Jaybird and I had a brief interaction over Facebook regarding tomorrow’s release of The Avengers and that led to this post.  Let the record show that Jay’s post is independent of this post and this post isn’t entirely polished, but I wanted to get this up before the movie and then go see the movie and then write another post regarding the movie.

So, “here goes!”

In preparation for tomorrow’s release of The Avengers, I downloaded Thor off of iTunes and watched it last night, as the Avengers seems like Thor 2.  I’ve now seen all of the “Marvel Movies” except X-men Generations and The Hulk reboot.

In general, I have limited but still enjoyable experiences with super-hero movies, as a genre.  There are exceptions to the rule, but my expectation for them is quite low, to be honest, so even the movies that other people find objectionable for whatever reasons (usually good and sound reasons), I find entertaining to a degree that I don’t mind shelling out $10 to see them in the theater, let alone rent or buy ’em as copies to sit in the library.

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Green Lantern yet, it looks like a steaming pile.

But, let’s talk about the drawbacks of the comic book movie genre anyway.  We’re going to start this week with The Villain.

Major Drawback Of Comic Book Movies (as Adapations of Comic Books), Number One: The Villain Portrayal is Bad, or Development is Missing or Broken.

After the jump, there will be spoilers for Thor, Unbreakable (major, major spoilers for Unbreakable), X-men Origins: Wolverine, X-men, and some older super hero movies.

Good examples of movies hitting this mark of badness includes some decent movies, actually, and one really bad one: X-Men Origins:Wolverine, Batman & Superman, X-men, and Thor.

In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Victor Creed is terrible (Schreiber does okay in the action scenes).  Stryker is terrible.  Deadpool is terrible.  None of the portrayals is particularly good acting, and the movie, itself is just plain bad storytelling.  Ugh.  This is a movie that was an excuse for lots of fight scenes.  Now, I like movies that are excuses for lots of fight scenes.  But come on, it’s not that hard to have a bunch of really cool fight scenes glued together with a modicum of story.  Beowulf is nothing but fight scenes.  The Illiad is nothing but fight scenes, really.  They don’t treat the “non-fight-scene” part of the narrative as just glue made with turd, though.

It gets better one step over to the right on the scale: in the original Batman, Jack Nicholson’s “Joker” gets short shrift for character development.  Let’s face it, you’re watching Jack Nicholson’s Joker, not the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson.  Which is fine, for what it is (I like Jack and all), but it does the comic book character a disservice.  The Joker is more than Jack Nicholson.  Except in this movie, where the Joker is all Jack Nicholson.

Similarly, in the original Superman, Gene Hackman plays a very watchable and enjoyable Lex Luthor, but there’s no there, there, except for Gene Hackman – quite a bit like Jack and the Joker.  You’re watching established actors put forth a great performance, and that’s fine for cinema (and enough for a foil for the good guy), but you know next to nothing about the villain in the context of the original mythos.

Now, both of these movies were really first generation attempts to make a movie about a comic book character that didn’t just stink on ice, so the fact that they were directed and produced by people who made movies but probably weren’t comic book nerds has to factor into the endgame, here, so we give them a pass on effort.

The X-men incarnation just skates past this because Ian McKellen(Magneto) does an absolutely fantastic job of doing 15 minutes worth of character explication every time someone asks him a difficult question just by how he looks at the inquisitor.  It’s all tacit, but the story is there, in the quirk of an eyebrow or the furrowing of a brow.

Good examples of movies that avoid this badness: Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass, from Unbreakable.

