Friday, October 4, 2019

No Joke(r): The Rise of the Villain

As Joker leers its way into theatres, I’ve been thinking about my own experience with movie villains. As a small child, living in a world whose boundaries were established by Disney animated features, I knew exactly who was good and who was bad. Princesses, orphans, and girls with golden locks were good. So were handsome princes who rode white horses. Many of the bad characters were female too: wicked stepmothers, jealous queens, and such, though male baddies were also lurking around.

As I grew older and learned to appreciate great literature, I quickly discovered that good and bad could be relative terms. A fictional presence who was entirely good would be insufferable. And, as characters like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov taught us, someone who commits a heinous crime can be fascinating. Still, in the movies I favored, I liked being able to root for a protagonist with whom I could identify. Such was the case with Dustin Hoffman’s star-making role as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Hoffman’s recent college graduate was not exactly a role model. He behaved rudely toward his parents and their friends, was ungrateful for the many gifts he’d been given, jumped into bed with his father’s business partner’s wife, and then made a pest of himself around her beautiful young daughter. Still, there was always the sense that he meant well, and my own identification with the challenges faced by the Baby Boom generation made me appreciate Ben’s role as a young man of the Sixties facing a world that failed to understand him. (It was all too natural to place Mrs. Robinson – the desperate housewife who had problems of her own – in the villain’s role.)

When I started making so-called exploitation films (aka B movies) for Roger Corman in 1973, I really learned to appreciate terrific villains. When he was still directing his own movies, Roger had rather brilliantly peopled his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with actors like Vincent Price who could convey a kind of haunted villainy that was both appalling and appealing. In the late Sixties, Corman also made an attractive anti-hero out of Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels and The Trip. While I was Roger’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures in the 1980s, some of the hottest movies around were dominated by villains so hideous that they outshone the puny heroes who (temporarily) brought them down. I’m thinking of series like Friday the 13th and, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since it was suddenly all about bad guys, we at Concorde needed to concoct our own, like the notorious (and sexy) Driller Killer of our Slumber Party Massacre films. (Yes, he had his fans.)

Even Disney animation has (sort of) gotten into the act, scoring big with a film in which the princess is NOT saved by a guy on a horse from the clutches of a magically powerful queen. In Frozen, the princely suitor is a useless jerk. And the young queen Elsa, whose powers make her dangerous, unites with her plain-Jane younger sister to keep her dark magic under control. So what could be villainy ultimately morphs into a force of good. As in (sort of) the stage hit, Wicked.

Comic books (and comic book movies) are the last refuge of the classic good/bad dichotomy. Which makes it interesting indeed that the new Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix in the central role, devotes itself to the origin story not of a hero but a villain. The focus is on an origin story for the man, Arthur Fleck, who evolves into Batman’s eternal nemesis. You can bet there will be blood.  


  1. As you say, many powerful and enduring works display ambiguous villainy. I've recently been watching the films of Ingmar Bergman, and few obvious villains are to be found there. Yet the stakes are high and the actions of the characters are memorable, partly because so many characters show a mixed potential for good and evil. That's usually what real life is like, whether we acknowledge it or not. Unambiguous villains seem uninteresting and unimaginative by comparison.

  2. Right you are, Jack. And your own career as a biographer and historian certainly trades on that ambiguity! Many thanks for commenting.