DC Comics has given us some of the most timeless and recognizable villains of our modern age. Because most of DC’s superheroic characters are essentially Gods, the bad guys in their stories have to be equally terrifying. Batman‘s rogues gallery alone boasts names like the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, Catwoman, and Mr. Freeze, all of whom have been adapted into countless live-action and animated versions.
In our current age of cinema it seems like every time we turn around there’s another big budget superhero movie looming on the horizon, and so we’re being treated to more and more live-action renditions of our favorite DC villains. Sometimes directors choose to stick very closely to the source material, and sometimes they take the characters into uncharted territory. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it really does not.
Here are 8 Villains DC Movies Get Right (And 8 They Get Totally Wrong).
16. Right: General Zod (Man of Steel)
Because his backstory has been so varied over the years of Superman’s comic history, and because he’s still a well-known name due to his appearances in the original Christopher Reeves films, it made sense to have General Zod be Superman‘s first adversary in Zack Snyder’s reboot.
In the comics, General Zod is overconfident, irrational and violent. In Man of Steel, General Zod is overconfident, irrational and violent. His costume and army are perfect, and his plan to turn the Earth into a new Krypton is simple enough that it doesn’t require too much exposition.
The film suffered from a ton of other flaws, including Superman letting his father die and then killing the main villain, his being moody and depressed the whole time, and just generally not acting like Superman, but Michael Shannon’s intense portrayal of Zod was one of the things that helped save it from being a total wreck.
15. Wrong: Lex Luthor (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
The fact that someone thought it would be a good idea to cast Jesse Eisenberg as the latest incarnation of Superman’s arch nemesis still boggles the minds of millions of fans and critics around the world. If it were just his appearance that was off, it could have been forgiven. The red hair does actually have comic book roots dating back to the character’s most early incarnation (it wasn’t shoulder-length, but whatever), and going with a smaller, scrawnier version as opposed to the typical tall and muscular portrayal also may not have been such a terrible thing.
What didn’t work was taking the typically calm, cool, methodical workings of a man who is supposed to be Superman’s intellectual rival and turning them into something that more closely resembled The Mad Hatter from Batman’s villain collection. His plan is a mess, his motivations are everywhere and nowhere, and at the end it’s implied that he’s subservient to some greater villain. Lex Luthor is subservient to no one.
14. Right: Lex Luthor (Superman Returns)
Thankfully, Batman v Superman was not the only time we’ve gotten to see Lex Luthor on the silver screen, and his other iterations have been generally well executed. As both a standalone Superman story and a spiritual sequel to the original first two Superman films, Bryan Singer’s oft-forgot Superman Returns is surprisingly delightful.
In it, Kevin Spacey portrays a Lex Luthor who has spent time and jail and lost his fortune, all thanks to Superman, and so he has had to dive to some pretty disgusting depths (which include marrying a dying old lady for her inheritance) in order to find the resources to enact his latest scheme, which is to replace the United States with an entirely new continent that he will control.
13. Wrong: Parallax (Green Lantern)
The “Emerald Twilight” arc in which Parallax was first introduced was one of the saddest Green Lantern stories, and indeed one of the saddest superhero tales ever told. It came after years of history that dated back to the Silver Age of comics of Hal Jordan and culminated in his meltdown and subsequent killing spree. We were then introduced to Parallax, an entity that used his fear fear and grief to turn him into a villain.
In the 2011 film, in between liberal use of CGI, Parallax was introduced as an ugly cloud of smoke that used to be a Guardian who had good intentions and… something about yellow. There are other examples of films rushing storylines without letting their universes build, but this one is probably the laziest. It’s always fun to watch Ryan Reynolds be goofy, though.
You’d have thought that after the disastrous Fantastic Four sequel, film studios would have stopped attempting to portray cosmic villains as gaseous entities.
12. Right: The Joker (Batman)
Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit Batman was one of the films that showed audiences that live-action iterations of superheroes could be taken seriously.
While the film’s version of the Caped Crusader may not have been the most comic book accurate incarnation of the character, Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker has become one of his defining roles. Many of the most iconic scenes and tropes were lifted directly from the pages of the comic books, such his laughing gas (which makes his victims laugh to death) and his penchant for announcing his plans on hi-jacked television airwaves.
The only new addition to the mythos was giving the Joker a concrete origin story and a name: Jack Napier. That name was recently adapted into comics for the first time in the ongoing “White Knight” limited series written by Sean Murphy.