Compare Heath Ledger’s Joker to Jack Nicholson’s.  Jack’s is crazy: he shoots his right hand man for no particular reason, really.  Who would work for this guy?  Heath Ledger’s Joker, on the other hand, is diabolical.  He would torture his right hand man to death, but only if torturing his right hand man to death furthers his plan (whatever it is).  Heath Ledger’s Joker is engaged in serious N dimensional chess, and while some of the steps are decidedly far-fetched, it still is the case – in the end – most viewers will walk out with the impression “Well, hell, I don’t know what that guy’s plan was, but he sure did”.  The plan doesn’t have to make sense or be accessible to the viewer, they just have to believe that it makes sense and is accessible to the villain, if you get the distinction.  You know Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s backstory, but you don’t care.  You don’t know Heath Ledger’s Joker’s full backstory, but the not knowing, itself, is fuel for the diabolical.  It’s a case where the lack of character development is, itself, a decision about the character that informs the audience about the character.  You don’t know all the ins and outs of why Ledger’s Joker is crazy.  You don’t need to know.  He just is.

You can’t get away with that very often and have the story work.  Of course, doing it the “right” way leads to a movie that most people don’t like.

Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Mr. Glass in Unbreakable, and the development of the character as the supervillain, is downright excellent.  I know a ton of people that *hated* that movie, including a bunch of people who are fans of comic books, but I loved it and the way it explored the nature of the archnemesis-hero relationship, a feature of all comic book heroes.

Come to think of it, the only archnemesis that I can think of that doesn’t really get as much play in the canon as his superhero counterpart is The Red Skull.  And Cap (for reasons I’ll get to some day in another post) is a very unique hero in the mythos of comic book characters, so that’s… hey, that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Now, getting back to Thor and tomorrow’s Thor 2 The Avengers, I get the feeling that the writers had a fairly decent idea or three during the cycles of tossing ideas around, but nobody paid any attention to Loki while they were editing chunks of the story together, and thus in the end, he’s totally muddled.  They do nothing – nothing! – to encourage the idea that he’s fundamentally a trickster.  They move the plot along, but the plot is centered on Thor.  When they need Loki to do something, he does it, even if the motivation for whatever he does seems lacking at the point in the movie where he actually does whatever deed he’s doing that moves the story along.  There’s no “fundamentally flawed person who slips into evil by a series of missteps”, there’s no coherent “evil manipulator is evil” theme.  They can’t seem to decide if he’s a brilliant supervillain engaged in N dimensional chess a-la Moriarty, or a slighted boy who honestly thinks his brother is something of a boob.  There’s no “becoming”, there.

Tom Hiddleston is a pretty good actor, and I’ll give him props at playing all the scenes the way they need to be played to move the plot along, but the character itself isn’t glued together in a decent narrative.  He’s more like a collage of impulses that were necessary to have the movie finish on time.  (That said, I was expecting the movie to bug me just when it came to the Asgardian scenes and since it didn’t, I enjoyed watching it anyway.)

Now, tomorrow, they have a chance to fix all that.  I don’t expect it.  If they don’t pull some ridiculous plot mechanism to save the day at the end, I’ll probably overlook most of its problems.

I suspect that The Avengers will be primarily about watching lots of action scenes involving the tanks on the team (Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk) bashing the snot out of giant war machines and buildings and throwing cars and lightning bolts or repulsor blasts around… or the skill players (The Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Cap) performing cool looking martial arts scenes while deftly dodging huge chunks of landscape that come flying their way.  Villain backstory and/or coherence is probably tertiary.  From the previews, I think there will be a “Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Cap” skirmish to establish who is the leader of the Avengers (spoiler: it will be Cap), but given the results of Thor and Iron Man I & II, it’s unlike to jibe with that well.  Both Iron Man and Thor will have to be less developed than they were at the end of their respective movies for it really to make sense.

I am a forgiving sort of cat when it comes to this.  Comic books, on the whole, suffer from unbelievable character regression all the time.  Spiderman went through it about once every 12 issues during the 80s.  So, while I consider it a weakness, it’s a weakness that is pretty popular in the parent medium.

Actual thoughts about the movie after it happens.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


  1. I think you’re being unfair to both Gene Hackman and the first Superman movie here. The way he delivered the chewing gum line tells you everything. The overall movie is the model of every other Superhero movie made since (act 1 origin story, act 2 intro of big bad, act 3 resolution – with side quests between the origin and the big bad intro).

