This week’s Despicable Me features two supervillains battling it out in what looks to be a pretty fun and silly movie. In honor of the newest animated movie of 2010, this week’s Listicle is all about supervillains, the good, the bad, and ugly. Supervillains come in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and all seem to bear some pretty serious grudges. Some are funny, some are sad, some are downright terrifying. Join me (Julia Rhodes!) and William Bibbiani, and welcome new Fourth Wall blogger Dan Fields, as we journey into the depths of supervillainy (muahahaha) in this Weekly Listicle.
Syndrome (Jason Lee) in The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird, 2004)
Pixar’s The Incredibles is the tale of a family of superheroes, which include super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack, each of whom have their own powers to contend with. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl were fixtures in the days of yore, when superheroes saved the world on a daily basis. In his heyday Mr. Incredible had a fanboy named Buddy, who idolized him and wanted to help save the world—but of course, Mr. Incredible’s job is too dangerous for a kid. After the world at large demonizes the superhero phenomenon, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are forced out of the spotlight, and the family has to live in hiding, unable to reveal their powers to civilians.
The sweet kid named Buddy grows up to be Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee), the film’s supervillain, who draws the Incredibles out of hiding. Like any good supervillain, Syndrome revolts against an uncaring world and the Supers who shunned his lack of superpowers. He builds the Omnidroid 9000, a huge robot that’s meant to destroy the world…but Syndrome will, of course, step in and play hero before his creation succeeds.
Syndrome, as voiced by Lee, is alternately hilarious, pathetic, and silly. And if there’s one thing you should learn from The Incredibles, it’s that real heroes don’t wear capes.
Magneto (Ian McKellan) in The X-Men trilogy (dir. Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner, 2000, 2003, 2006)
Mind you, Magneto has been around far, far longer in the Marvel universe than he has in film. However, as acted by the fantastic Sir Ian McKellan, Magneto became one of my favorite villains in recent superhero movies (and the last decade has been chock full of those). Like most of our supervillains, Magneto wasn’t born evil—rather, he retaliates against the evil, imagined and real, perpetrated against him.
Magneto was born Max Eisenhardt, a German Jew who miraculously survived the Holocaust. The horrors he endured created a monster (have you ever heard the phrase, “The Holocaust left no survivors”? This character is a good example), and when the world starts to turn on the mutants, Magneto takes action to protect what he considers a superior race. This includes using deadly force and manipulating humans for a means to an end—and eventually an insane scheme that would eradicate the human race, leaving behind only the mutants.
In Bryan Singer’s trilogy (the third and by far worst of which was directed by that total hack Brett Ratner), Magneto wages war against the American government, and against any mutant who stands in his way. Magneto’s old friend Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) gathers a group of mutants to stand against Magento, including favorites Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Rogue (Anna Paquin).
Creator Stan Lee once said he “never thought of Magneto as a villain.” Therein lies the true genius of a great supervillain: they are rarely truly super, and rarely true villains. Magneto’s interactions with Xavier throughout Singer’s films cement this; as played by McKellan, Magneto is soft-spoken, well-read, and intelligent. He’s also a bit insane, but would anyone who survived his circumstances come out unscathed? I think not.
Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (dir. Joss Whedon, 2008)
Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” pricked their ears when the sixth season of the series featured a musical episode. Creator Joss Whedon, who’d already established his wit, intelligence, and lovable characters, brought fans a whole new dimension of awesome with “Once More, With Feeling,” for which he wrote both music and lyrics.
Whedon’s shows since “Buffy” haven’t fared well on television (grumble), but Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a web series written, directed, and produced by Whedon, released in three parts to Whedon’s largely web-savvy fans. The musical series follows a series of vlogs by Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), an aspiring supervillain, as he struggles with new heists, applies and reapplies for admission into the Evil League of Evil, pines over his laundry buddy Penny (Felicia Day), and plots against his arch nemesis Captain Hammer (my boyfriend Nathan Fillion).
