Sunday, September 14, 2008

The best comic book villains in film history...

Just for fun, here is a rundown of the best performances by an actor/actress playing a comic book villain in the short, 30-year history of the modern comic book film. Some will be obvious, some where obvious but were forgotten to time, some are my personal favorites that didn't get the love they deserved. Here we go:

5. Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair in The Rocketeer (1991)

The film bombed back in 1991 and it frankly hasn't aged well. There's very little rocket-action to justify the $50 million budget, and only the actors make it watchable (see Terry O'Quinn as the noble Howard Hughes!). But the one timeless ingredient is the deliciously fun work by then-Bond actor Timothy Dalton as the devious Neville Sinclair. While he got a few good notices, he was overshadowed that summer by fellow film-stealing villains Robert Patrick (the T-1000 in Terminator 2) and Alan Rickman (The Sheriff Of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves).

Part swashbuckling hear-throb movie-star, part covert Nazi-spy, all bad ass. An obvious riff on the false rumors of Errol Flynn's alleged association with the Nazi party, Dalton has a blast basically playing a tongue-in-cheek version of his uber-tough James Bond characterization. It's a shame that Dalton couldn't play more heavies, as he certainly was too menacing and roguish to be a stereotypical hero. Whether it's 'accidentally' stabbing his costar during a staged fight scene, or effortlessly stealing 21-year old Jennifer Connolly away from bland hero Billy Campbell, Dalton makes villainy seem like the most romantic job around.

4. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in Superman (1978)

Gene Hackman was the first modern comic book super villain. Hackman's work was an odd combination of the deranged mad scientist of pre-Crisis Superman, with the eventual post-Crisis Lex Luthor who was a suave narcissistic gentleman with the will to wreak chaos to achieve his glory and respect. You can get away with a lot of ham when you're introduced pushing a federal agent into a moving train. Yes Luthor was hammy and comical, but he was still absolutely homicidal, with a truly creative and logical scheme. Plus he was genuine threat to the Man Of Steel. The conversation that the two of them conduct is still a lovely scene, and the idea of super hero and super villain just talking shop has been used all-too infrequently (see The Shadow for an even better example of this). Come what may, Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor has my favorite super villain line of all time:

Superman: "Is that how a diseased maniac like you gets his kicks, Luthor? By plotting the deaths of innocent people?"

Luthor: "Why no. By causing the deaths of innocent people."

3. Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn/Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002)

Say what you will about the Power Rangers outfit, but Willem Dafoe still gives one of the most three-dimensional performances in any comic book adventure to date. Even as Osborn descends into madness as The Green Goblin, the sympathetic and surprisingly good-hearted Norman Osborn stays in our good graces. By maintaining this fully formed character of Norman Osborn for the duration of the film, Dafoe makes everyone step up their game, as well as put the audience in an odd position. Sure we know The Green Goblin is a homicidal lunatic, but we still like Norman Osborn and are moved when his Green Goblin personality conflicts with Osborn's genuine desire to be a good person. He truly anguishes over having to kill Peter Parker, and he genuinely apologizes to his son for not being a better father (he may have ulterior motives, but he means every word of it). And Parker and Osborn's final smack down is still one of the best, most vicious brawls in super hero cinema.

His scene conversing with himself in front of a mirror is astonishing, and his appearance at the Parker's Thanksgiving dinner is priceless. Not only does he manage to flirt with Mary Jane and Aunt May at the same time, but he also calls out Mary Jane for the emotionally insecure train wreck that she is (see Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 for proof). Plus, he's the only character to openly acknowledge that Mary Jane as presented is purely a piece of meat, which is how the film treats her. Norman Osborn may be the villain, but as performed by Willem Dafoe, he is the most honest and most three-dimensional character in the whole Spider-Man series.

2. Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Health Ledger as The Joker in Batman (1989), Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993), Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker (2002), and The Dark Knight (2008)
Pick your favorite, drag one down to prop one up, I prefer to savor them all. Given the chance to portray the most important villain in comic literature, if not all literature for the last seventy-years, all three actors gave us definitive versions of The Clown Prince Of Crime.

Jack Nicholson broke the mold in Tim Burton's Batman. Some may carp that it was just Jack being Jack in makeup, but we forgot how shocking this performance really was. There had never been a true comic book villain that was this over-the-top in cinema before. The nonstop cackling, the completely random and wholesale slaughter, and the genuinely perverse pathology, this was all new terrain for cinema. While his campier moments recall The Shining or The Witches of Eastwick, his quieter subtler scenes actually resemble the work he did as Eugene O'Neil in Warren Beatty's Reds. Unlike Heath Ledger's deliberate, proselytizing anarchist, Jack Nicholson's Joker just committed mass murder purely for the hell of it.

Mark Hamill's Joker didn't have much of a motive either. While the cartoon's kid-friendly format reined in the character's more sadistic behavior, the actor and the writers found places to insert the diseased mania and homicidal compulsion where they could (it was inferred that The Joker was bumping off people left and right in capers that we weren't privy to). Mark Hamill's Joker was scary because he was genuinely funny, and the kind of guy who you'd enjoy hanging out with until you realized he had poisoned you with Joker venom thirty-minutes ago. Aside from the lack of onscreen bloodshed, this was the most accurate representation of the character to date. When people read a Batman comic book featuring The Joker, it is Hamill's voice they hear in the dialogue bubbles.