    No disagreement on the Burton Batman movie though, it’s a very Nicholson movie (who like Al Pacino, just plays himself in every movie made after Reagan left office), and it’s of course a very *Burton* movie. I will say that putting both the 1978 Superman and the 1989 Batman movie in the same generation is a bit odd. But you know, I can’t think of another superhero movie in the 80’s without googling besides the Superman sequels; maybe Star Wars and Star Trek sucked up all the oxygen.

    • If you ever watch any of the other cinematic treatments (TV, mostly) of superheroes between 1976 and 1991, you’ll see why I put Batman and Superman into the same generation. The Rocketeer, The Shadow, Batman Returns, that’s second generation, which ends with Batman and Robin.

      Blade, Mystery Men, and the X-men start the third generation. Iron Man and the Dark Knight are the start of the fourth.

  2. I’m cautiously optimistic for The Avengers mostly because I know that Joss Whedon is a genius with dialogue. That means the glue between the fights will be good.

  3. Yeah, I’m not going to go see Avengers (I’ve read The Ultimates and figure I’ve got the story down already) but I am very, very much looking forward to the new Batman movie.

    The best villian in any movie to come to mind off of the top of my head is probably Casanova Frankenstein from Mystery Men but Heath Ledger’s Joker is a very close second (if Joker had less omnipresence, he might beat C.F.).

  4. I wasn’t going to comment (partially because I didn’t want to say how Hiddleton actually played a brilliant Loki and you have to look at the character as an onion which is something that probably won’t happen with Avengers and blah, blah) but I think a point of order on Joker is needed.

    While I’ve gotten out of superhero comics in recent years, what needs to be remembered is that Joker is an evolving character. We look at Cesar Romero’s Joker and we think about how horribly campy he was back then but Joker was like that at the time. You look at Jack Nicholson’s Joker and complain about him being random but that’s how Joker was back then.

    Before I got rid of all my old superhero comics, I had a Batman annual that came out four-five years before the Killing Joke (which is where Joker started turning diabolical) and two-three years before the Dark Knight Returns (which didn’t have an immediate effect on the mainstream Batman mythos). Like many stories of the time, it was largely nonremarkable except for a conversation between two of Joker’s thugs who had been assigned to kidnap the Deputy Mayor. (Slightly paraphrased due to age but I’ll do the best I can.) They had rung the doorbell and, as they were waiting for the Deputy Mayor to come out, said:

    Younger Thug: I just don’t get why Joker is having us kidnap this guy. He’s a nobody.
    Older Thug: I’ve worked for the Joker for a long time. I’ve seen him kill guys on a whim and I’ve seen him make guys millionaires on a whim. In all that time, what I’ve learned is:
    (Door opens, Deputy Mayor gets a faceful of knockout gas, they catch him as he falls)
    never question him.

    This is the way the Joker was at the time. Remember that Gotham was (and still is) a giant slum. Joker offered thugs the chance to strike it big instead of live in poverty pulling off small-time hustles. Sure, you might have to be a meat shield against Batman and Joker might kill you for no reason but Joker might also set you up for life. In some ways, you could look at working for the Joker as a metaphor for drug dealing in the 80s. The odds were that you’re going to end up dead but you had enough people go from rags to riches that people were still willing to take that chance.

    While Jack Nicholson did very much put his own spin on things, he still captured the overall feel of how the Joker was in the comics at the time. Since this is Jay’s blog, you could make the comparison between WWE in the 80s and WWE now. Back in the 80s, we had Doink the Clown because the WWE was largely wacky in tone. Could you really see Doink and John Cena being part of the same organization now?

    • I’d actually love to hear a rebuttal of my bit about Loki. I agree Hiddleton is actually a really good actor. I just couldn’t figure out when his actual plot started.

