In the Spring of 2009, I had the opportunity to spend some time with legendary Batman scribe Frank Miller. Many have justifiably levied criticism at the man for his reactionary stance towards the War on Terror, as well as the hyper-sexualization of women in his work. I found him perfectly pleasant and often hilarious as a human being, but something he said stuck out to me. When discussing the film The Dark Knight, Miller asserted that it was overrated because the story focused more on the Joker than Batman. He believed that, whatever the merits of the film, it was not truly a “Batman movie”, but more along the lines of The Joker (featuring Batman). While this assertion certainly has its merits, ultimately it makes no difference, for one very simple reason: VILLIANS KICK ASS!
Batman has always been one of my favorite superheroes. A strong part of his appeal lies in the fact that he’s not really a superhero at all, but rather a heroic man. Sure, he’s strong and agile, but in a way that vaguely resembles a human being. His powers seem to be only the ability to inherit a vast fortune at a young age, a utility belt that always has just the remedy for any sticky situation, and a superhuman resistance to STDs. Sure, he’s brilliant, technologically savvy, and knows thousands of ways to beat bad guys up, but at the end of the day, he’s just a man tortured by his past, trying to make a difference in this crazy, mixed-up world. If he were just a stylized noir detective focused on defeating the seamy underbelly of organized crime in Gotham, he’d be pretty cool; but no, he goes up against a menagerie of Arkham inmates and is the better for it.
The Joker is one of the greatest villains of all time, to be sure, but the rest of the list is quite strong. From the films alone, there are Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Ra’s al Ghul, and Scarecrow, with some appearing more than once. No other comic book hero could successfully pull off the Knightfall storyline, in which Bane releases all the inmates of the Arkham Asylum in an attempt to weaken Batman so that Bane himself can finish the job by breaking his back (spoiler alert from the early 90’s: Bane breaks Batman’s back. It is awesome.) In addition to those listed above, there’s also Killer Croc, the Mad Hatter, Victor Zsasz, and a host of others. Do some of his villains suck? Of course. Not all those listed are equally beloved by fans, and Calendar Man is my go-to reference for terrible villain. Nevertheless, Batman’s greatness is significantly amplified by the vast array of credible, and in some cases spectacular, villains.
Compare this to Superman, who, let’s face it, fucking sucks. He is absurdly powerful and a goody two-shoes. There is never any serious peril there. Some bad guy will get a sliver of kryptonite, Superman will grow weaker, then something absurd will happen and he’ll power through. I realize that comics, and most everything, really, have a certain formula that they follow, but his is just so damn boring. The only time I found him remotely interesting is when Doomsday killed his ass. (If it’s not entirely obvious, I was really into comics from about 1991 to 1994. Knightfall, The Death of Superman, and X-Cutioner’s Song are in my wheelhouse; most other stuff is decidedly not.) Until he actually died, the idea of Superman dying was patently absurd, and that’s a problem. None of his opponents ever pose a serious threat. It says a lot that the only quasi-opponent that I cared for at all was Bizarro Superman, and he was just the goofy inverse of Supes.
It’s not just that strong villains help make heroes better. Frequently, a great villain is more compelling than a great hero. Stepping outside the printed and inked page, the world of professional wrestling exhibits this trait to an absurd degree. Fans are supposed to cheer for the baby faces and boo the heels (if it’s not clear by context, baby faces (or just faces) are good guys, heels are bad guys, and tweeners fall somewhere in the middle, but generally operate with heelish tendencies while getting cheered anyway. Think early Stone Cold Steve Austin, if that helps). For women and children, this dynamic typically holds true, but for teenaged males and above, it’s often the opposite. There are four main factors that go into making a great wrestler: the look (does he have muscles?), work-rate (can he do lots of different moves and do they seem at all real?), mic-work (can he spit hot fire?), and charisma/x-factor (je ne sais quoi.) They all matter, to varying degrees depending on your perspective, but work-rate and mic-work increase in value as you age. The reason older men tend to root for heels more often than not is because they are freed up to do just about anything in the ring, however ruthless it may be. There are limitations, largely because of new findings in concussion research, the WWE becoming a publicly traded company, a failed attempt at a US Senate run by Linda McMahon, and that whole Chris Benoit-murdering-his-wife-and-special-needs-child-then-hanging-himself thing, which… let’s just move on.
On the microphone, the same is true. I imagine that it’s really difficult to cut a great babyface promo, as you’re pretty much just invoking vague platitudes about how awesome the fans are, how you don’t need to cheat to win, etc. The heel promo is easier (you suck/your local sports team sucks/America sucks), but infinitely more fun when done right. There’s a huge element of fantasy fulfillment: being able to kick someone’s ass for no reason and with no remorse, to tell people exactly why you hate them and then soak up the boos like sunrays. I heard an interview with former wrestler/commentator JBL wherein he said that heels are supposed to be booked as chicken shit and weak to put over the faces. This is exactly ass-backwards. The way to put over faces is by having them beat strong heels.
I don’t just root for the bad guys in comics and fake sports, though. As a Yankees fan, I grew up rooting for one of the biggest villains in sports. I didn’t inherit a football team, so I picked the Jets in large part because they were so abysmal. I was raised Catholic – I couldn’t accept success without punishing myself. When I left for boarding school near Boston, I embraced my favorite team’s hated status. By my senior year, this had bled into all my affairs: I was the most electrifying heel in school (my gimmick? Angriest stoner in the history of ever.) In baseball and football, though, fans largely root for laundry. In basketball, the player is king, and no player personifies villainy quite so well as my favorite current non-Knick baller, LeBron James. The first time I watched a game of his, back when he and I were both in high school, I was instantly hooked. The passing and athleticism were unparalleled. As time went on and he lived up to that initial hype, millions loved him.
The highlight of James’s career is probably still Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, in which he went completely insane in the 4th quarter and both overtimes, dropping a 48-9-7. Over the next couple of years, detractors started coming out, claiming that he couldn’t come through in the clutch, but he was still immensely popular. That changed, obviously, with the ill-advised Decision special. Suddenly, everyone hated the guy. Not me. I loved him even more. His choice made perfect sense to me. Cleveland had completely shit the bed when it came to surrounding him with talent (in part, he was to blame for some of their personnel moves, but I root for the player, not the amateur GM), and he wanted to play for a contender in a great location with his friends. And if he could do all of it as an out-of-touch dickbag, all the better. The Pippen comparisons were valid in that they had similar styles of play, but the idea that he was taking a backseat was sort of silly. Jordan, Bird, and Magic were all surrounded by amazing players – was it his fault that Danny Ferry sucked?
Larry Bird himself, in a widely-misinterpreted response on the BS Report, declared that LeBron was “by far” the best player in the league, and really he has been for at least the last 5 years. I got into heated arguments with friends about this subject, in which I cited Herm Edwards’s famous “You play to win the game” speech, and they said “Blah blah blah ESPN told me he’s a poophead.” Or something like that. Last year the NBA had what was undoubtedly its most intense, polarizing, and exciting season of my lifetime, in large part because 95% of people wanted to see LeBron and Miami crash and burn. That matters. I’ll continue rooting for the LeBrons, the Michael Vicks, and any other athlete that I feel gets unfairly shit upon by fans and the media. Most others will revel in their eventual losses, or whine when they finally win the big one. Villains make everything better, whether you like them or not.
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