11. Wrong: The Joker (Suicide Squad)
On the day of the 75th anniversary of the Joker’s first appearance in comic books, we got our first look at what the Clown Prince of Crime would be in the DCEU. It was… confusing. Covered in tattoos and sporting a row of metal teeth, he looked more like some punk rock teenager who stumbled into a life of crime and never grew out of it than the terrifying clown anarchist who was supposed to be a worthy adversary to the World’s Greatest Detective.
But we were patient. We trusted in David Ayer and Jared Leto to give us something special. During Suicide Squad‘s production run, we got all kinds of behind-the-scenes stories about Jared Leto’s antics, all leading up to some career-defining performance. What we ultimately got was a caricature that more resembled a villain from Saturday morning cartoons than anything truly menacing, and with a total screen time of roughly 15 minutes, he could have been entirely cut out of the movie and it would have made little difference.
10. Right: The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Before Jared Leto ever donned the (highly-stylized version of the) purple suit, we were unsure about another actor putting on the Joker’s duds. When it was announced that Heath Ledger would be playing the iconic villain in the heavily anticipated sequel to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the comic book community was more than a little skeptical.
It hardly needs to be said that, though Ledger tragically passed away before the release of The Dark Knight, his portrayal has become one of the defining versions of the character, and indeed the bar against which most modern comic book movie villains are measured.
Between blowing up hospitals and betraying and killing the people who hired him (all classic Joker tropes), this bad guy takes Batman on a ride that ultimately forces him to spend 8 years hated and reviled by the public of Gotham. This film was truly a shining moment for the Clown Prince of Crime.
9. Wrong: Lucifer (Constantine)
The Lucifer Morningstar from DC Comics is a winged angel who’s bored with his time ruling over Hell. He eventually quits that job entirely and leaves the whole place to Morpheus (The Sandman). The the Devil moves to Los Angeles and opens a piano bar so he can attempt to live out his days in leisure.
The Lucifer in Constantine resembles this character in no way, except perhaps the white color of his suit. For some reason he’s covered in black goo and tattoos, and he more closely resembles a loan shark than the ruler of the underworld. In fact, it seems like the only reason he’s in the movie at all is to save Constantine from death, because the writers wrote themselves into a corner.
8. Right: Killer Croc (Suicide Squad)
He’s not Batman’s smartest adversary, nor is he is most realistic or even his most recognizable, but since the ’80s, Waylon Jones, AKA Killer Croc, has been a mainstay in Batman comics and has made appearances in many of the Dark Knight’s properties.
Jones was born with a rare (fictional) genetic disorder which gave him scaly skin and sharp teeth and, as he grew, gave him more and more reptilian characteristics, which eventually included regenerative abilities and cannibalism. Over the years, he’s gone through various incarnations which have often left him feeling regret for his actions. During his time with the Suicide Squad, he’s even flirted with heroism.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gave us a surprisingly nuanced as well as comic book accurate take on the character in Suicide Squad. Though he doesn’t talk much, he’s fittingly menacing, and his platonic relationship with Katana is a genuinely heartwarming addition to an otherwise uneven film.
7. Wrong: Enchantress (Suicide Squad)
For everything they did right in Suicide Squad, they got something else oh so wrong. June Moone was not only the worst archaeologist ever (she found an ancient artifact and her first instinct was to purposely break the thing) but her alter-ego, the Enchantress, was given a power set that made very little sense.
She was a God, or something, and she could turn people into the putties from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and she needed to shoot a giant beam into the sky, and she had a brother who seemed to be a lot more powerful than her but was somehow just a lackey, and she was weak against friendship.
This was just another example of films taking characters with years of backstory and buildup and relegating them to one-dimensional positions just to fill a plot necessity. Had June Moone perhaps been given a spot on the Squad and allowed to actually interact with the other members, the film may have worked better in general.
6. Right: Amanda Waller (Suicide Squad)
On the one hand, Amanda Waller’s plan to recruit a collection of the world’s most dangerous super criminals into a government-controlled team to fight bad guys seemed way too ludicrous to ever be taken seriously by anyone, much less an entire security council. On the other, Viola Davis played this version of Amanda Waller so well that it was hard not to believe that this woman was capable of getting away with almost anything.
