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MindFood: Bring the Supervillains Back to Superhero Movies

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Oct 12, 2010 | 5:18am EDT

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The Dark KnightHollywood never played with action figures as a kid. That's an abstract statement, sure, but clearly it's true. How else do you explain an industry that's obsessed with making superhero movies but can't be bothered with making unique supervillains? No kid with any kind of an imagination grabs his Superman action figure and imagines him fighting off Lex Luthor's outlandish schemes to drive up real estate prices. No kid sitting in front of Saturday-morning cartoons with his box of toys imagines Batman's crusade to help protect the reputation of the new district attorney. Why? Because that's boring.

Such real-world matters pale when Superman could be fighting off Doomsday. Batman is a badass; let him fight other badasses like Bane or Clayface. Who cares about some Russian guy's patent dispute grudge with Tony Stark's father? Iron Man needs to be fighting Fin Fang Foom and other ridiculous, out-of-this-world characters. Is it really too much to ask that these sci-fi and fantasy icons battle other sci-fi and fantasy icons?

Yes, it's great that the industry's recent attempts to take superheroes seriously has resulted in a new crop of outstanding films, but let's move past this phase of gritty realism, please. One or two entries that make their heroes out to be just ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives is fine, but now that we're getting deeper into the big-screen mythos of some of these heroes, it's high time we saw them go toe-to-toe with equally impressive freaks of nature.

Whenever a new superhero film enters production, it brings with it a hurricane of speculation as to whom the villain of the piece will be. And if you ever pay attention to what the fans are hoping to see, you'll surely notice that it's never the safe, human villains they want to see duking it out with their favorite hero; they want to see the mighty and the mysterious.

Killer Croc from BatmanTake Marc Webb's upcoming reboot of Spider-Man, for example. Yesterday it was announced that Rhys Ifans would be playing the villain -- though of course Sony was too noncommittal to say who that villain actually will be. The fan speculation jumped instantly, naturally, to the more outrageous characters like Lizard, because we're tired of seeing boring villains. We want to see giant reptile people getting beat up, dammit.

The same thing happened last week when reports came in that Christopher Nolan's new Batman film would be setting up at least part of its shoot in New Orleans. That news, combined with a few key rumors out of the New York Comic-Con, had fans in a fervor at the prospect of Batman fighting a character like Killer Croc. Why? Because we want to see giant reptile people getting beat up, dammit.

We want to take our relatively human action figures and mash them up with their decidedly non-human counterparts. It's childhood instinct for us, but it's the scariest notion on the planet for film producers, apparently. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series was able to have some fun with its villains, but even they never really went as overboard as they could have, considering Spidey has got some of the best baddies in the biz to go up against. It's a shame that by the time Raimi reluctantly gave in to fan demands to see characters like Venom or Sandman on the big screen, he had to go and get replaced by a pod person. (That is what happened, right? The real Sam Raimi would never have made that emo Spider-man dance/strut scene.)

Even in the cases when producers are okay with getting crazy, they often resist diving completely into the deep end. Take Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, for example. The entire movie they're concerned with Galactus, a supervillain that can swallow an entire planet. They build and they build and they build and then ... he's revealed to be a swirling space cloud? The producers really thought people would laugh less at their film had it revealed Galactus as an intergalactic giant who eats planets? Or that they were leaving room for the real Galactus to show up in a Silver Surfer spin-off movie? That's not teasing, that's just poor filmmaking.

Abomination from The Incredible HulkThe only entry in this whole hero boom to have had the stones to have its freak-of-nature hero have a drag-down, all-in fight with a freak-of-nature villain is The Incredible Hulk. And you know what happened? It resulted in the best villain fight to come out of the entire industry boom. Yes, I said it: The Incredible Hulk fighting the Abomination is cooler than any of the fights found in any of the other franchises. It's not because Abomination is a particularly amazing villain, either; it's simply because it allows for the hero to properly lock horns with a beast his own size.

And I don't mean that literally, of course. The actual size of the villain doesn't matter (if it did, the aforementioned Fantastic Four disaster would be king), so long as they merely allow for the hero to have to use everything at their disposal to win. And I fear that unless producers start to care less about grounding their films in reality, the old "hero is as only good as his villain" adage means we've already hit the plateau of this superhero boom. I mean, really, how hard is it to have someone fight a giant reptile man?

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