Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
Riddle me this: How do you make a superhero into the bad guy?
Batman’s enemies have traditionally come with baroque, colorful motivations meant to contrast with what a grim and driven character he is. Take the Riddler, whose raison d’etre has always been that he’s got a monstrous ego, a need for attention, and an irresistible compulsion to prove he’s smarter than a guy who dresses up like a bat and gets hit in the head 28 times a night.
But Matt Reeves’ new Batman reboot The Batman opts to tweak the Riddler’s signature motivations to bring them in line with the new breed of superhero seriousness. If you’ve been watching superhero films and TV over the past five years, it might seem familiar.
As the current age of superhero cinema evolves through its second decade, it seems to be experimenting with sympathetic villains, and using them to drive stories that are more complicated than someone who wants power at any cost battling someone who stands between them and the innocent. But there’s a difference between a supervillain who wants revenge after being personally wronged, and a supervillain who adopts a progressive cause. Because unless it’s handled very skillfully, you can’t make a supervillain advocate for positive societal change without trivializing that advocacy. And it’s very difficult to make a hero oppose those kinds of changes without making them into the tone police of the shitty status quo.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Batman.]
Image: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Pictures
In The Batman, the Riddler doesn’t want power, personal revenge, or to best Batman. He wants to expose a ring of corruption that has been squandering funds set aside for Gotham’s most vulnerable. Avid watchers of superhero cinema might be reminded of Karli Morgenthau, head Flag Smasher in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — she wanted support for international refugees. Or you might be thinking of Erik Killmonger, who planned to redistribute Wakanda’s weapons stores to the disenfranchised African diaspora he felt the country had abandoned. Or you might be thinking of the discussion around Thanos in the wake of Avengers: Infinity War. Sure, what he actually wanted to do was murder half of the universe, but in a twist from much simpler comic book motivations, he characterized his goals as a desire for “balance,” and solving the problem of resource scarcity.
The reason these characters are villains, not heroes, according to these films and shows, is the way they seek change, not the actual changes they’re seeking. It’s unfortunate, maybe even tragic, that they choose paths that break our greatest moral codes, because that means the heroes have to stop them. If only things could have been different, they might even have been on the same side.
Explain to me again why Captain America isn’t helping refugees?
Image: Marvel Studios
When The Falcon and the Winter Soldier writer Malcolm Spellman made his tweaks to the Flag Smasher concept, it meant showing the new Captain America standing against goals like “housing, food, and medicine for the poor and displaced,” while telling the audience that this was a specific, exceptional situation where it was OK for him to do so — not because of anything the victims did, but because they had the wrong defenders. The Batman puts Batman in a similar situation by transforming the Riddler into a character fundamentally motivated by Gotham’s failure to care for its most vulnerable citizens.
These constructions show audiences the need for social change, but shallowly. No true solutions are on display, only morally reprehensible ones or pat, palatable, and improbable fixes. The two roads to change in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are murder, or a spur-of-the-moment speech that instantly changes the course of governments around the world.
In The Batman, screenwriters Matt Reeves and Peter Craig craft a story that says the Riddler is wrong to target corrupt officials because he tortures and murders them. By the end of the movie, it seems as if Batman may even have realized that his methods and the Riddler’s are similar, and that he needs to change. But The Batman also firmly establishes that Bruce Wayne was not interested in what was going on with his own father’s charitable fund, and would not have discovered it was being abused and misused if the Riddler hadn’t provided him with copious clues. Riddler’s methods are morally reprehensible, but they sure did work!
Justice, not vengeance
Image: Warner Bros. Animation
It’s not that a story where a supervillain wants to do good in the world by evil means can’t work. It just takes a certain kind of construction, one that most of these movies and shows don’t manage. Take the example of a supervillain who wants revenge for a legitimate and personal wrong.
If Mr. Freeze wants bloody revenge on the callous executive who shut down his wife’s life-support freezer, then the ensuing story needs Batman to both capture Mr. Freeze, and ensure that true justice reaches the Bad Exec. If the executive walks away, that isn’t a triumphant ending, because we can all see that he also committed a heinous crime.
The role of the superhero, in this case, is to defeat the villain-with-bad-methods and also ensure bad people get what they deserve, using their own, good methods — both preventing new crimes and securing retribution for old ones.
The same rules apply to a villain with a sympathetic cause. If the Flag Smasher group uses bad methods to feed, house, and heal refugees, Captain America needs to stop them and fix the refugee problem. In some of these stories, the heroes are spurred to take on the villains’ positive goals, as when Karli inspires Sam to give his refugee-rescuing speech. But logistically, they can only do so after the villains are defeated, because if they’d been working on the problem all along, these villains wouldn’t have been spurred to action in the first place and then there’d be no story.
