I have been told one thing you learn in Storytelling 101 is: The better the villain, the better the story. The Greeks knew it. Shakespeare and Dickens knew it. Hitchcock knew it. And arguably, no one knows this more than comic book writers and artists. One would think that when it came time to turn comic books into movies they would have this sorted out. Sometimes they do.
Batman Begins is a very good film with a couple of good villains. In the comics and on Batman: The Animated Series, Ra’s al Ghul is a great, some may say legendary, villain, but in Batman Begins he is just a big enough threat for a newly minted Batman to despatch. As for the Scarecrow? He’s mainly there to service the plot.
Thankfully the Dark Knight Trilogy didn’t start off with the Joker as a bad guy, since there really isn’t anyplace to go from there. Some would say that is part of the problem with the first series of Batman films, since the first one was kind of the Joker’s movie. Part of me wishes that Christopher Nolan would have saved the Joker for the third film, but who really knows if there would have been one. If you consider trilogies to be a three act structure, it makes sense to have the Joker as “Act II,” because the real conflict lies in the idea that Batman could have easily been the Joker, if not for a strict moral code that is constantly tested. It also points out an inherent flaw in the “Triology as Three Act Structure” theory–the third film is almost always the weakest. But that’s another post for another day.
As for the Marvel side: I think we are all in agreement that Iron Man is an awesome film. But… It didn’t have the strongest villain. Like Batman Begins, this was an origin story, and those need to be about the hero. In Iron Man, Tony Stark becomes a hero out of necessity–he needs to create the arc reactor to survive, and the Mk. I armour to escape captivity. Having to defeat Iron Monger just put a period on it. The second film wasn’t bad–just diappointing. Justin Hammer and Whiplash just didn’t work on screen as well as they often do in the comics. It was no fault of Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke, it was just a weak script that spent a lot of time laying groundwork for the Avengers film.
I know I am going to catch grief for this, but here goes: I thought The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was far better than Iron Man 2. And while I am at it, Iron Man 3 is my favorite Iron Man film. I even think it’s better than Avengers. Yeah I did. I thought the “Mandarin” reveal was very clever, and that Aldrich Killian turned out to be the greatest foe Iron Man has faced.
As an aside: I recently heard someone say that Iron Man 3 is a great Shane Black film, but not a great Marvel film. The thinking being that it didn’t look like, or have the tone of, the other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I saw it in the theatre, and twice so far on blu-ray, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what they are on about. If Iron Man 3 was a bit too like the first two Lethal Weapon films, I see that as a good thing.
The Thor and X-Men films have a situation in which the heroes and villains are inexorably linked. In every Thor movie, Loki will be the villain, or will be recruited by Thor to fight the bad guy. In every X-Men movie, Magneto will be the villain, or will be recruited by the X-Men to fight the bad guy. There will never be a Thor movie without Loki; there will never be a X-Men film without Magneto. Is this a good thing? It’s worked so far, but will it always?