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Courtesy of Warner Bros.

May 5, 2019

SMITH | Villains, and What Makes Them Great

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So, this is my last column. In my first, I wrote about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s being the best film released in 2018, and in my second, I took a look at the history of Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in anticipation of Avengers: Endgame. Following its release and the hole it created in my heart, in this last at-bat I’d like to take a look at what makes certain superhero movies stand out, then compare how several villains (which I guess is a bit of a spoiler on my conjecture) in recent films stack up.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise; we’ve known it since The Dark Knight. A comic book hero and his or her character and struggle is only as impactful as the evil they’re seeking to overcome. But this isn’t true for just superhero movies — any film’s depth is characterized by the severity of its conflict. For my money, though, Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker in Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s second Batman film was the first time we saw a comic book villain, characters often plagued by their camp and hyperbole, compare equitably to other profound conflicts in cinema.

Anyway, comic-inspired movies have been (or when they haven’t been, should have been) chasing Nolan, Ledger and Bale for a decade for good reason. Bale’s Batman appeared so resolute in his pursuit of order because of the Joker’s equally intense commitment to anarchy. I’ve heard many people liken this relationship to one in which the Joker serves as a sort of foil for the Caped Crusader, but I’m not sure that’s an apt comparison. The Dark Knight is not a film in which a singular protagonist sets out to defeat evil, it’s one with two main characters. Both Batman and the Joker’s approaches to the film’s driving moral conflict are presented with equal weight in a light that exposes both their pros and cons. The Joker does not just act in complement to Batman, he in part defines him. Their relationship, as two entirely different sides of the same coin, is confoundingly symbiotic.

This was unprecedented. Superhero films of old had presented their audience with a light and dark side (yes, Star Wars movies are superhero movies, but that’s a conversation for another time) but never before Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece was it conceivable the villain might end up winning. No matter how steep the odds or dark the night, our hero would prevail because of the same inalienable virtues they possessed at the beginning of the film. And while Batman does win out in his eponymous film, he isn’t the same millionaire-philanthropist-vigilante he was at the start. He breaks his rule, killing Harvey Dent and taking the blame for his crimes for the good of the city, which was the Joker’s goal all along. Batman’s battle with the Joker irreparably altered the hero in a way we don’t often see in popular cinema.

So, then, let’s talk about Thanos. Warning: Spoilers for the latest two Avengers films. The “Mad Titan,” as he’s known only to the dorkiest corners of my YouTube subscription box, has become a household name because Kevin Feige and Co. did something unprecedented in Infinity War: They made the big bad the movie’s sole protagonist. And I don’t mean that in a cute thought-experiment way; Thanos is to Infinity War as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are to Iron Man and Captain America. He is given a task to complete and does so despite adversity. Like a holy man, he quite literally sheds his armor and commits himself entirely to a cause he knows to be indisputably correct and is willing to sacrifice everything for, even those who he loves most (though this part is incredibly problematic) and himself. He beats the Avengers not through brute force and brutality as would any other run-of-the-mill villain but with skill and intellect.

Infinity War shocked people because its villain was victorious but the merit of this potentially risky narrative choice was not its surprise. The film was so universally well-regarded by critics and audiences alike because Thanos deserved to win. He underwent every segment of the classic hero’s journey and did so with infallible devotion to his mission. He earned the snap heard round the world.

And though his plan is one that’s obviously flawed in real-world application, his character’s backstory, speech and actions let us as an audience know that in his world, he’s correct. Thanos comes with two issues for me and my conjecture is that the first wasn’t “his” fault. There’s one line in Infinity War I keep coming back to: “Fun isn’t something one considers when balancing the universe. But this … this does put a smile on my face.”

This quote, in two halves, is everything compelling and a large part of what’s wrong with the character at once — it’s when he became a villain. I mean, we knew he was the “bad guy” before then, but this was the first time the audience was shown he was in any way evil. To this point, we were only rooting against him because his dispassionate, cold and seemingly well-reasoned plan was one that did not benefit characters we already knew to be good. But here, he’s gloating, and I really do wish he hadn’t. We see this meaner disposition expounded upon more in Endgame by a younger Thanos brought to the present day through some seriously yada-yada’d time travel, but that was only after the older present day Thanos, having completed his work, is killed off with very little fight. He barely resists.

It’s not hard to view the pre-time jump Thanos as a character, who, despite clear wrongdoing in his past (more on that in just a second), had tried to atone for his sins by bringing about balance on a universal scale. I feel strongly that this nagging line is one designed for trailers. The picture of a giant villain taunting a broken Iron Man was sure to put more butts in seats than would speech consistent with the character we observed for the first two acts of the movie.

Unfortunately, there’s another Titan-sized caveat in my praise of Thanos’ character. Mikey Neumann and Maggie Mae Fish have already said this better than I ever will, but the MCU’s decision to yield trauma and abuse as plot devices in Infinity War was inexcusably irresponsible. I get that for us to know a bad guy is bad he needs to do bad things, but to suggest that he loves Gamora and that Gamora might love him back after all of the pain he intentionally subjected her to is disgusting, especially because this is a movie marketed to children who may have entered theaters under the supervision of authority figures who are themselves abusive. This film informs those kids that abuse is akin to love.

Thankfully, I think there’s another one that did bad better, Black Panther’s Killmonger (warning the second: spoilers), who I believe to be not just the best villain since the Joker, but perhaps one of the greatest points of conflict in cinema history. Not that Black Panther’s being number 10 on the all-time box office gross list makes it “small” by any means, but because Endgame and Infinity War currently sit at two and five (oh my God), I guess it’s possible you might know of Thanos but know nothing about this other guy. So, in short, Black Panther is a film in which T’Challa — the prince of Wakanda, a technologically advanced, yet hidden-away nation in Sub-Saharan Africa — must come to grips with both the death of his father and the violent acts of a new political rival, Killmonger, who himself was orphaned because of the sins of T’Challa’s recently deceased father.

What makes Killmonger, who will undoubtedly go down as the third piece of a historical run between director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed and Black Panther), so special is that he wins the film’s moral argument. Although his violent means leave much to be improved upon, at the end of the film T’Challa drastically changes his approach to foreign policy because his cousin was right about the broad strokes. For the people of Wakanda to continue closing themselves off from a world in which they could remedy the suffering of millions and millions of people would have been wrong. I cannot remember another time in which a film’s protagonist saw themselves so substantively changed in response to and, more shockingly, in agreement with the villain.

Black Panther ends with Killmonger dying at T’Challa’s hand in what might be the most emotionally muddled kill in cinema history. We as an audience must cope with the dissonance between knowing that he absolutely had to die for the country to progress in a socially conscious way and our tragic sympathy for his character who, unlike Thanos, had motivations that weren’t just understandable given his backstory, but that tracked with modern-day notions of progress.

What makes the conflict of any film significant is its aftermath. What will being pushed to the brink and coming out on top mean tomorrow? If you don’t learn from the obstacles you overcome, you’ve won no victory at all.

Characters like the Joker, Thanos (despite his flaws) and Killmonger are ones that future generations of filmmakers should laboriously investigate because even operating in a genre saturated with heterogeneity, all three managed to cut through the muck and present their “arguments” with clarity and gravitas heretofore unseen across all of cinema.

That feels like as good a sentence as any to end my little column experiment on. I’ll see ya around.

Nick Smith is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nsmith@cornellsun.com. Media Relations runs alternating Thursdays this semester.