I’ve been thinking about villains. I think this is where a lot of superhero movies fall down these days.
Jeff Bridges was good in the first Iron Man movie, and Mickey Rourke (and the other guy, whoever that was) were less good in the second one. Guy Pearce is just okay here (and, yes, Ben Kingsley is amazing — I think they missed some opportunities in the script, but his performance is great).
Heath Ledger was great as the Joker, of course, but other than that the recent Batman movies were a complete dud in the villain area.
This is one thing the X-men movies have got mostly right.
Has there been a villain better served than Magneto? To be played by both Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender? There’s about three minutes on the plane in #2 (from “I love what you’ve done with your hair” to “You are a god among insects, never let anybody tell you different”) that’s better than most of the entire performances mentioned above.
And, unlike a lot of the examples above, it’s always clear what Magneto wants, why he wants it, and why it’s a bad idea.
Plus, there’s Kevin Bacon, the real villain of the last X-men movie, who gives a really underrated performance.
It’s important to remember, by the way, that a villain is not the same as an antagonist (just as a hero is not the same as a protagonist).
For example Javert in Les Miserables (you knew I was going to go there, right?) is pretty much the definition of an antagonist, but the story makes it clear that he’s not a villain. He’s just wrong, like the Operative in Serenity. And, as Serenity shows, people who are wrong can do tremendous harm but that’s not the same as actual villainy.
The Therdardiers are villains (comic villains, in the show, but villains). They’re just out for themselves, no matter who suffers, as opposed to the Operative and Javert, who do want a better world. And Valjean makes it very clear near the beginning who the real villains of the story are.
As for the difference between heroes and protagonists? Look at Prometheus. Dr. Shaw is clearly the protagonist, but she’s no hero. She’s a classic monomaniacal obsessive, wanting what she happens to want and believing what she chooses to believe. She and Weyland are basically the same person (except that he’s not pretending to be a scientist). The heroes are the captain and the two pilots who sacrifice themselves to save Earth.
So, I guess the lesson is that your protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero, and your antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. Which is an important thing to remember.