In the last few decades, we have seen a rising number of superhero movies coming out, starting with 1989's Batman, and more recently with Ant-Man and Fantastic Four. Many of these movies have been amazing, and many have failed. There have been many theories as to why some of these movies succeed while others do not. I recently took a good, long look at it and came up with a theory of my own.
To start, we have to look at what are considered to be the 'best' and 'worst' superhero movies.
- Spider-Man 2
- The Avengers
- The Dark Knight
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Batman (1989)
- Batman & Robin
- Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
- Spider-Man 3
- X-Men: The Last Stand
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine
So now that we have a list, we need to look at some of the similarities. One could look at the progression of the characters, which is a big key in making a movie good, but not having a lot of character development doesn't necessarily kill a movie. One could also look at the wording of the script, saying that adding too many 'quips' could take away from the movie, but that is not always true either.
I took a look at it and spotted a big problem as to why a movie fails. Let's bring back our 'worst' list. Looking at them, one may realize that each movie was a sequel or a spin-off that either ended the franchise, or cut it off for several years. Now, to bring forward my argument, let's count how many villains each one of these unsuccessful movies has (not including background minions):
- Batman & Robin (Villain Count: 3; Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Villain Count: 3; Doctor Doom, Silver Surfer, Galactus)
Spider-Man 3 (Villain Count: 3; Venom, New Goblin, Sand Man)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Villain Count: 5; Magneto, Mystique, Pyro, Juggernaut, Pheonix)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Villain Count: 3; Electro, Rhino, Green Goblin)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Villain Count: 4; Stryker, Sabretooth, Deadpool, Agent Zero)
Do you see where I'm going? Batman & Robin is considered to be the worst superhero film of all time, ending the successful Batman franchise of the 90s. Its problem? It added a bunch of villains from the comics in order to attract attention.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is considered to be the worst X-Men film, even worse than The Last Stand. The villains were all over the place, all apparently working towards the same goal, but then they all hated each other for some reason and had their own personal goals. It became very hard to follow, with Stryker and Sabretooth having a scene where they are shockingly working together, followed by another shocking reveal just moments later that they are not working together because they betray each other. This was followed by the shocking revelation that Wolverine's own 'dead' lover was also working with the villains, and then she suddenly betrays them too. This was then followed by the revelation that the only good part of the movie at the beginning (Deadpool) had been butchered and was also working for the bad guys, having been brainwashed, so then Sabretooth suddenly turns in the middle of a fight with Wolverine to help him take down Deadpool who is apparently working for Stryker, who Sabretooth was working for just a couple minutes beforehand, who is now off the grid, but comes back after the death of Deadpool only to have his mind be taken control of by Wolverine's dead lover, who was also working for Stryker just minutes before. *breathes heavily*
This movie was so bad that Fox has done everything it can to erase its existence, including having a movie about Wolverine going back in time to prevent it from happening. In addition, two movies are coming out starring the two strongly requested characters that appeared in the movie that were butchered (Gambit and Deadpool). These new movies will completely redo those characters and it looks like they won't even follow the same canon.
Now let's do the same thing as before but with the 'best' list and count how many villains each one has:
- Spider-Man 2 (Villain Count: 1; Doc Ock)
- The Avengers (Villain Count: 1; Loki)
- The Dark Knight (Villain Count: 2; Joker, Two-Face)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (Villain Count: 2; Ronan, Nebula - 3 if you count Thanos)
- Batman (1989) (Villain Count: 1; Joker)
All of these amazing superhero movies had just about the same budget as the ones above. The difference? They didn't use an abundance of villains.
Why would too many villains affect the quality?
One of the key factors in making a movie is having a clear focus on who the hero of the movie is. Movies like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight do this phenomenally, by making the story solely about the heroes. Spider-Man 2 is more about Peter Parker adjusting to life as Spider-Man than it is him fighting Doc Ock. And The Dark Knight is more about Batman coping with his life changing and having to deal with people like the Joker than it is about Batman actually fighting the Joker.
When a movie adds a lot of villains, every villain needs to have their own story. Imagine how terrible Avengers: Age of Ultron would have been if Ultron just showed up with no back story. When the film is being written, a lot is added to tell the story of the hero and the villains. Often times, many scenes need to be cut down or cut entirely in order to keep the movie's duration reasonable. When looking at what to cut, filmmakers have a choice: do they cut the 'nonessential' scene about the hero's development or do they cut the 'essential' scene that explains why the villain is evil?
Recurrently, in sequels and spin-offs when the hero is already established, many of the hero's scenes are cut in order to make room for the newer characters. To the filmmakers, cutting these scenes makes the movie simpler. But when the movie comes out, they realize that they had cut so much of the hero's story that it is no longer about the hero, it is about the villain.
Take The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for example. After reading the script for the movie, Marvel President Kevin Feige sent a long list of notes to Sony to help them fix up the movie. Here are a couple of these notes:
- There are too many story lines and we need to choose which ones we are focusing on and lift out the other ones, ie; could reduce father arc to just Roosevelt?
- Harry story feels like the main plot of the movie – Peter should look into the past b/c of Harry – maybe find some photos of them together as kids…use obsession wall more to set up this part of his past not just what happened to parents.
Of course, Sony did not listen and made the movie the same way anyways. And as it turns out, it ruined their second attempt at a Spider-Man franchise.
Sure, everyone loves villains, but in moderation. Adding a whole list of baddies at once has proven itself to be a horrible concept that has ended previously successful franchises and in some cases, ended careers.
A fight scene may be fun and all, but it really means nothing unless the hero has a purpose besides stopping the bad guy just to stop the bad guy. In The Dark Knight, Batman stopped the Joker so he could not hurt anyone else like he had hurt Rachel. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the team stopped Ronan in order to get the Infinity Stone into good hands and so they could redeem themselves in the world.
However, in movies like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Batman & Robin, villains are thrown around every which way, each having their own story, taking away from the heroes we came to see in the first place. If I want to go see a Spider-Man film, I want to see it be about Spider-Man and not his best friend dealing with his disease for half of the movie before having any interaction with Spider-Man that lasts more than two minutes.
Villains are fun, but only if they do not take away from the hero's journey. Superhero films have proven that time and time again, yet many filmmakers have just not caught onto it yet. They say a hero is only as good as their villain, which is true unless it becomes more about the villains than the hero.