And the real, fundamental problem with all of this, the reason Batman and Captain America rarely walk out of these plotlines as the true heroes, is that most superheroes are in no position to fix broad social issues, particularly within the tight timelines of a movie or TV miniseries. Which is why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and The Batman hang their endings on open-ended promises, via deus ex oratory and personal revelations about method.
Wealth inequality, displacement, poverty — these are problems that need long-term solutions, and they rest high above the level of individual action. They aren’t issues that superheroes or villains are capable of tackling in any literal way. That isn’t a critical flaw in the superhero genre. These characters are metaphors, not instruction manuals. If the Joker represents the violence and nihilism at the heart of humanity, then Batman represents the will and compassion to deny that part of ourselves and take control of our destiny. If Lex Luthor represents power unchecked, Superman represents how a person with great power should actually fucking behave.
In comics, at least, the superhero genre has a number of blueprints for how to handle villains-with-a-point. Poison Ivy, for example, began life as a man-hating mind-control thief. Over time, her character became more closely entwined with protecting the environment — and caring for the environment became much, much less of a fringe issue. Today, she’s less of a villain, and more of a misunderstood anti-hero. The Harley Quinn show makes an ongoing joke of her insisting she isn’t a supervillain, she’s an ecoterrorist. Magneto is another great example here: Once he stopped being a paper-thin mutant maniac and started being a survivor of genocide who was unwilling to see another one come to pass, he had to stop being treated like an all-out bad guy, so the X-Men wouldn’t look monstrous for dismissing his concerns.
Image: Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz/Marvel Comics Magneto and Professor X, side by side at the birth of the modern mutant nation.
It’s also much easier for comic book superheroes to make the “cool motive, still murder” argument, because their settings actually have ironclad “superheroes don’t kill” rules — something most live-action productions have made very little effort to adapt. Ironically, this is a case where keeping superheroes closer to their simplistic roots can actually makes it easier to create complicated villains.
So why are so many superhero movies dipping a toe into the knotty challenge of centering villains who are not only sympathetic, but arguably share the heroes’ goals? Why are we bothering with this quagmire anyway? Didn’t we all really like the moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when Michael Caine said “Some men just want to watch the world burn?”
I, for one, blame Killmonger
Image: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios
It feels like the most recent shift in villain stories can be traced back to Erik Killmonger in 2018’s Black Panther. He isn’t the first sympathetic supervillain to hit the big screen, by any means. (X-Men fans have been donning “Magneto Was Right” shirts since time immemorial.) But the deftness and clarity writers Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole brought to exploring Killmonger’s motivations was a cut above — and the viral phrase “Killmonger was right” has been used since for any villain that hits the mainstream consciousness in a way that makes fans say, “Hey … they have a point.” Since 2018, Thanos has been right, Joker has been right, Mysterio has been right, and if a #RiddlerWasRight campaign crops up in the coming days, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
And yet, Erik Killmonger is the exception that proves the rule. Black Panther explores his reasons for pushing for societal change in great detail, and shows how they have their roots in his anger over what he feels he’s personally owed, not love for his fellow man. That’s a great nuance to establish. But more importantly, his goals expose the need for a specific societal change that the movie’s hero is actually capable of achieving.
The Black Panther can create immediate, broad change by revealing Wakanda’s technological advancements to the world and creating a global network of charitable embassies. That isn’t because he’s a superhero, it’s because he’s a king — the victorious, unopposed sovereign of his society.
That particular power isn’t one that most comic book heroes possess, and that’s a feature, not a bug. Because that isn’t a power that most people possess, either. One person can’t solve a refugee crisis by giving a good speech, or fix wealth inequality by tossing a few mobsters and politicians in jail (or by pouring his own wealth into Gotham, as long as we’re talking about it). Pretending that our superheroes can singlehandedly fix systemic real-world problems so we can feel nice about it is no less indulgent than gaining some catharsis from watching them beat Thanos’ face in. But Thanos isn’t real, and wealth inequality is.
Image: Marvel Studios/Disney
Batman can solve crimes, but he’s never going to Solve All Crime, in the same way the X-Men are never going to save all mutants from prejudice, and Captain America is never going to fix all of the country’s problems. There always needs to be another Batman, X-Men, or Captain America story — a new issue next month, a new show or movie next year. This is the meaning of serial storytelling, but again, it is a feature, not a bug. The need to keep these stories in a kind of eternal, ongoing “now” has formed these characters we use to symbolize heroism and justice into the relatable, valuable metaphors they are today.
A superhero doesn’t have to create huge change to be a hero. They still show us perseverance in the face of struggle, and that some helping is better than no helping. They show how people can pick themselves up and do what they can with the power they have, because all power — not just great power — demands responsibility.
Superheroes can’t show us how to win real-world wars, or solve our most complicated and entrenched social problems. And they aren’t meant to. But they can help us stay strong, and keep fighting.