I’ve noticed a common thread in some superhero movies. The great ones are very careful with their selection of actor who plays the villain. They also have fully developed characters for that actor to step into. They have villains with a depth of character and are skillfully portrayed. Many times it is acceptable to use relative unknowns for the hero as long as this special care is taken with the villain. The actor should not only be accomplished in his/her career, but should also be well suited to the role being played.
Let’s consider one of my favorite examples, Jack Nickolson, from “Batman.” The man obviously has a strong track record as an actor, but also had established himself by playing lunatics, i.e. “The Shining,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He was therefore a great choice for the Joker because he had the capacity to play a homicidal maniac yet have a gallow’s sense of humor about it. “Here’s Johnny” became “Here’s Joker.” My cousin suggested that maybe it would have been for fitting for Jim Carrey to be the Joker and Jack Nickolson to be the Riddler, but I disagree for the important reason that Jim Carrey wouldn’t be able to pull of “Cold Blooded Killer.” He’d end up being like a protege for Caesar Romero’s ridiculous Joker from the Batman TV show: always laughing but never really hurting anybody (maybe turning them into colored powder). Additionally, Jim Carrey wouldn’t be Tim Burton’s style.
Another good example is Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from “Spiderman.” The Goblin isn’t merely insane but suffers from a mulitiple personality disorder. This character will require an actor with a good range. Now consider two of Dafoe’s films, “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” In each he plays a vietnam era soldier, yet the characters he plays are completely different. One is a helpful, caring, yet disenchanted sergeant and the other is an embittered, crazed, drunken cripple. These characters could conceivably be the same person before and after the war, a person so completely changed as to be unrecognizable in personality. This shows the kind of range that Dafoe has, the capacity to play analagous characters in completely different light. This translates well into his character as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. Plus, you have admire how creepy his voice can sound.
These actors were very right for their parts, but also they had good character development for their villains; the villain must be portrayed well, but must also have a compelling character. It seems that the B-Grade Superhero flicks often lack both. The characters aren’t compelling, so they therefore don’t need a skilled actor’s portrayal. The lack of character depth makes actor selection arbitrary, if not impossible.
Consider the villain from “The Hulk:” a stereotypical mad scientist whose only motivation seems to be making life difficult for the Hulkster. He tags along merely to try to get control of his son’s might, a tired old story of a guy trying to become powerful. He is a flat character, unevenly developed, that even Nick Nolte couldn’t do anything with. This character practically unmade the film with all his unnecessary “showing up.” The story wouldn’t lose anything by this character’s dissappearance.
Bullseye from “Daredevil” is equally boring. He is an obsessive-compulsive thrower of sharp objects who can’t get over how he couldn’t hit a blind man in a red suit. Colin Farell, famous for his portrayal of a blond, gay emperror, couldn’t make Bullseye conquer the screen. Why? Because nobody knows how these villains became the way they are; nobody knows what makes them tick. They are just bad and for no particular reason; they are characters that can’t change and can’t generate any interest in film viewership. Movie-goers want compelling heros and compelling villiains.
That’s why I’m curious to see what they do with Lex Luthor in this new Superman. He has been given enough attention in the Man of Steele’s mythology that he could make a very compelling character. They got Kevin Spacey to “bic” his head to play him, so the character won’t lack for a talented actor (I recall that Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor not only had hair but was boring and somewhat irritating, not unlike the actor himself). It remains to be seen, however, whether they will make him bad for badness’ sake or try to create some motivation for his character. This could be the deciding factor in whether or not the film will be acclaimed or forgotten.