28
Jan
2012
Random Pop Culture Question of the Week
Favorite Super Villain
the Staff
Random Pop Culture Question of the Week is a bi-weekly journey into the headspace of the Review to Be Named gang, in which a pop-culture question is posed, answers are sought, and discussions are generated about issues and hypotheticals from throughout the realm of pop culture.

This week's question comes from Rachel, who asks: ""So I just bought this adorable Batman bobblehead for my desk at work, and I very often feel some legitimate solidarity with the Caped Crusader, fighting the evils of my real life job to make it back to the safety of my apartment, so I figured I'd make this week's question pertinent to my real life: Who is your favorite super villain, providing specific comic/movie/TV evidence and iterations?"

Batman

Editor's note: I couldn't resist starting with this:

Villains

Now, to the answers!


Jordan

I'll jump into the fray first here, because my answer is probably the most obvious to any regular readers of this site. Were this question flipped, my answer for favorite hero would have been even more obvious: Batman. Yet, since everyone already knows that, it is not too surprising that when I look for my favorite super-villain of all time, I look to The Dark Knight's greatest nemesis: The Joker. He is the most purely evil villain around, a mad-man (maybe?) who gets off on murder, mayhem, destruction, and tragedy. He beat Jason Todd to death with a crow-bar (in my mind, Todd never came back, and I would thank you all to treat mentions of him with care), crippled Barbara Gordon (the jury is still out on whether her return to the mantle of Batgirl will be cool enough for me to forget how awesome she was as Oracle) and menaces Gotham so endlessly and so thoroughly that every reappearance is enough to make even Batman's blood run cold.

As for iterations, well, there are more classic incarnations of The Joker than I can deftly mention here, so I will single out a few that I think take the cake, ending with my very favorite. Heath Ledger played the character with such nihilistic glee, such theatrical panache thinly masking his anarchic madness, that he breathed new life into the character, and brought to the screen for the first time the vision of The Joker I most identify with: That of a nihilist on a spree, a man who so believes the world is random chaos that he devotes his life to the principle that, "The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules." Ledger's performance was brilliant, and his take on The Joker is close to my ideal, yet I would be lying if I said when I read The Joker I heard anyone besides Mark Hamill, who has so encapsulated the character over the last two decades (in everything from the phenomenal Batman: The Animated Series to the incredible Arkham Asylum and Arkham City that to me (and to many others, I think) he simply is The Joker.




But for my absolute favorite iteration, I have to go back to the source material, to the medium that spawned The Joker, and pick Grant Morrison's take on the character in his mind-numbingly epic run on the Bat books, that has spanned multiple books ( Batman, Batman and Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne and now, in its final act, Batman Inc.), the globe, and the title character's entire history. While Grant Morrison's graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is one of my favorite Batman stories of all time (along with Alan Moore's The Killing Joke which is probably my second favorite Joker story ever written), he really nailed everything that makes the character so iconic, terrifying, and true in Batman #663, a story entitled "The Clown at Midnight." Over the course of a single issue (written in perfect, noir-esque prose instead of laid out in standard comic book style), The Joker suffers a metaphoric death and rebirth into an entirely new, and completely terrifying incarnation of his personality. As Joker kills off every henchman he has previously worked with to complete his "rebirth," Morrison offers an insight into the mind of the villain like never before. It is chilling, gripping, compelling stuff, and it is my favorite outing from my favorite super villain.


Sam

I'm going to stick with Batman here because, as a recent twitter rant displayed, I find him to be the most compelling superhero. Part of the appeal of Batman for me is his villains which have helped establish him as the best hero in the comics world. If you ask me, a hero is only as good as his villains and the bevy of writers who have worked on Batman recognize that Batman is, in many ways, as insane as those he fights against. Batman is just on the other side of the coin (no I'm not going with Harvey Dent but you see what I did there).

This is best illustrated at the end of "The Killing Joke" where Batman and Joker both start howling in laughter at one of the villain's jokes. But I'm not going to go with The Joker for my pick of favorite villain (this largely has to do to the fact that Jordan already gave everyone a detailed primer on the Clown Prince of Crime). While "The Killing Joke" might be the best study of a Batman baddie, nothing provided the Batman canon more pathos than Paul Dini's brilliant episode from "Batman: The Animated Series" than "Heart of Ice" which tells the story of one Victor Fries (or Mr. Freeze, as most know him).

Mr. Freeze had the distinction for a long time as one of those stupid/goofy/campy Batman villains that played second fiddle to the Jokers, Riddlers and Dents of Gotham. But somehow Dini found a compelling way to tell Mr. Freeze's story without getting bogged down in just how silly a villain he actually is. To see a way to do Mr. Freeze wrong, I suggest checking out (and hopefully getting inebriated) Batman & Robin. All of the good will that "Heart of Ice" built for the character was smashed to pieces by Arnold Schwarzenegger's turn as Freeze. Yes, the Dini version of Freeze spouted some Ice-y puns, but he was never as silly as Arnold's take.

Dini was able to find humanity in the plight of Victor Fries. Like Batman, Fries is holding onto the memory of a deceased loved one. While Bruce Wayne chose to honor his fallen parents by fighting crime in Gotham, Fries works to keep his wife alive by turning to a life of crime. With this connection, we get a really interesting hero-villain relationship that is on par with the Joker in some ways. Also further improving on Mr. Freeze was the design in B:TAS. To be reintroduced to the world, Freeze needed a new design. I was surprised to see that it wasn't episode director/animation honcho Bruce Timm, but rather Hellboy creator Mike Mignola to create what most Batman fans associate with Freeze.

