A lot of things go into making a superhero film (or any film, for that matter) truly great. At the core, you need a hero with a strong character, an intriguing setting and of course, you need a conflict to believably test the hero’s strength. A lot of superhero films rely on the supervillain to provide that conflict, adapting well known supervillains and compressing the tragedies or evil notions that drive them so it can all fit into a two-hour long film. Sometimes it works well and other times it just breaks our heart to see, especially when we spent so long getting to know these great villains through the comics.
DC Comics has published some phenomenal stories: The Long Halloween, “The Sinestro Corps War” and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It’s hard to ignore what these storylines did for the villains involved. They became formidable adversaries, driven by deep-seated, oftentimes wholly understandable desires. Unfortunately, as we said, many of the films that tried to adapt these villains ignored the qualities that made them so great and went so far as to twist the characters out of shape, ruining them completely. Just take a look at these 15 and you’ll see what we mean.
15. ARES (WONDER WOMAN)
Ares’ very presence causes chaos and destruction to occur around him but he’s so much more than that. He’s a master manipulator and at one point was even Diana’s mentor, fighting alongside her in battle as we can see in Wonder Woman Vol 4 #23 (written by Brian Azzarello, illustrated by Cliff Chiang) when they fought the First Born together.
Ares (played by David Thewlis) appears in the 2017 film, Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins) and toward the end, makes a futile attempt to persuade her to join him in his crusade, completely unlike the cunning god of war Diana had been talking about the entire movie. It leads to a boisterous CGI battle and of course, Wonder Woman defeats him. It works with the narrative since the focus is on Diana’s experience with humanity and its inspiring virtue, as well as the reprehensible evil in it. It’s just unfortunate that the villain had to be reduced to something of a plot device in the end for that to happen.
14. TERRA (TEEN TITANS: THE JUDAS CONTRACT)
Based on the storyline, “The Judas Contract,” the animated adaptation of the same name (directed by Sam Liu) made numerous changes to the story’s characters. It’s essentially the same storyline but with a slightly different set of Teen Titans. Dick Grayson still makes an appearance, but as Nightwing, not Robin (who is now Damian Wayne).
The biggest change has to be Terra (voiced by Christina Ricci). In the comics, she was a sociopathic double agent working for Deathstroke, with whom she’d had an illicit affair. The animated adaptation attempts to turn her into a slightly more likeable character by depicting her feelings toward the Teen Titans and Beast Boy as being genuine. It ruins the tragedy of the story and the character. It takes her final frenzied attack on everyone in the comics and turns it into what is essentially death by shame. It robbed her character of its complex madness and of the impact it would have had on Beast Boy, which is an important part of his character in the comics.
13. SCARECROW (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES)
Batman Begins (directed by Christopher Nolan) features Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy) as a worthy villain, wielding fear like a weapon and using it to bring Gotham to its knees. He makes a brief appearance in The Dark Knight, which shows that he continued to bring fear to the streets, albeit in a considerably less grand manner. The Dark Knight Rises is where Scarecrow just loses all the power he had as a character.
He appears in a crumbling Gotham City as one of the prisoners of Blackgate, freed by Bane. He presides over a kangaroo court, judging those who once held power and sentencing them to harsh punishments. It’s an extremely small role that could have been filled by literally anyone else. It ignores the villain’s background and motives completely. He was once a talented psychoanalyst with a twisted interest in fear and the power it has over the mind. We see none of that. Here, he’s just some former Blackgate prisoner with a baseless desire to be evil.
12. PARALLAX (GREEN LANTERN)
First appearing in Green Lantern Vol 3 #50 (written by Ron Marz, illustrated by Darryl Banks and others), Parallax was really Hal Jordan, twisted by grief after Mongul destroyed his home city. He went on a rampage that led to the obliteration of the Green Lantern Corps. It would later be revealed that Parallax was really a parasitic being, one that had been subtly influencing Hal for years in an attempt to escape his imprisonment from the Power Battery.
It has had many hosts over the years but the film Green Lantern (directed by Martin Campbell) decidedly depicted him as a cloud-like entity, supposedly composed entirely of yellow fear energy. Parallax doesn’t influence anyone as well his comic book counterpart. It’s just a mass of evil that the good guy has to defeat at the end of the film, which he does by punching him into a sun. Parallax deserved better.