Dr. Horrible has “a Ph.D. in Horribleness.” He’s a normal guy with a trusty sidekick. He just wants something better in life, ridiculous as that may be. Again: supervillains, not always super, not always villains. When Captain Hammer makes a move for Penny, Dr. Horrible plots the worst of his heists, granting him admission to Bad Horse’s League of Supervillains, but at what price?
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, at only forty-five minutes long, is truly worth a watch. Whedon’s talent with lyrics and music guarantee the songs will make you laugh, and NPH is forever wonderful. Fillion gets to say the line, “The hammer…it’s my penis,” and the audience truly gets to know each character in ways you wouldn’t expect. Superhero stories are not generally told from the perspective of the villain—and this tragicomic tale makes you side with the bad guys.
Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in the Harry Potter series (multiple directors, 2001-present)
Of all the supervillains about whom I’ve written so far, Lord Voldemort is the only one who is truly evil and was probably actually born that way. Voldemort is Harry Potter’s arch nemesis throughout all seven books and films in the series, and my, does he make a fantastic villain. Born Tom Marvolo Riddle, he changed his name to Lord Voldemort while in school at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Riddle was born to a human father and witch mother, making him a “half-blood” wizard. Like a certain other historical dictator (and like Magneto in a sense), he believes the pure-blood wizards are a superior race. After he transforms himself into Voldemort, he seeks immortality, ruthlessly murdering and maiming magical folk and humans alike to get there.
Ralph Fiennes, who plays Voldemort in the movie, wears makeup to appear horribly snakelike. Fiennes’s Voldemort bears a distinctly slithery quality, a hissing voice, and a horrifying countenance. Voldemort is truly nothing but an infinitely dangerous psychopath: an egotistical, proud, sociopathic character who strikes fear in the hearts of the wizarding community so that in the first few books, he’s only referred to by most characters as “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
Voldemort tries to kill Harry Potter as an infant—and of course, Harry is the only person ever to survive the Avada Kedavra (death) curse. So of course Voldemort latches himself to Harry, seeing him as the one obstacle to overcome before he can take over the wizarding world. As with all our other supervillains, he had no idea what he was up against.
David Lo Pan (James Hong) in Big Trouble in Little China (dir. John Carpenter, 1986)
There aren’t many movies I find more entertaining – even after the 50th viewing – than John Carpenter’s genre-bending classic Big Trouble in Little China. A big part of this is the no-less-than-ingenious decision to make the musclebound white uber-hero into the hapless comic relief sidekick, but not to tell him about it (and film the story as if he was the hero anyway). But a great action movie would be nothing without its villains, and villains don’t get a whole hell of a lot more “super” than David Lo Pan, played by James Hong.
Thousands of years ago, Lo Pan was a great warrior who was defeated in battle by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The emperor then cursed Lo Pan to eternal life (pretty sweet) without physical form (less sweet). Though cursed, Lo Pan nevertheless kept himself busy in the millennia that followed, and by the mid-1980’s was not only head of the highly profitable San Franciscan Wing Kong Import/Export Company, but also head of the greatly feared Wing Kong street gang (who probably should have gone by a different name, but hey, what kind of a supervillain would he be without a little bravado?). His office building also contains the gates to many of the Chinese hells, like The Hell of Upside-Down Sinners, and he has no less than the human embodiment of Thunder, Wind and Lightning as his cronies.
Lo Pan’s curse can be lifted by marrying – and then ritually sacrificing – a woman with green eyes, which even the lamebrained Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) agrees shouldn’t have taken him 2,000 years to find, but one gets the impression that Lo Pan wasn’t really looking that whole time. As the master of a demonic underworld with the power to shoot magical warriors out of his fingertips, he probably found plenty of ways to amuse himself outside of marital bliss (followed by wife-icide, for which there is probably a real word but it’s late and I cannot be bothered to look it up right now). As played by the inimitable James Hong, Lo Pan is a fantastic supervillain: all-powerful, ambitious and impossible to defeat… unless you have really good reflexes.
Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) in “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (created by Joel Hodgson, 1988-1996)
Dr. Clayton “Stonewall/Firebrand” Forrester as much a supervillain as that guy at your local videostore is a screenwriter. It’s not how much they actually accomplish that defines them, it’s how they decide to spend their time. About the worst thing Dr. Forrester has ever actually done was kidnap a couple of his minimum wage employees and rocket them into space, forcing them to live for years in a large milkbone-shaped satellite with only a few artificially intelligent but physically deficient robots for company, and only the worst movies ever made by human beings for entertainment.
It actually sounds pretty bad when you say it out of context, but to what end? Supposedly, Dr. Forrester is seeking a movie so bad, so completely unwatchably mindboggingly awful that it will genuinely liquefy the brains of anyone who sees it, and then hijack the airwaves and unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. Nobody ever thinks to remind him that, unlike his test subjects, the rest of the planet will have access to the “Power” buttons on their TV’s. Instead, Forrester promotes “Mystery Science Theater 3000” as a show to Comedy Central in the guise of “entertainment” in order to fund his many other evil schemes, like “Unhappy Meals,” “Public Domain Karaoke Machines,” and “Tank Tops,” which chafe like a bear but have fully functional turret guns.
Dr. Forrester is yet another in a long line of cut-rate supervillains (see: Despicable Me, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Invader Zim for more examples), but there’s an oppressive innocence about the character that makes him one of the more charming examples. He’s evil in the same way that people who shop at Hot Topic are Goths: In love with the idea of doing something wicked but never willing to commit to the real deal, and that means he has a heart in there somewhere. We love you, Dr. Forrester.
Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) in “Superman: The Animated Series,” “Justice League” & “Justice League Unlimited” (character created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, series produced by Bruce Timm et al, 1996-2006)
The Superman movies may have had the perfect Clark Kent, but Great Rao did their Lex Luthors suck. Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey were well-cast, perhaps, but the character was never a legitimate supervillain. A crooked real estate mogul? Really? Give me Bruce Timm and Clancy Brown’s take any day of the week.
Lex Luthor was introduced in “Superman: The Animated Series” as a self-made billionaire super genius. Although he was a high-tech weapons manufacturer, and doubtless cheating on his taxes, he never turned evil until some dumb jock in a stupid outfit started flying around calling himself a “good guy.” In fact, one gets the impression that if Superman had plopped down from the heavens and started killing everyone in Metropolis, Luthor would have gone the opposite route entirely. It’s the competition that destroyed his mind. Before the “real” Superman, Lex Luthor was actually a superior homo sapien. His raging ego demanded that Superman be destroyed: Supervillainy was nothing more than an obvious consequence.
In the years that followed Lex Luthor cast himself as an opportunist, trying to kill Superman when it was convenient and assisting him when necessary to save the planet. Luthor was the shadowy puppetmaster behind Cadmus, a government-funded organization dedicated to destroying every superhero in the world if absolutely necessary (guess how that went?). Lex Luthor tried to destroy the Justice League, conquer the world and worse… and still almost got elected President of the United States of America… after he was imprisoned for all the other stuff. At the end of “Justice League Unlimited,” Lex Luthor even succeeded where Darkseid failed by acquiring the “Anti-Life Equation.” Portrayed with the powerful voice of Clancy Brown (Highlander, Starship Troopers), who tinted his portrayal with an affable smugness, The DC Animated Universe version of Lex Luthor remains the standard by which all other Luthors will be judged… at least until Chris Nolan fixes all of that.
The Joker (Batman comics, television series, and films, 1984-present)
There is something universal about the menace of an evil clown. It stirs a measure of terror in every human heart. This may or may not have been on Bob Kane’s mind when he and Bill Finger were thinking up opponents for Batman in 1940. But over half a century later, the Joker endures as one of the world’s most popular icons of villainy.
