People are still arguing over whether or not Venom (directed by Reuben Fleischer) was actually a good film, but while fans and other moviegoers debate, the film stands tall at the box office, grossing half a billion in its first month. That success ensures that the comic book film genre will continue to provide new and exciting things. For example, the film’s performance has unsurprisingly led Sony to consider reviving discussions about a Sinister Six film and has no doubt given other studios the confidence needed to push their villain-focused projects further into development.
There are already several villain-focused films in production, including Warner Bros.’ Joker and Suicide Squad sequel, as well as Sony’s Morbius film, starring Jared Leto. With all this talk about supervillains, it appears superhero films are on the cusp of great change. The question is, are audiences, and studios, ready for it? Venom demonstrates that meaner protagonists can bring financial success, but it also indicates studios have a fundamental misunderstanding of how supervillains work as central characters.
That’s understandable. Relatively few films have explored a story from the villain’s perspective, and the ones that do are far from being superhero films. What we’re seeing is a period of experimentation, which is why each film that tries to inch closer toward the villain’s perspective can’t seem to escape superhero narrative tropes and, more often than not, those tropes simply don’t fit when the character central to the plot is supposed to be a bad guy.
We see that overreliance on those tropes in films like Suicide Squad and, of course, Venom. Both starred classic supervillains and succeeded at the box office, but they failed to deliver on their promises of new and exciting stories and characters. Despite the relative gruffness and occasional maliciousness of the protagonists, audiences had seen those character arcs a thousand times before.
Critics cited similar issues like thinly written characters, muddled plots and uneven tones for both films, all of which seem symptomatic of general uncertainty. Filmmakers know that villains shouldn’t be on a hero’s path, but no one seems to be able to take their villainous characters off it.
At the very least, the villains in Suicide Squad had a decent excuse for acting heroically. They were forced to by Amanda Waller, who threatened to annihilate them if they failed to serve the interests of society. Venom had no such excuse for the symbiote, who went from exhibiting a somewhat apathetic attitude toward humanity to caring for them for no real reason. It’s a shift that was explained in the comics by the presence of Spider-Man, but Venom had only the characters provided to work with. Whether or not it would have been different with Spider-Man is up for debate. Regardless, it’s clear that these films could not avoid going through the motions of a superhero film, no matter how badly both the audience and filmmakers seem to have wanted them to.
That’s the kind of creative inability that Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, recently expressed frustration over when discussing his progress with the new Spawn film at New York Comic Con. According to McFarlane, he sees the film as a horror movie, while Hollywood seems unable to see it as anything other than a superhero movie, which just isn’t the way to look at comic book films focusing on supervillains. They aren’t the same, they see the world differently and they impact it differently, yet Hollywood seems to have just one story to tell.
There has been just one exception in recent memory: Avengers: Infinity War(directed by Joe and Anthony Russo), which was very much the story of Thanos, as opposed to any of the Avengers. It was Thanos who received most of the film’s attention and it was Thanos that saw proper character development. The superheroes around him were more or less the obstacles he had to overcome to complete his journey of growth. That’s the closest the superhero genre has come to a decent villain-centered film.
Thanos succeeded in his dastardly plan and was the character audiences could relate to on some level. It’s a great template for future villain films to look to for guidance because it highlights one very simple fact: Supervillains are not like superheroes. The reason why Thanos worked is because the film respected his role as a villain. It didn’t try to make him likeable, it just presented audiences with his perspective on the world.
When creating a story about a supervillain, or any kind of traditionally antagonistic character for that matter, it’s important to respect the character and their role in the story. If it’s a film about a villain, the audience will not be going in expecting to like the villain, so there’s no real need to necessarily make the villain likeable, unless the intent is to appeal to a young demographic. Therefore, there’s no need to shoehorn in a reason why that villain is in some way heroic. No one enjoys the Hannibal franchise because Lecter is actually misunderstood.
People enjoy supervillains because they give in to their demons, or they at least offer people a fresh perspective, even if it’s one that’s difficult — if not impossible — for others to agree with. People aren’t supposed to idolize them like they do superheroes. If filmmakers could keep this in mind during the development and production of the upcoming villain films (like all three Joker-related films), there may be something truly great on the horizon. If not, we can look forward to at least half a dozen more films featuring lackluster villains unintentionally and needlessly playing the part of a hero.