A hero’s work is never done. And given the speed with which supervillain movies are rushing into cinemas, we’re starting to see why. Since the release of 2018’s Venom, studios like Sony and Warner Bros. have been vying for bad-guy supremacy, releasing Joker, The Suicide Squad, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage in quick succession.
With the Jared Leto-led Morbius, Sony is finally setting its grand plan in motion for an MCU-style franchise comprised exclusively of Spider-Man villains. Emboldened by the success of Venom, its sequel, and a pair of DC-branded villain features, Sony is taking the same test Marvel takes at least once a year: Can they turn a character no one recognizes into the face of a movie?
If Marvel can make Shang-Chi and Eternals household names, surely Sony can do the same for “the living vampire” Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto). It took Marvel the better part of a decade to deliver a satisfying villain; one need only Google “Marvel’s villain problem” to remember all the lackluster antagonists that populated Phase One. We’re looking at you, Whiplash, the Chitauri, and Abomination.
Kevin Feige eventually worked it out, giving a TV show to the MCU’s most popular baddie, Loki, and a whole dang movie to Thanos with Avengers: Infinity War. But while the villains have been getting better, Sony’s been moving forward with this subgenre because they only own the rights to Spider-Man characters.
Before Venom, supervillain movies came in two ways: Meta superhero parodies, like Megamind and Despicable Me, and antihero narratives, usually where a bad guy meets a worse guy. For example, 2004’s Catwoman functions similarly to any other superhero origin story from that era, such as 2002’s Spider-Man. In the film, Patience Phillips (Halle Berry), a meek graphic designer, spends her nights hunting down the cosmetics exec that turned her into a Catwoman. Director Pitof and his army of six credited writers reimagined Batman’s canonical cat-burglar as a full-blown superhero.
In the first wave of superhero movies, villains frequently outshone the heroes. Tim Burton’s Batman was the prime example, with some going as far to call the film “Joker.” As Roger Ebert succinctly put it in his 1989 review: “Nicholson’s Joker is really the most important character in the movie—in impact and screen time.” Filmmakers and studios understood the value of the supervillain even then.
Catwoman might have bombed at the box office, but the failure didn’t sour studios on villain-forward movies. So after closing a deal for a series on Wolverine’s origins in 2004, Fox aimed to go deep on Magneto, which would eventually become X-Men: First Class. Over at Sony, Spider-Man producer Avi Arad, standing victorious over Sam Raimi’s trilogy after shoehorning Venom into Spider-Man 3, wanted to give Topher Grace’s squirrelly version of the symbiote a spinoff. And that’s before he and Marc Webb teased the Sinister Six movie in The Amazing Spider-Man (2014).
More than a decade later, studios have a better idea of how to tackle these two kinds of stories, discovering that the most significant difference between hero and villain films is thematic. Superhero movies are about overcoming the human body’s limitations and effecting change. Tony Stark undergoes these kinds of transformations as the main character of the MCU’s first decade, from building the Mark 1 to putting on the Infinity Gauntlet for The Snap.
On the other hand, supervillain movies are about restraining and controlling the main characters’ worst impulses, for either comedic or dramatic effect.
Systems of control exist throughout these films. In Venom, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), Venom’s host, must keep the symbiote from eating civilians. The Suicide Squad is held hostage by the U.S. government, which is trying to control a geopolitical situation it created. And Joker features a round robin of failing regulators that are supposed to prevent Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) from getting Joker-pilled.
Venom plays this like a Jekyll and Hyde relationship—or, more appropriately, a Bruce Banner and Incredible Hulk one. Just as the tension of The Incredible Hulk lies in Bruce Banner’s ability to control the Hulk, Eddie Brock must keep Venom at bay. In one of the movie’s most infamous scenes, Brock must balance his desire to bring the corporation responsible for Venom to justice with Venom’s desire for extremely fresh meat. So he jumps in the lobster tank.
Eddie develops a rule system for Venom to abide by the movie’s end. “There are good people in this world, a lot of them,” Brock tells Venom. “And there are bad people. You have to tell the difference. The deal is, you will only ever be allowed to touch, harm, hurt, possibly, very possibly, eat very, very bad people, but never, never, ever good people. All right?” And yet, he’s still bad enough to eat a gangster holding up a convenience store. Not even Eddie, the capital punishment supporter, seems fazed by that one.
The movie essentially defangs Venom before he can do anything terrible, introducing two worse, different colored Venoms (Riot in Venom and Carnage in the sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage). In both cases, Venom becomes a hero by default.
To that same end, The Suicide Squad is about how the U.S. government controls and weaponizes our uglier instincts. It turns to the bad guys when it has to be the bad guys. If its subjects disagree or escape, the government will blow their heads up. Gunn’s screenplay allows the Suicide Squad to transition from villains to slightly less bad guys as if their crimes aren’t so devious when set against the history of imperialism.
The end of The Suicide Squad literalizes this point through Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who must envision his great repressive force (his mother—played by Lynne Ashe) in order to kill. He uses this skill to help take out the film’s literal Big Bad Starro, a monstrous mind-controlling starfish that uses minions to take over a host body, Venom style. To finish the job, Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), whose superpower is, yup, controlling the minds of rats, sends her minions and devours the starfish.
But all the previous villain films pale in comparison to Joker, a thoroughly depressing piece of pop-nihilism that aims to be the most unpleasant villain film possible. For as uplifting as Spider-Man or Superman can be, Joker is the opposite, an origin film for the villain that forces the genre into more dramatic territory. We all know he’s just one bad day from becoming the Joker, but the movie boils over with bad fortune for Fleck.
Arthur Fleck physically transforms into the Joker through defeat and degradation he blames on failed protectors. The litany of indignities, including being fired from the clown factory to being humiliated on television to finding out his mother was sexually abused, turn him into the Joker. He “only has negative thoughts” because every minute is the worst minute of his life.
By the film’s end, control over the narrative is completely unstable. Director Todd Phillips plays coy with the finale, with Joker sitting in a psych ward, muttering to himself about some joke we “wouldn’t get,” implying that perhaps the whole film was in his head. The next shot swings things back the other way, indicating that maybe he was arrested and now spends his days taking out doctors and guards at Arkham Asylum. Controlling the Joker is a job in need of a Batman.
Audiences love indulging their bad sides. Having made a billion dollars and netted two Oscars (with 11 nominations in total), Joker proves people are willing to follow these characters into the darkness. And though it felt like a failure at the time, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad has already produced the popular TV spin-off Peacemaker, with more followups, apparently, on the way. As Morbius heads to theaters, it seems clear: The era of the supervillain movie is just beginning.