What makes him such a perfect and coveted character for writers, actors, and all manner of storytellers? He has no goal so pedestrian as world domination. In fact, he has no measurable objective other than to break the rules and disturb the peace. Unfortunately, he has the diabolical cunning to transform the world, and the human lives in it, into his personal toybox. It has practically become a game among contemporary Batman writers to supply newer and more outrageous explanations for the roots of his madness. All we know is that at some point, he gave up trying to make sense of the world and chose instead to laugh it off.
The glee that the Joker takes in the mayhem he creates is the one constant in his various incarnations. Whether it’s Cesar Romero capering about throwing poisoned pies, or Jack Nicholson wiping out cities to the strains of Prince, the fun of it all is its own reward for the Joker, and that makes him a lot more terrifying than any mad scientist out to rule the world. A line in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) indicates that the Joker wants only to “watch the world burn.” The Joker’s own sentiment, in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95), is that he’s “always taking shots from people who don’t get the joke.” Somewhere in between is the intangible charisma that draw us to the Joker against our better judgment.
Megatron (Transformers animated series, comics, and films, 1984-present)
Far from being a mere evil scientist, Megatron is in fact a towering personification of evil science! Like the Joker and others before him, he has stood the tests of time and cross-media incarnation, from cartoons to comics to great big feature films. Within the circuits of this Saturday morning overlord are all the classic supervillain elements, combined in most unusual ways. For one thing, as a giant sentient robot he is by definition a genius. For another, any villain bent on terror and destruction ought to have some kind of death ray or doomsday machine. Megatron happens to be his own doomsday machine, permanent shoulder cannon and all. In fact, he and his Decepticon subordinates constitute a full army of walking destruction… and each has (is!) his own transportation. Forget blowing up your house with satellites or nuclear missiles. Megatron and company will walk right over and step on it. And of course, he has his requisite archnemesis in Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots and champion of all good, right, and just… giant alien robots.
Conventional sci-fi wisdom dictates that any superintelligent computer will overload its programming and try to assume absolute control. This may involve, as they say, “killing all humans” or otherwise neutralizing obstacles without discrimination. Megatron exhibits the same behavior, but it is no programming fault. It is a permanent and defining feature of his personality.
Here we have a supervillain’s demented hunger for power, hardwired into the super-circuitry of a war machine. A troubling puzzle indeed. The only thing for it is to keep your local Autobots on call.
Skeletor (Masters of the Universe animated series, 1983-2002, and film, 1987)
When a guy goes by the name Skeletor, he’s got to be pretty good supervillain material. When he backs it up with a hooded cape and a bare skull where his face should be, he has almost no other professional options. Skeletor has a single goal that would make any traditional villain proud: to overthrow the benevolent guardians of the universe’s ultimate power, and so put himself in charge of everything. Anyone living in exile on a barren medieval planet might develop similar ambitions. And so he devotes his days to toppling Castle Grayskull with dark sorcery and an army of mutant minions.
In the mid-1980s, Filmation produced the original Masters of the Universe series in order to sell toys for Mattel. Skeletor was not only the coolest action figure, but the life of the show. Despite his ability to wield the power of the universe, He-Man makes for a surprisingly un-dynamic character. With the heroes of Transformers and Thundercats to compete with, Masters of the Universe relied inordinately on its grotesque and entertaining villains. A typical scene featured strident Skeletor cursing and clobbering his dimwitted deputies for their constant failure to do his bidding.
The same is true of the decidedly ridiculous but eminently watchable Masters of the Universe film (1987). With no disrespect to Dolph Lundgren’s hulking Nordic presence, it is again Skeletor who provides the real meat of the film. And did I mention it’s a live-action role? This demanded fairly creative and outrageous makeup. Actor Frank Langella, who has had the privilege of playing both Dracula and Richard Nixon to great acclaim, has cited Skeletor as a favorite among his many villainous roles.
Skeletor is into the global domination game, every bit as much as Ernst Blofeld or Cobra Commander. But why stop at one globe? He’s in it for the universe.