This was not a great year for superhero movies. We had two great movies (Civil War and Deadpool), one good one (Doctor Strange) and a whole bundle of awful ones (Suicide Squad, Batman V Superman, Xmen: Apocalypse). No matter how much material the movie gave us to argue about, there was one complaint that was the same in every movie this year: the villain sucked. In the bad movies, the villains were the worst. Apocalypse was the worst thing about Xmen: Apocalypse. Heck, the bad guy was the worst part of Suicide Squad, and that was a movie about supervillains. In the best superhero movies this year, the supervillains were also the weak points. The generic, underwritten supervillain was the one complaint everyone had about the otherwise-excellent Deadpool. Civil War, seemingly sensing that this was a bad year for bad guys, succeeded by downplaying their villain and focusing on the conflicts between the characters. On TV, too, the villains were the worst parts of our favorite shows. I don’t know what it is about 2016, but this was a lousy year for supervillains.
The craziest thing about this trend is how it ensnared even great actors. Sometimes, the great actors cast as villains were sidelined in favor of other villains. Alfre Woodard, for example, is tremendous but she was sidelined in favor of the flamboyant (and ridiculously singleminded) Diamondback in the ponderous Luke Cage. Daredevil, similarly, had an amazing villain in The Punisher for the first half of the season but completely ignored him for the last half, focusing instead on a bunch of bland ninjas. Even when they were center stage, this year great actors couldn’t make boring villains interesting. Oscar Isaacs is amazing in every movie he appears in except Xmen: Apocalypse, in which his costume restrains him like a straightjacket and utterly smothers his charisma. And let’s not forget Walking Dead’s Negan, a boringly invulnerable one-note tough guy who is chasing viewers away from Walking Dead faster than a zombie apocalypse ever could. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a solid actor, but there’s only so much you can do with lines like: “it’s going to be pee-pee pants city here real soon.”
Then, of course, there is the absolute nadir of supervillains in 2016, Batman V Superman’s Lex Luthor. As interpreted by the almost-always-amazing Jesse Eisenberg, Lex is a twitchy, unconvincingly menacing billionaire. He twitches. He rambles. He fixates on urine. He doesn’t belong in a superhero movie but would fit perfectly as an annoying background character on The Big Bang Theory or in a DARE advertisement about the dangers of meth. It’s hard to imagine a supervillain as central and recognizable as Lex Luthor being depicted so ridiculously. Batman V Superman wasn’t a good movie to begin with, but Luthor makes the movie virtually unwatchable. The only way to make sense of it is to think of it as a meta-performance in which Lex Luthor singlehandedly attempts to kill the Superman, Batman, and Justice League franchises.
As bad as 2016 was for villains, there was one exception to the rule: Telltale’s Batman series. The Telltale series took a lot of risks with Batman. They changed his backstory, they reinterpreted his villains and they shifted the focus from Batman to Bruce Wayne. Perhaps Telltale’s bravest choice, however, was to introduce a new, unique villain to the franchise with interesting abilities and a compelling backstory. The leader of the Children of Arkham was a great addition to Batman’s rogue’s gallery and easily the best supervillain we saw this year in any medium. That game provided us with a welcome relief in an otherwise awful year for evil.
Maybe 2017 will be better; at least we’ll get Loki back in the next Thor movie. Lego Batman’s Joker also looks like fun and who knows what Guardians of the Galaxy and Justice League will bring (we’re cautiously optimistic for Ciaran Hinds as Steppenwolf). Meanwhile, it may be up to Telltale to provide us with complicated villains we look forward to battling. I’d love to see how they’d depict a complex, charismatic villain like Lex Luthor or Apocalypse. Heck, they’ve already made several Walking Dead titles, I wonder if they’d consider taking a crack at Negan? Actually, nevermind, I think I’ve seen enough of those guys already.