Michael Lee is a writer, script consultant, script reader and judge. He's worked as a creative executive for a few production companies and as reader and judge for some of the most prestigious screenwriting contests in the country including PAGE and Final Draft Big Break. He's recently optioned his latest project: a science-fiction comedy entitled How to Conquer the Earth. Follow Michael on Facebook and Twitter: @GoldenAgeofGeek.
In the world of writing calling a character a “comic book supervillain” used to be a put down. It used to mean that the character was simple or lacked depth or was meant for “younger audiences.”
Times have changed.
Superhero movies are now one of the hottest genres in Hollywood. And every good superhero movie needs a great supervillain. And these movies aren’t just successful at the box office but have been praised by critics. But one of the critical factors is that the comic book publishers themselves have taken an active role in bringing their intellectual properties to life. The films are often in the hands of people who understand and truly love the material. To them a “comic book supervillain” was never something to be looked down on.
But comic books are still a very different medium from film or television. Both are visual but there are still some key differences. And now that we’ve now had over a dozen projects from Marvel Studios we can look back and examine the process of taking an iconic (or in some cases not so iconic) supervillain from the comic panels to turning him or her into a flesh and blood character. What did they change? What did they keep the same? What can this teach us about writing antagonists in general? And what concerns are specific to the superhero genre?
A full list of the Marvel supervillains would be beyond the scope of this article. Even just reviewing three proved to be too long. So I’ll be looking at these evildoers one at a time. I’ll be starting with the Marvel Studio productions but there are plenty of other characters worthy of study from Gene Hackman’s Luthor to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Finally one last warning SPOILERS AHEAD.
The Movie : Iron Man
The Supervillain: Obadiah Stane AKA The Iron Monger
The first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was a bold experiment. There are so many chances the studio took on this from the cast and director to the hero. Up until that point, Iron Man had been popular largely just in comic book circles and the character had never appeared in a live action format before. And while he was a very popular character you couldn’t call him iconic prior to this film. So the filmmakers were faced with a few challenges not the least of which was the choice of supervillain.
Iron Man doesn’t exactly have a Rogue’s Gallery nearly as iconic as Batman’s. It’s full of obscure baddies like The Melter and The Mad Thinker. Even by those standards, Obadiah Stane was a bold choice. Stane had a brief but memorable run in the comics during the 1980s. There Stane was a business rival of Tony Stark who eventually managed to wrest control of Stark Industries away from Tony. The rivalry culminated in a battle between the two in their advanced armor suits. At the end of the encounter, Stane died and unlike so many Marvel characters has stayed dead. So why did the studio choose him to be the main antagonist in what was already a risky gamble?
The answer lies in how they tackled the main character. Marvel chose to make this FX heavy action film a character study. They took the typical superhero origin story and made some crucial changes. The origin story usually revolves around the character receiving great powers or abilities usually through chance. This sudden change thrusts the character into a new world of danger and adventure. In Iron Man however, Tony Stark doesn’t receive his gifts as result of fate. It’s a matter of choice. He chooses to become Iron Man first to escape from his captors then to right the wrongs committed by his own company. The world of danger he enters is actually the same one he’s been living in. He just never noticed it before because of his callowness and irresponsible nature. That makes his journey much more personal. He’s not fighting an external enemy. Tony Stark is forced to confront a widespread criminal enterprise based inside his own company. This conspiracy doesn’t just threaten innocent people abroad but Tony himself and the people he cares about.
A story like that requires a very specific antagonist or villain. It doesn’t really require a madman with ten power rings or a ruthless business rival. As a result, Stane may have been the supervillain that the studio changed the most from his comic book version. The movie completely reverses his relationship with Tony. Obadiah starts the movie as Tony’s business partner, mentor and surrogate father figure. Stane is close to Tony in this movie. So close in fact that he’s able to walk right up to him at the film’s climax and nearly end his life. It’s this closeness that defines the character. And this requires some very specific character traits. Stane can’t be a mustache twirling baddie. He has to be charming and funny. If he was anything else it would be too obvious. We don’t blame Tony for not suspecting Obadiah sooner because he has us disarmed as well. But Stane also has to able to turn on a dime. He has to show that underneath that backslapping exterior is man full of resentment and real hate for his own protégé/surrogate son.
With this movie the filmmakers created a real relationship between superhero and supervillain. They took what in the comics was an intense feud between two business rivals and turned it almost into a family drama. It was as much a personal story as it was a piece of blockbuster entertainment. And because the filmmakers took that approach audiences weren’t just entertained, they were deeply invested in the character of Tony Stark and wanted to see more of him.
The only drawback was that Stane, like his comic book counterpart, wasn’t meant to last. Once Tony Stark was able to fully face down the rot in his own company it was time for Stane to exit stage down. Marvel would later introduce supervillains that had more staying power. But that will have to be continued next issue.
- More articles by Michael Lee
- Guerrilla Screenwriting: Comic Book Movies Are Still Red Hot
- The IP in VIP: How Intellectual Property Will Make Your Writing Career Soar
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