that storytellers and filmmakers rely on even if they don’t know it. That’s why when those storytellers and filmmakers try to break those rules by inverting them and attempting to chart a villain’s journey, even with the best intentions, the story beats feel like they’re on less sure footing — it upturns the fundamental norms we’ve become so accustomed to. In nerd terms: this is why the original Star Wars trilogy is great, and the prequel trilogy stinks like a hot nappy.
Of course, there are dozens of great films that do not have heroes to anchor them, but they tend to be more adult fare, and less sensitive to the ebb and flow of box-office success. The Shining is a chilling self-portrait of insanity. There Will Be Blood is the memoir of a man who wishes not just success for himself, but for his enemies to fail. American Psycho is a blood-soaked romp from the POV of a murderous narcissist and all the better for it. And Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is no sane person’s idea of a hero.
The fact is, to truly do the origin story of a villain justice, you need artful writers, a blank moral canvas, and filmmakers who are freed from the commercial demands of Hollywood. Big glossy blockbuster productions struggle to tell the stories of villains adequately because of the many expectations of a broad, four-quadrant audience — if you’re making people think when they’re grazing on their popcorn, you’re not doing your job. There’s a reason Martin Scorsese dropped out of that Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie; it’s the same reason it’s now being directed by the guy who made The Hangover trilogy.
Villains are not going anywhere — if real life is any indicator, they’re currently in vogue. Marvel trickster Loki is reportedly getting his own TV series; The Rock has been aching to play DC villain Black Adam for years; Sony will continue to raid the Spider-Man archives for more villains and sequels. As long as their movies keep scoring wicked opening weekends like Venom and Suicide Squad, we’ll probably continue to see bad guys packing cinemas in spite of the critical consensus. In other words: you have to pay to go see them, but you don’t have to like them. Hell, they’re villains. Nobody likes them.