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Villains, Part Two
by Simon Smithson

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The man with the best wardrobe in the world

The man with the best wardrobe in the world
Say what you like about comic books; you have to admit that they generally take the time to give their villain some motivation. Of course, a lot of the time this is because comic books have kind of a habit of keeping their recurring villains around for a long time. Long enough that some kind of character development is bound to occur whether the author intended it to or not. But let's err on the generous side, and say that the guys at DC went out and did their research into aberrant psychology when they were creating their bad guys. That in turn translates to the screen as producers go trawling for ideas that have instant name recognition and are guaranteed to at least pick up the geek dollar at the box office.

The two most well known of the DC rogues gallery are Lex Luthor and the Joker- coincidentally, two of the most well known screen villains in the world. Characterizations by both Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey as Superman's bete noire Lex Luthor and Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in Tim Burton's BATMAN put a new spin on the comic strip characters- it remains to be seen whether Heath Ledger will do the same in THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008.

Gene Hackman, whose star has sadly faded in the last few years, was the quintessential charming rogue in the original Superman movies. SUPERMAN introduced him to audiences as a man whose primary motivation was money, and making more of it- regardless of what it took. His plan to destroy California with the judicious use of a missile was a case in point. Sure, a whole lot of people were going to get iced in the process, but at the end of the day, Luthor was going to be sitting on a fat bank balance.

The key point of Luthor's approach to life and his subsequent operations outside the law was not immorality, or a hatred of all things good and pure. Rather Hackman played him as being completely amoral, motivated not by the need to do evil, but rather by the need to make money and prove his superiority to his fellow man. It was an approach that he repeated in SUPERMAN 2 and SUPERMAN 4, and it was what brought him into conflict with Superman every time- the force for good that was Superman was presented with a complete and total anathema in the person of Luthor.

It's not an uncommon trait in the real world, unfortunately. The drive to make money at the
But who IS Kayser Sose?

But who IS Kayser Sose?
expense of others isn't totally uncommon, more's the pity. Corporations are founded on the same principles that governed Luthor's actions as portrayed by Hackman. Perhaps not as actively as dropping a missile into a fault line, teaming up with three bad guys from the planet Krypton or creating an atomic monster, but the essential elements are the same. Screw everyone else and get your own payday as fast as possible. It's the Lex Luthor school of business.

Spacey, as you'd expect put his own spin on the role. He had a different storyline to work with, something that allowed him to allow a little more emotion to flow through. The revenge-fuelled Lex Luthor of SUPERMAN RETURNS was still just as interested in making money as Gene Hackman ever was, but he had years in prison that he laid on Superman's tab to make up for. Vengeance wasn't so much a distraction from his primary purpose in the movie, but it was a welcome side effect of his plan. Stabbing Superman in the back with a shard of Kryptonite was just a bonus to creating a new landmass in the middle of the ocean.

Spacey kept some humanity back from his turn as Luthor, rarely letting any emotions except exasperation coming through when he was dealing with his partners in crime. Apart from when it came to Superman. When Brandon Routh showed his head or was even mentioned, Luthor lost his head. The rest of the time Spacey was icy self-control, focused on his plan to regain his lost position in the world and to maintain it, to the exclusion of everything else.

From the beginning to (almost) the end of the movie, Spacey was like a homing missile, moving towards his goals. He could have been working from a self help book- he set out what he was after (money, being the most technologically advanced man on earth, putting the smack down on Superman) and then he moved towards those ambitions, step by step (seduce an old woman, bust into Superman's secret hideout, create a giant unlivable landmass in the middle of the ocean as prime land) and he didn't look back from the beginning.

This was what both Hackman and Spacey had in common in their portrayal of Luthor- a man who knew exactly what he wanted and coldly, calculatingly, went right after it.

Which is kind of ironic, given that the other major bad guy in the DC stable is known for his
Not the shot they'll be using in the obituary.

Not the shot they'll be using in the obituary.
chaotic nature and his almost total disregard for any kind of stable approach to anything. The Joker's character will no doubt be expanded upon further in THE DARK KNIGHT- in the kind of way that only Christopher Nolan can pull off. But Jack Nicholson, despite being the physical opposite of the Joker in almost every way possible, invested such energy and charisma in the role that he may have already defined it for years to come..

Nicholson's Joker in BATMAN strayed from the original comic book version in a number of was- he was a career hoodlum, he was the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents, and he had none of the bizarre obsession with Batman that his cartoon counterpart shares. In the comic books, the Joker defines his very existence by his opposition to Batman; just as night cannot exist without day, the Joker sees himself as being unable to exist with the Dark Knight as a counterbalance.

But Nicholson brought such an intensity to the role that it was easy to overlook what could be perceived as a lack of depth to the character. His insanity was his primary drive, the only thing that kept him going when all else failed. He gloried in death and chaos, at his happiest when destroying things of beauty or killing people at random. Nicholson danced through it all with a manic grin on his face, laughing harder and harder as the body count rose.

It's entirely possible that Nolan, Bale and Ledger will keep this in mind as THE DARK KNIGHT follows on from BATMAN BEGINS. The teaser trailer released on the Internet hints that Nolan has kept the Joker's insanity at the forefront of his mind when considering the character. The problems of dealing with a man who recognizes no boundaries save the ones that he himself creates is outlines in full by Michael Caine's voice over sample, and promises much for the movie.

Lex Luthor and the Joker represent the two darkest halves of the human nature given full reign. Neither is truly evil- Luthor thinks only in terms of money and power, and the Joker is beyond considering morals in any way, shape, or form. Just as Luthor is a personification of control, so too is the Joker the personification of the lack of it. Both of these possibilities exist, in one way or another, in everyone.

Thankfully, the presence of heroes exists to counter them. Most of the time.

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An in-depth look at the different kinds of characters that make the movies, how they've changed over time, and how they reflect the best and worst of us.

Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

All Columns

Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.

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