But, in Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker, the gloves came off (and then on again due to censorship, then off again in an unrated DVD release... long story). Technically a story of future Bruce Wayne with his young apprentice Batman, it concerned the apparent resurrection of The Joker about forty-years after his apparent demise. But the heart of the film is a ten-minute flashback sequence, Batman's final battle with The Joker, where The Joker launches his final scheme against Batman, a decisive strike intended to shatter Batman in the most personal way possible. Of all the films featuring The Joker, live-action or otherwise, this is the only one where The Joker's actions truly sting and shock and almost shame us for enjoying his murderous antics for all these years.

Ah yes, the new kid on the block. While countless words have been written about Heath Ledger's work, it should be said that he portrays a very specific version of The Joker. His Joker is almost sane, seemingly reasonable in his thinking, however we disagree with his intentions. He is not a wanton mass murderer, but a calculating and cunning killer who attempts to bring about maximum chaos with minimum carnage (note that he does not explicitly kill a single innocent civilian, targeting only cops, criminals, vigilantes, and officers of the court). As I've mentioned elsewhere, his Joker comes closest to the one written by Ed Brubaker, be it Gotham Cental's Soft Targets or The Man Who Laughs. This Joker is a plausible real-world demon, the kind of anarchist who could very well exist in our actual reality. He is not funny, his methods of death are ordinary (no Joker Venom, no acid-squirting flowers) and he doesn't take all that much joy in his actions. To this Joker, dealing death and inspiring paranoia is a duty, a holy quest to expose the fragile nature of so-called civilized behavior and society.

1. Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy (1990)

What the hell? "Is he crazy?", you're thinking. Watch Dick Tracy again. You'll notice something: It's an incredibly sorrowful and sad motion picture, an adult drama about three people who excel at doing the thing that makes them miserable and can't find a way to break free. Dick Tracy is the best cop in the city, but he anguishes because he knows he's not making a dent in crime, and he knows that he's giving up any chance for happiness and a traditional family life with Tess Trueheart. When he stumbles upon The Kid, he immediate realizes that this could be the gateway to the family life he's wanted. Breathless Mahoney excels only at being a piece of ass. Sure she can sing, but no one would care if she didn't look like Madonna. She knows that she's doomed to either wither away alone as the conquest of one lowlife after another, or die at the hands of some random thug who thought her singing was just for him. Dick Tracy is the only man to be remotely kind and respectful to her, and she instantly falls for him, hoping that he may be her ticket out of her sordid life.

At the center of this hell, perhaps the cause, is Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice. He is a criminal by trade. He may enjoy the riches that crime brings, but he takes no joy in the misery he creates. He yearns for respectability but knows that it cannot be attained. When he smacks his singers, abuses Breathless, and murders rivals like Lips Manlis, he knows full well what a bastard he is. He feels only guilt and shame in it. When he accidentally finds himself kidnapping Tess Trueheart at the end of the picture, he finds himself in the company of a woman who is beautiful on the inside and the outside. In a different time, in a better world, she could be his ticket out of his life of crime and depravity. But he knows that is not to be. Of all the villains and monsters and murderers that have graced the comic-book inspired silver screen, Big Boy Caprice is the only one dares to invite pity as well as scorn and/or a twisted idealization. The Joker may make being an amoral monster look like fun. Neville Sinclair makes it look dashing and romantic. But Al Pacino dares to play Big Boy Caprice as a real-world villain in a four-color world. When he looks in the mirror, he only sees shame, despair, and the unforgiving gears of justice that will bring his story to its inevitable end. For him there is no escape, and he damn well knows it.

Scott Mendelson


Anonymous said...

People tend to forget now, but Al Pacino was actually nominated for an Oscar for playing Big Boy Caprice.

~junkie said...

Haven't read the entire post (skimmed through the names)

Was the exclusion of anthony hopkins as dr. lecter intentional? He redefined that genre by bringing a new level of sophistication and intelligence to the role.

Though confined in a cell his effect was captivating, and all consuming. Would have loved to see his name in your list.

Scott Mendelson said...

The list was for comic book villains only. Dr. Hannibal Lecter was from a series of Thomas Harris novels and thus didn't qualify.

Vi said...

Why only five? When I saw the word 'actress' in the opening paragraph, I got excited and thought Michelle Pfeiffer's unrelenting portrayal of Catwoman/Selina Kyle would be there on the list. That has to be one of the most under-rated, over-looked performances of all time(and ditto goes for the writer for creating such a dark, complex, multifaceted character who was a woman for a change). Michelle P. is on par with all five of these dudes, if not better, in my personal opinion.

Scott Mendelson said...

For me, the Selina Kyle of Batman Returns is more anti-hero than straight-out villain. Semantics perhaps, but the performance itself is certainly worthy of every form of praise.


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