11. TALIA AL GHUL (THE DARK KNIGHT RISES)
You could waste a whole afternoon away debating whether or not it was a good idea to include Talia Al Ghul in the final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It made for a pretty decent plot twist, but it destroyed a lot of the things that made her character great and unique from Ra’s Al Ghul in the comics.
It’s understandable since films can only be so long, certainly not enough to firmly establish such a complex relationship, but that’s why you could argue that including her in the film might not have been such a great idea. That, and the fact that she has the worst on screen death ever. Her comic book counterpart is a complex character torn between her duty to the League of Assassins and her love for Bruce Wayne. All that complexity is lost in the film; she’s just driven by vengeance.
10. BLACK ADAM (SUPERMAN/SHAZAM: THE RETURN OF BLACK ADAM)
Teth-Adam has had a few origins, some darker than others. The animated film, Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam (directed by Joaquim Dos Santos), went with his earliest origin story in which thousands of years ago, the Wizard banished Black Adam (voiced by Arnold Vosloo) to the furthest reaches of the universe. He spent five thousand years flying back to Earth and when he reaches it, he’s tricked into turning himself to ash.
The animated film is a little more serious than that but it still wastes an opportunity for a great Black Adam adaptation. By the time the film entered development, Black Adam’s comic book counterpart had already been given a variety of character-defining stories that test his strength as a ruler and prove that beneath his dark exterior lies a heart of gold (blood-drenched gold but gold nonetheless). We get none of that in the film, just a two-dimensional villain running from his fate.
9. POISON IVY (BATMAN & ROBIN)
An exaggerated depiction of a fictional character wouldn’t necessarily ruin it if done carefully. Unfortunately, Batman & Robin (directed Joel Schumacher) crossed the line and ruined Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) with costumes that perfectly combined being cheap with being over-the-top. The poor writing didn’t help either.
Poison Ivy, in the comics, is driven by a deep-seated desire to aid nature and stop mankind from completely destroying it. She values the life of every plant and has often shown no desire at all to work with Batman’s other enemies. The film decided to turn her into a vengeful supervillain with cheesy lines and no real motivation to do any of the things she did. It’s a shame that, to date, that’s the only live-action film adaptation we’ve got of the character.
8. DARKSEID (SUPERMAN/BATMAN: APOCALYPSE)
Apokalips’ god-like tyrant is featured in the animated Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (directed by Lauren Montgomery), but it’s not the Darkseid we hoped to see. It’s partly because his whole villainous scheme seems thinly written (really, he just wants Supergirl to fight for him) and partly because he just doesn’t seem like the domineering force of evil we know from the comics.
As many critics noted, it’s due to a sub-par vocal performance, but also because there is nothing at stake here, nothing that helps Darkseid really shine as a character. The only thing the film seemed interested in showing was Darkseid’s omega beams and strength, which, while awesome, are far from the features that make Darkseid such a great villain. It’s his diabolical mind and the pure evil in his heart, none of which show up in the film.
7. MISTER FREEZE (BATMAN & ROBIN)
Let’s keep in mind that this adaptation of Mister Freeze (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) came after the animated series changed the character for the better, making his depiction in the 1997 film, Batman & Robin, even worse. They even ruined the backstory. Sure, he’s still trying to find a cure for his dying wife while she’s cryogenically frozen, but instead of being wronged at the hands of a greedy corporate businessman, he sort of just stumbles into a vat of chemicals and becomes a supervillain (as well as the world’s foremost expert on ice-based puns).
Going into the film, you certainly wouldn’t expect the kind of depth and heart-wrenching characterization the animated series was famous for. But this depiction of Mister Freeze was a new low. It clearly wasn’t aiming for new dramatic heights but, if it was meant to be funny, it failed, as it did in almost every other aspect.
6. HARLEY QUINN (BATMAN AND HARLEY QUINN)
Arleen Sorkin was the inspiration behind Harley Quinn, according to the character’s creators, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Sorkin’s personality and of course, her voice, were what the character was developed around. When Sorkin retired from the role in 2010, every fan knew it would be tough to replace her. The 2017 animated film, Batman and Harley Quinn (directed by Sam Liu) proved that, with a less than stellar depiction of Harley (voiced by Melissa Rauch).