      On to the Joker bit:

      This is an awesome comment. It deserves its own post in response. I’m not exactly flush with time, but I’ll try to get a suitable response up soon.

      • The thing with Loki is that we weren’t supposed to know. If you have the Blu-Ray and see the deleted scenes, they took out a number of scenes because it clarified things too much. They took out the scene with Thor and Loki before Thor gets Mjolnir because they didn’t want to make it too apparent that Loki just meant for the frost giant break-in as a semi-harmless way to take the piss out of Thor. They shortened the scene in the banquet hall because it made it too apparent that the initial prank was spinning out of Loki’s control. They took out the scene where Loki is given Odin’s staff because that scene showed us that Loki’s end goal was not the throne of Asgard as many of us thought.

        All of the edits were to keep us guessing during the released film. Just as we thought “Ah ha. I get Loki’s game.”, the movie then shows us “No, you don’t.”

        The rest is opinion. You saw it as muddled. I saw it as presenting Loki as an onion where they just kept peeling away the layers of what he was actually up to.

        This is why I’m not sure I’ll like him in the Avengers. Instead of pulling the fake-outs, I have a feeling that they’re going to play him as the straight “I have an alien army and I’m pissed off” type of villain.

        • I need to see the deleted scenes. I don’t know if that will change my opinion or not, but it’ll be interesting to see.

          They did not play him straight. There was N-dimensional chess going on there.

    • Side point of clarification: The original Doink the Clown was awesome.

      The Repo Man would probably make a better example.

  5. Pat, have you read the Comics Alliance reviews of the Batman movies (by Chris Sims and David Uzumeri)? They are pop culture masterpieces, and I encourage you if you haven’t.

  6. I actually thought Loki’s characterization was good in the Thor movie, though perhaps I was reading more into it than the writers actually intended to put there. He seemed to not quite be sure of his own intentions and goals, and that’s why he was erratic – he started out just wanting to stop Thor from taking the throne, then after discovering his parentage he wanted to prove himself, and the more he got in over his head the greater extremes he felt he had to go to prove himself, until things spun out of control for him.


    The Avengers definitely suffered from the problem you note – Loki’s rhetoric and stated purpose is very much standard, meaningless villain stuff, designed to appeal to the preconceptions of an American audience who see “they hate freedom” as an all-purpose explanation for villainy. His tactics were quite good, but his goals were banal.

  7. Also, I don’t understand at all why you give X-Men as an example of poor development of the villain (even if you qualify it with recognition that Ian McKellan is awesome). Magneto gets more character development in that movie than anyone besides Wolverine and Rogue, and his goals, perspective, and reasons for that perspective are pretty clearly shown.

    Magneto is my all-time favourite character in any comic-book movie, both in in the first and second movies and the prequel (seeing First Class pushed V out of the favourite-character place to a close second).

    • > Magneto gets more character development in that movie
      > than anyone besides Wolverine and Rogue

      Okay, a note on the X-men movies. As comic book movies go, they were fun and entertaining. As a fan of X-men, I thought they were all terrible.

      Now, reading Pyre’s comment and thinking on this more, I need to flesh that out. Being a fan of comic books means different somethings. I’m a fan of X-men, but my fandom starts at about issue 120 and ends when the come back from The Secret Wars. Stuff that happens outside of that range annoys the crap out of me (as an X-men fan) due to the whole “regression of character” point I made on Jaybird’s post on the front page.

      I’m wondering if that applies to everybody who is a fan of comic books. Can you really be a fan of the whole canon of a character? I’m not sure.

      > and his goals, perspective, and reasons for that
      > perspective are pretty clearly shown.

      Here’s the thing, the Magneto I know might kill the X-men. The Magneto I know might try to alter all of humanity. The Magneto I know would not take an adolescent noncombatant *mutant* and put her in the position of dying for the cause. He’d put himself in that cage, first.

      They did not explain this discrepancy to me. That was kind of important.

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