In the comics, Waller is the kind of shadowy villain you love to hate, acting just well enough within the parameters of the law that heroes like Batman are often forced to leave her be. The film portrays this perfectly, with Bruce Wayne offering her a vague threat during the post-credits scene but ultimately leaving her to her devices. Thankfully she wasn’t killed off, so we can expect more of Viola Davis’ excellent portrayal in the upcoming sequel.
5. Wrong: Ares (Wonder Woman)
Wonder Woman may be the best thing to come out of the DCEU thus far, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without its shortcomings. Specifically, the third act all feels a little bit manufactured to suit the demands of a public who had not been kind to the rest of DC’s burgeoning film universe.
Enter Ares, Wonder Woman’s arch enemy from the comic books. The reveal that he actually had been working from behind the shadows to manipulate mankind into constantly fighting each other felt a bit… lackluster. The final fight saw the villain killed off in typical fashion in a manner of minutes; yet another classic villain relegated to nothingness to service a plot.
Then, of course, there was the mustache. The makers of Justice League worked so hard to remove Henry Caville’s mustache for his portrayal of Superman in the film’s reshoots. Why couldn’t they have done the same thing for David Thewlis?
4. Right: High Chancellor Adam Sutler (V For Vendetta)
The Wachowskis’ adaptation of the widely acclaimed graphic novel V for Vendetta wasn’t perfect. No, Alan Moore did not give it his stamp of approva. He even went so far as to request to remain unaccredited as an inspiration for the V for Vendetta film, but Alan Moore doesn’t like any adaptation of his work.
Truthfully, even though many of the characters and a lot of the political subtext was changed, and even though the main villain didn’t go by the same name he went by in the comic book, he still served as a worthy antagonist for Hugo Weaving’s V. Sutler was the kind of villain you could really love to hate by the end of the film, which earned numerous awards nominations and accolades.
Yes, the name change from Adam Susan to Adam Sutler (a combination of Susan and Hitler) was a little bit on the nose, but it served the merciless dictator well and didn’t take anything away from the portrayal. It helped that the late John Hurt brought magic to every role he tackled.
3. Wrong: Two-Face (Batman Forever)
There is nothing funny or goofy about the comic book incarnation of Two-Face. Harvey Dent (whose name in his first appearance was Harvey Kent, but it was later changed to avoid any perceived relation to Superman) was a district attorney who tried his very best to take down Gotham’s criminal underworld.
In the film Batman Forever, we were given a farm more comical take by famed actor Tommy Lee Jones. Where Batman and Commissioner Gordon often feel pain and heartache due to the loss of their dear friend Harvey Dent to madness, the film completely ignores this aspect of all three characters.
To make things worse, where in the comics Two-Face is completely bound to the outcome of his coin flips, Jones’ portrayal saw the character flipping his coin multiple times in order to receive his desired outcome. It may have been okay for the 1960s cartoon, but the film franchise had initially set out to remove that corniness from Batman’s villains.
2. Right: Scarecrow (Batman Begins)
While the Scarecrow has had various motivations and larger aspirations over the years, his end goal tends to be the same: dose as many people as possible with his trademark fear toxin and watch the panic unfold.
That’s why his role in Christopher Nolan’s now classic Caped Crusader reboot Batman Begins works so well. Jonathan Crane is slowly introduced as a psychiatrist on the mob’s payroll, but he is ultimately revealed to be in the employ of the film’s villain Ra’s al Ghul, whose only goal is Gotham’s destruction. What weapon does he choose to use? Crane’s fear toxin.
It’s a shame that Crane didn’t have a larger role in the film’s two sequels, although having him serve as the judge and jury in Bane’s mock court in The Dark Knight Rises definitely seemed in line with something the character would find himself doing in the comics.
1. Wrong: Bane (Batman & Robin)
The comic book incarnation of Bane has stood the test of time as one of the only villains to have ever broken Batman, both figuratively and literally. At a time when Bruce Wayne was all but spent, Bane unleashed a physical and psychological attack so devastating that the Dark Knight could barely throw a punch by the time they finally came face to face.
Joel Schumacher decided for some reason that keeping any of Bane’s hyper intelligence, tragic backstory, and complicated motivations wouldn’t service Batman & Robin, so he instead turned the character into Poison Ivy’s lackey. The character retained his mask and his brute strength, but that was about it. He was relegated to an nonspeaking, unthinking buffoon.
Thankfully, we eventually got to see a proper adaptation in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. But for those who had waited so long to see the character in live action only to be so sorely disappointed, this one still stings.
Are there any other villains that were ruined or respected by DC films? Let us know in the comments!
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