Rauch attempted to bring her own style to Harley’s character, one based around what Arleen Sorkin had already done. It might have worked if the rest of the character wasn’t so dramatically different from the one we knew back in the ’90s. She ends up being a game show host of all things, showing us that the film focused on her silliness as opposed to any actual character development. While Timm has said that he considers the film to be canonical with the DCAU, we’re desperately hoping that it isn’t, because it would truly ruin the character.
5. LEX LUTHOR (BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE)
There were a lot of complaints about Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zack Snyder). There were initial complaints about the casting of Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot as well, but those were quickly quashed after the film’s release.
The reason why Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Luthor is still criticized is because it was eccentric and nowhere near as intimidating as the cool, confident mastermind that used to hound Superman in the comics and earlier film adaptations. News circulated the internet that the Luthor we see in the film was actually Lex Luthor Jr., the mastermind’s son with a head full of hair. Of course, that doesn’t hold much water, because it turned out that guy was just an Australian clone!
4. THE RIDDLER (BATMAN FOREVER)
If anyone could play the crazed, green question mark-loving quizmaster so he fit in with the colorful world director Joel Schumacher was trying to create in Batman Forever, it was Jim Carrey. The problem is that the character differs quite a bit from the comics. Yes, Edward Nygma is a deranged, self-aggrandizing egomaniac but he’s not the Joker, which the kind of personality Carrey’s portrayal was leaning towards, especially since the Riddler of the comics, at the time of the film’s release, had been going through a bit of a dark phase.
People were just starting to see the Riddler as a slightly more serious villain but the film’s depiction of the character just brought him back to his antiquated roots as the goofy, cartoonish nuisance from the 1940s. That doesn’t hurt characters like the Joker or Two-Face, but one such as the Riddler, needs all the great depictions he can get.
3. TWO-FACE (BATMAN FOREVER)
There have only been two major live-action adaptations of Two-Face, one being Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal in The Dark Knight (directed by Christopher Nolan) and the other being Tommy Lee Jones’ in Batman Forever. The latter’s portrayal of Two-Face was written to be a bit silly, like the rest of the movie, which is why they exaggerated every aspect of his character.
Not only were his face and suit split down the middle, his whole hideout had been set up to express two very different personalities. He was a walking, talking dichotomy, not the haunted former DA we’d gotten to know in the ’90s. We can’t blame Tommy Lee Jones for that, just the writers who decided to remove everything that made Harvey Dent memorable as a character, forever imprinting in the audience, the image of a wacky villain obsessed with the extremities of duality… thank god for The Dark Knight.
2. BANE (BATMAN & ROBIN)
There’s a reason why someone unfamiliar with Batman comics might assume that Bane is just an overgrown thug doped up on Venom. It’s because so many depictions of him outside of comics fail to show where his true strength comes from and how clever he actually is. Batman & Robin, for example, featured one of just two live action adaptations (to date) of the villain, and it was awful.
In the film, Bane (played by Jeep Swenson and Michael Reid McKay as pre-Venom Bane) doesn’t speak, he doesn’t show any signs of actual intelligence, just obedience and a ridiculously muscular physique thanks to those tubes, pumping Venom through his body. He just doesn’t do his comic book counterpart justice and twists the nature of the character for the audience, who, unless they’re comic fans, likely assumed that it was true to the source material.
1. JOKER (SUICIDE SQUAD)
Heath Ledger raised the bar with his portrayal of the anarchist Joker in The Dark Knight, so as expected, Jared Leto, who played the Joker in Suicide Squad, was under a bit of pressure. He tried to do something new with the character, but despite his best efforts, it failed. It might have been a bit better if he’d been given more screen time, but that’s a huge might.
The main problem with the film’s Joker was the fact that he just wasn’t as captivating as the Joker should be. For one thing, his laugh sounded far too forced and his personality just wasn’t the same. For example, he went back to rescue Harley Quinn, which is something the Joker from the comics would never do if it didn’t somehow get him what he wanted (Batman). If they can’t miraculously fix the character and turn him into something more complex and powerful (as a character), they have seriously ruined the Joker for the DCEU.
Are there other DC villains you think films have ruined? Tell us in the comments!
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