Foiled! How Supervillains Illuminate Our Heroes
As the saying goes, a hero is nothing without their villain. After all, you don’t necessarily want Aquaman to become King of Atlantis in the first five minutes, right? No, a good baddie, when smartly realized, can be one of the most interesting aspects of a good superhero story. More than that, the best villains provide key insights into what makes the hero tick in how they contrast with that hero. Whether it’s physical, psychological, or ideological differences, villains who act as a foil to the hero often leave the most powerful impressions.While fans vote to determine the best superhero movie in IGN’s Super Movie Madness, we’ve decided to take some deeper dives into what separates a good superhero movie from a great one. And what better place to start than with villains and how they illuminate our heroes?
Now, before we go on, just a note that there is bound to be some overlap between categories, with some villains being excellent foils for multiple reasons. So with that multi-dimensionality acknowledged, let’s get into it…
“Your Spirit or Your Body?” – Supervillains as Physical Foils
While not every foe a superhero faces is a physical threat, it never hurts to be in good enough shape to tackle the ones that are. But what if there is a big difference in strength or size? Of ability? The idea of David going up against Goliath may have biblical origins, but you could argue that comics and their film adaptations have gotten way more narrative mileage out of it. Villains that have some kind of physical advantage can often highlight the insecurities or weaknesses of the hero.
The Red Skull’s grotesque visage is a stark reminder that Captain America’s power lies not in the serum that gave him super-strength, but in how Steve Rogers chooses to use it. The Kingpin’s towering, confident frame draws attention to how small and inexperienced Miles Morales is in comparison. The trope is even smartly subverted in Unbreakable, where the villainous Elijah Glass suffers from brittle bone disease, which makes David Dunn’s near invulnerability all the more impressive.
But when considering how it often goes — a hero being physically outmatched by the villain — it’s hard not to think about the man who broke the Bat. Bane, more than any other rogue in Christopher Nolan’s Batverse, serves as a physical foil to Batman. Consider where we find Bruce at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises — eight years retired after stopping the Joker and hanging up his cape and cowl, his time as Batman having wrecked his body. That fall from a building with Harvey Dent didn’t exactly help things either. Bruce spends his days hobbling around Wayne Manor getting robbed by the help.
And you know who doesn’t have to hobble around or get robbed by the help? Bane. He’s in terrifyingly good shape, he’s deadly as hell, and he’s here to lay siege to Gotham and chew bubble gum… and he can’t chew bubble gum ‘cause of the mask. The aged and battered Bruce, with a robotic leg brace and a touch of hubris, dons his batsuit once again, challenging Bane and paying for it dearly. And Bane’s not just kicking Batman’s ass, as an excommunicated member of the League of Shadows he’s doing it with the same training that Bruce got.
The threat Bane poses reveals a simple truth about Batman: that he is way past his prime. Bruce spends the entire back-half of The Dark Knight Rises coming to terms with this fact and training his ass off so that, by the time he climbs his way out of his pit prison and hitches back to Gotham, he’s able to trade punches with Bane. And that guy can go toe-to-toe with solid concrete. He may not be stronger, but he has learned that brute strength doesn’t always win fights and deprives Bane of his painkilling gas, which levels the playing field real quick.
“I Am Your Biggest Fan” – Villains as Psychological Foils
Antagonists come in all shapes and sizes, and what they tell us about the hero won’t necessarily have to do with the physical threat they pose. Sometimes, they’ll represent an emotional challenge the hero has to overcome. That shouldn’t be a shock; it’s safe to say most heroes have some serious baggage – dead uncles, dead parents, and the like. The inner life of a hero can be a turbulent place, and villains often bring that chaos right out into the open.
Logan has to face his violent past in his final solo movie… because it is literally hunting him down and trying to kill him. Peter Parker’s villains have a tendency to pull at his heartstrings, constant reminders of how hard he works to keep his two lives separate. Even though they tear up Metropolis in their climactic battle, Zod really poses hard emotional truths for Clark about his place in the world. Heck, if you’re Batman, Superman is both a villain and a psychological foil in Batman v Superman, making plain Batman’s anxieties about defending the world from a god.
Yes, heroes can have a midlife crisis, even animated ones… that’s your cue, Mr. Incredible! Bob Parr has retired as the incredibly strong Mr. Incredible, choosing to raise a family after “supers” are banned. He’s pulled back into action in a plot by Buddy Pine, out for revenge on heroes after Mr. Incredible shut down his sidekick dreams as a child. Buddy now goes by Syndrome and he plans to defeat an invincible robot of his own creation in public so that he can sell his hero tech and make real supers obsolete. And boy, is Bob Parr feeling obsolete! As much as The Incredibles is about a family coming together to save the day, it’s also definitely about a middle-aged man who’s coming to terms with the fact that his glory days are behind him. Syndrome favors a high-tech approach to his anti-super-heroics, which serves as a constant reminder to Mr. Incredible that saving the day isn’t as simple as it used to be. What makes Syndrome a great villain is the way his motives and modus operandi present a psychological challenge for Mr. Incredible, forcing him to face up to weakness that his considerable strength can’t make up for.
“I Want the Throne” – Villains as Ideological Foils
But villains don’t always have to be magnitudes stronger than, or represent trauma for, the hero to overcome. Sometimes villains are there to pose a question that the hero must answer, an answer which they must defend. These villains can be especially impactful in challenging a hero’s preconceived notions, as heroes often have to diverge from their beliefs in order to overcome their foes.
Heath Ledger’s Joker certainly drove Batman to his moral edge, forcing him into impossible choice after impossible choice. Magneto’s stance on mutant superiority drove him into constant conflict with Charles Xavier, who preferred co-existence to dominance. King Orm forces Arthur Curry to confront his sense of duty and responsibility to his underwater domain. Ozymandias presents a quandary to the Watchmen: Is it worth killing millions to save billions?
In the case of Black Panther, Erik Killmonger posed a challenge to T’Challa’s belief that Wakanda should remain isolated from the rest of the world. Out for revenge on Wakanda’s royal family after King T’Chaka killed his father, Killmonger devoted his life to training so that one day he could lay claim to his ancestral throne. This challenge comes at a crossroads for T’Challa, who has just been crowned king in the wake of his T’Chaka’s death. He’s caught between governing in the mold of his recently deceased father and sharing Wakanda’s gifts with the world. Killmonger’s belief that Wakanda should liberate people of African descent around the world with their weapons forces T’Challa to come face to face with the consequences of Wakandan inaction on the global stage. That’s all made manifest by Killmonger, a son of Wakanda who was essentially marooned in the United States and left to fend for himself after T’Chaka killed his father. Killmonger’s plight makes T’Challa reconsider his beliefs about Wakanda’s place in the world and, though he won’t go so far as to send weapons to oppressed people around the world, he does acknowledge that Wakandan outreach can move everyone forward.
Villains, at their best, don’t just oppose heroes; they get underneath their skin. Whether it’s exposing a fear, fault, or false belief, the most memorable antagonists always seem to give us a deeper understanding of the hero as not just a symbol, but a multi-dimensional character. What are some other examples of villains that serve as good foils to the hero? Which obvious ones did we miss? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to vote to determine the best superhero movie in IGN’s Super Movie Madness!