A Tip of the Hat to the Villain!

A Tip of the Hat to the Villain!
A big part of what makes a superhero so cool and interesting is his evil counterpart. This is a nod to the villain. The bad guy. The guys (and gals) we love to hate and sometimes just love.

The toughest thing about playing a comic-book hero is getting the audience to take you seriously while you're parading around in leather or spandex. The toughest thing about playing a comic-book villain, on the other hand, is keeping your performance from spinning out into cartoonishness.

Villains, you see, are supposed to be memorable but disposable; good for knocking the hero down in the second act, but expected to be defeated by the time the credits roll. They don't get as much screen time, and they're often pretty generic in their construction. Think of Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in "Daredevil," or Wes Bentley as Nicolas Cage's demonic stalker in "Ghost Rider;" they're just generic heavies, really.

But when you get the right combination of actor and character, the results can be pretty spectacular. Encouraged by the early glimpses of Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson as Whiplash and the Black Widow in "Iron Man 2," we thought we'd put together a rogues' gallery of the best comic-book villains to date.

The greatest thing about Gene Hackman's performance as Superman's chrome-domed arch-enemy is that there's absolutely no evidence that Lex Luthor is the super-genius he constantly declares himself to be. Sure, he talks a big game, delivering monologues about finding the secrets of the universe in a candy wrapper and planning elaborate schemes that involve hijacking nuclear missiles and brokering the surrender of the planet to Kryptonian supervillains (as long as he gets to be the governor of Australia), but his schemes never amount to anything. Maybe that's why Christopher Reeve's Man of Steel seems weirdly fond of the guy at the end of "Superman II;" sure, he tried to sell out the human race (and our hero), but there was no way that was ever going to work.

Okay, technically the "Conan" movies are based on a series of novels created by Robert E. Howard. But Oliver Stone's screenplay and John Milius' direction is clearly influenced by Marvel's "Conan" comics of the 1970s - specifically, the ones illustrated by John Buscema. So we're willing to include Jones' imperious interpretation of the barbarian lord who raided Conan's entire village, slaughtered his family and enslaved the young Cimmerian - ultimately shaping him into the Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking gladiator he would become - on this list. Frankly, we're afraid of what he might do to us if we left him out.

The character of Neville Sinclair - suave 1930s British movie star who was actually a double agent for the Germans - was pretty memorable in Dave Stevens' original graphic novel, where the character looked and talked remarkably like Errol Flynn. But when he brought "The Rocketeer" to the big screen, director Joe Johnston went one better and made him look and talk just like James Bond. This was Dalton's first major role after playing 007 in "The Living Daylights" and "Licence to Kill," and he sinks his teeth into it with gusto. The movie bombed (unfairly, we think) and Dalton's performance never registered with the casting agents who might have given him a second career playing baddies. Seriously, watch his delightful turn as a mad slasher ("of prices!") in "Hot Fuzz," and tell us you don't think he still has the stuff.

Bryan Singer's "X-Men" was a game-changer for comic-book movies when it opened in the summer of 2000; it took its material reasonably seriously, placing its mutant race war in a reasonable facsimile of our world, and it filled the cast with proper dramatic actors. Most prominent among them was Sir Ian McKellen, who brought a chilling undercurrent of tormented pragmatism to the role of Erik Lehnsherr, the mutant master of magnetism whose quest to free his mutant brethren from human persecution is tragically informed by his experience as a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. Having lost his parents to one ethnic cleansing, he'll stop at nothing to spare his fellow mutants from another. It's a motivation that's almost justifiable - except for the part where he's okay with wiping out the human race - and McKellen makes sure we understand that contradiction all too well.

Willem Dafoe was entirely fine as the Green Goblin in "Spider-Man," but let's keep it real; he's playing your garden-variety chemically altered megalomaniac. Alfred Molina's Doc Ock is a genuinely great nemesis, thanks to Sam Raimi's decision to let Peter Parker - and the audience - spend a good deal of time with him before the accident that fuses his cybernetic helper tentacles to his body and sets him on the path to insanity. Molina's great, conveying the once-good doctor's constant battle with the darker impulses driving him to rob banks, throw cars through cafes and risk the annihilation of Manhattan just to prove a point - but in seeing him through Peter's horrified eyes, as a father figure and mentor turned homicidally against our hero, we can appreciate the full tragedy of the character.

The "Fantastic 4" movies occupy a weird space among comic-book movies; they're not good, exactly - in fact, they're just this side of lame - but they capture just enough of the spirit of the source material to leave us hoping the next movie gets it right. Julian McMahon's performance as the team's arch-nemesis, Victor Von Doom - re-imagined for the movies as an industrialist driven mad with power when he's exposed to the same cosmic rays that transform our heroes - goes a long way towards selling the comic-book attitude. Narcissistic, egocentric and unapologetically douchey in his attempts to screw over his old rival Reed Richards, McMahon sells the idea of Dr. Doom as someone who's figured out that great power doesn't have to come with great responsibility. Sometimes, being the bad guy is way more fun.

It's a funny thing; The blank-faced, remorseless and distressingly well-connected serial killer Kevin isn't the primary villain of Frank Miller's graphic-novel series, and Robert Rodriguez uses him sparingly in his stylized film adaptation. But that just ends up making Elijah Wood's scenes all the more effective; whenever he shows up, we immediately understand that however bad things might have been before, they've just gotten a whole lot worse. Wood's sweet-faced appearance, and the legacy of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, makes his unaffected performance even more unsettling - there's something profoundly wrong about seeing the former Frodo reinvented as a merciless torturer. Like the saying goes: if your skin doesn't crawl when Kevin enters the frame, it's on too tight.

Previous attempts to capture the anarchic menace of the Joker had been problematic. Cesar Romero was a mere clown on the 1960s Adam West TV series; Jack Nicholson's interpretation in the Tim Burton blockbuster looked a lot like Jack Nicholson in white makeup and a beret. But Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan found a new angle on the Joker, making him a charismatic psychopath with a vicious sense of humour and an absolute commitment to the role of chaos-bringer. Ledger disappears into the character's greasepaint and the scars, even forcing his naturally husky voice into a higher register - and then delivering his dialogue as though he's feeling his way through each sentence, uncertain of where the thoughts are going to go next. But the greatest testament to Ledger's work is that while you're watching it, you're never moved to think of the actor's tragic death - and the sad reality that this fantastic performance will never be repeated.
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