No, he's not The Joker or Two-Face. But his story, as told by Dini, personifies what makes Batman the best Superhero out there. I wish he would one day get a film treatment that does him justice (my recommendation is David Strathairn but as he gets older that seems to be just a dream).

David Strathairn


Check out the ending of "Heart Of Ice". It's great and I highly recommend checking out the full episode.


Ashley

To shamelessly piggyback on Jordan's discussion of The Dark Knight, one of the oft-quoted lines in the film is Harvey Dent's belief that "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Few fictional characters embody this idea more fully than Breaking Bad's Walter White. In the first two seasons, and much of the third (though the point of Walter's descent into villainy is very debatable), the audience perceives Walt as a man with good intentions who made bad choices and ended up in way over his head. Even in some of his more reprehensible moments (constructing elaborate lies that eventually ruin his relationship with Skyler, allowing Jesse's junkie girlfriend Jane to die) there are arguments to be made that, using his own perverse logic, Walt believes he is acting for a greater good.

The moment that made me decide that Walt was beyond redemption takes place midway through the third season, in the episode "One Minute." Walt goes to the hospital where Jesse is recovering from Hank's vicious beating, and proposes firing Gale and restoring Jesse to partner status in his business venture with Gus. The offer is extended for selfish reasons; he knows that it's in his best interest to keep Jesse on his side. But he rebuffs Walt's $1.5 million offer, delivering a heartbreaking speech in which he reminds Walter of the damage he's done:



It's the moment when Jesse says, "Ever since I met you, everything I've ever cared about is gone" that really gets me. Walt has ruined an innocent person's life, and he just keeps plugging ahead, throwing Jesse further down the rabbit hole (forcing him to assassinate Gale, leading him to believe that Gus poisoned Brock). By the time he tells Skyler in a series-defining moment that he is "the one who knocks," there's no remnant of the quiet, family-man science teacher we met in the pilot to be found. Walt is a bad guy.

Now, I know there's a difference between a bad person and a villain. Walter White is not the antagonist in the strictest sense of plot structure. But I certainly believe that he fits the mold of the "villain protagonist," a main character who, if the plot unfolded from the perspective of nearly any other character in the story, would be the villain. Essentially, from the moment Walt discovers that he's dying, he grabs onto as many people as he can and pulls them into the abyss with him. That's pretty villainous, in my humble opinion.


Gaila

I think one of the scariest, but most compelling of the villains I've encountered in my years of watching television is Angelus, from Buffy and Angel. I legitimately have a hard time watching the episodes in which he terrorizes Buffy and the gang in season two of Buffy, while the episodes in which he appears on Angel are some of my favorites. In season two of Buffy, Angelus is so terrifying, as he skulks around and threatens Buffy and her friends, sneaking into her bedroom and leaving creepy drawings of her sleeping, killing Willow's fish and attempting to bring around the apocalypse, and killing Giles' girlfriend and posing her dead body in the most disturbing way possible. The episodes when Angelus is the big bad are fraught with tension, and I am always completely freaked out the entire time, despite the fact that I've seen those episodes probably five times at this point. David Boreanaz does a great job of changing his entire portrayal of Angel, to the point where he is near unrecognizable (which is perfect, since Angelus and Angel are definitely supposed to be different characters) as his former self. In addition to his overall scariness, Angelus is hilarious and charismatic and entertaining, which is all especially evident in the episodes on Angel when he is summoned to help the gang fight the Beast. Whether making jokes about Cordelia's figure, messing with Wesley and Fred, or provoking Gunn, he is so fun to watch, and, despite my fear whenever he's around, I never really want him to leave. For me, then, Angelus definitely remains my favorite of villains. Plus, he's very attractive:




Rachel

Since others deviated from the "super" part of the supervillian, I guess I will, too, and throw my lot in with a fantastic batch of Disney villains (I'm also throwing out the whole "picking one answer" thing, but that's to be expected around here).



Sure, they might not be as outlandishly terrifying as others, or as traditionally demonic as other villains, but that doesn't lessen their luster. Disney villains represent all that is evil, because they prey on all that is good, be it Maleficent questing to destroy the pure and innocent Aurora or Cruella De Ville doing the most vile evil thing possible (if your nemesis is a pack of adorable puppies, you know you're a super villain) or Hades fighting an ill-fated battle against Hercules or Captain Hook's never-ending quest to rid Neverland of Peter Pan or Jafar attempting to take down the Sultan.

But my two absolute favorite Disney villains have to be Ursala the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid and Scar from The Lion King, probably because, in both cases, these villains are potentially more entertaining to watch than the good guys. Don't get me wrong, Simba is great, but Scar is fantastic. It might be one of my favorite performances ever from Jeremy Irons, and that's saying something because...well...it's fucking Jeremy Irons.



Also, Urusula fills the void of having a sort of annoying protagonist in The Little Mermaid, and also her complete mastery of the psychological torment of humanity (or...mermanity?) makes her all the more entertaining (and frightening). Plus, her dedication to looking super fly even while exiled (I mean, underwater hair mousse? Who knew!?) and her fantastically snarky demeanor make her a classic.



Clearly some things last forever, and Disney villainy is one of them.




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