After The Joker, Who will be the next Comic Book Super Villain to get a standalone film?
‘Every Villain is the hero of his or her own story’: The Writers Journey – Christopher Vogler
When I first heard Warner Bros were going ahead with a Joker movie, my initial reaction was “No, why, dear lord, why?” No one wanted or asked for a Joker movie. One of the Joker’s biggest draws as a villain is his mystic, his mystery. There was an element of power in his anonymity.
I’ve always believed that balance is essential in the comic book universe. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, if you have a Superhero you also need a Super villain, that’s how you bring balance to the force. (sorry, wrong franchise but same idea).
What would a James Bond movie be without its ‘Man with the golden gun’ or Goldfinger? Films with impossibly heroic leads need great villains as a balance. A solo Joker movie with no Batman in sight just seemed to me like a recipe for failure. But as it turns out, I was wrong, very wrong.
The Joker was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. I was happy to say i was wrong as i completely enjoyed the movie. It was a fascinating character study, looking at self image, perceptions of reality and how society very often fails people suffering mental health issues. When a 50 million dollar ‘indie’ film goes on to make over a billion dollars, it’s inevitable the studios are going to want more. Director Todd Phillips made it clear from the start that the film was a one-off, not part of a franchise or connected universe. Joaquin Phoenix said he wasn’t opposed to the idea of returning as the Joker but only if the project was once again helmed by Director Todd Phillips. So for now at least, that avenue is closed. But that doesn’t mean Todd Phillips would be opposed to taking another villain and give them the same treatment. In fact, before the release of the Joker, he pitched the idea to Warner Bros of 3 stand-alone villain films by himself and 2 other Directors to make up a brand-new film label ‘DC Black’, with a focus on more mature comic book stories and content.
While they loved the direction the Joker was taking, Warner rejected the idea of a separate ‘dark’ film label, stating it was unnecessary. Marvel on the other hand, despite their massive success with the MCU, have always taken a ‘wait and see’ approach when it comes to breaking new ground. They first waited to see how Wonder Woman would perform for DC before pushing ahead with their own female superhero led movie Captain Marvel. I can guarantee you that Kevin Feige and the Bosses at Disney all sat up when the Joker scored big. Everyone will be scrambling to bring their own indie style, low budget Super Villain movie to the screen that can go on to not only score big at the box office but also win them that much sought after accolade, an Oscar. Money can buy most things but not the respect of the elite in the film industry.
So, who will be the next Super villain to stand in the spotlight? Whilst Marvel has quite a few villains that could potentially work, the interconnected structure of the stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would make such a project a lot harder to fit into their development slate.
DC, on the other hand, has a host of characters who are fairly well known in popular culture having already appeared in some capacity on screen. Unfortunately, most of these are tied quite closely to Batman. Warner will most likely be saving most of their ‘Bat villains’ for Matt Reeves ‘The Batman’ trilogy. They would want to avoid the type of issues they had with the Joker where people were confused by two versions of the same character on the big screen at the same time.
With all the uncertainty surrounding Henry Cavil and the next Superman movie, it’s the perfect time for DC Comics second most popular villain and ‘Greatest Criminal mastermind of our time’ to step in to the spotlight. Yes, it’s time for Lex Luthor.
Lex Luthor is brilliant, possesses a genius intellect, is manipulative, ambitious and simultaneously wants to bend the world to his will and also be seen as its saviour. He is the ‘Ying’ to Superman’s ‘Yang’. While superman always puts helping others ahead of his desires (except with Lois, whom he puts ahead of everyone). Every action Lex takes is to further his ambitions. He is almost the polar opposite to the Joker. Both these villains appeared in comic books for the first time in April 1940 but that’s about where any similarities end. While Lex seeks control and order, The Joker seeks loss of control, confusion and chaos. Over the last 60 years, Lex has graced comic books, animation, TV shows, and movies. Every interpretation of the character, whilst different, have all provided an added depth which has made him all the more watchable on-screen and will undoubtedly provide ample material for the character on the big screen.
So what is required to make a good on screen Luthor?
Michael Rosenbaum played the character for several years on Smallville. The show was an origin story for Superman but also served as an origin story for Lex. Michael played the character with a certain vulnerability. We felt for his plight with his abusive father, lack of good guidance and perceived betrayal by his best friend Clark. Lets not forget his mistrust of all things alien. With a long-running show like Smallville, they could show the characters slow descent into evil. The only thing better than Michael Rosenbaum’s villain portrayal in Smallville was that by John Glover as his father Lionel Luthor which was chillingly sinister.
Gene Hackman played Lex Luther in 3 out of the 4 original Superman Movies opposite Christopher Reeve. Gene’s portrayal whilst enjoyable was very reminiscent of a con artist, a salesman trying to rip everyone off. He was always plotting, and planning a way to get an advantage. He would make a deal with anyone then stab them in the back at the first opportunity. He was driven by power but also money and ‘the good life’.
John Shea played Lex on TV during Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Despite the long run of the show, he was only fully featured in the first season, after which it was mostly guest appearances. His time as Luthor stood out most for his arrogant portrayal of the millionaire. He hated the thought that Superman appeared ‘above’ us humans and was determined to bring him down a peg or two. He also pursued Lois Lane quite fanatically, possibly seeing her as the ultimate prize to claim from Superman.
The last big Screen Lex we saw was Jessie Eisenberg’s portrayal in 2016’s Batman Vs Superman. The only thing more divisive than the film was Jessie’s take on a slightly younger Luthor. His portrayal was akin to a psychotic version of his Zuckerberg from the social network. A young ambitious exec, already in possession of money, power and resources but obsessed with trying to find a way to control a being he perceived to be a threat and more powerful than him. His characters greatest achievement on film was actually bringing Batman and Superman to blows. I didn’t particularly enjoy this portrayal but when you have a character that has been played so many times on screen, you have to sometimes take a shot with something different. On this occasion, he shot and missed, similar to Jared Leto’s Joker. It doesn’t make them bad actors, sometimes things just don’t work.
Our current Lex Luthor is being played by Jon Cryer on the TV show Supergirl. There were some protests when he was first announced as he has typically been a comedic actor for most of his career. He joined the cast of Supergirl during its 4th season and in only a few episodes, managed to steal the show. Jon originally played the idiot sidekick to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman 4 which is widely regarded as a terrible movie, so he saw this as a chance to make up for it. He plays a much older Lex and as such his skills of manipulation are finer tuned. He is still ‘the greatest criminal mind of our time’ but is also the slick businessman that wants to be seen by the public as a humanitarian, our benevolent saviour and protector from ‘Alien’ threats. After only a few episodes on Supergirl, his portrayal is being heralded as the best seen on TV since Michael Rosenbaum, some say even better.
With such a rich history to choose from, who will Warner Bros and Todd Phillips choose to bring this villain to the big screen for a solo outing? They would need an actor whom the public can simultaneously love and hate. But who has the charm and stature to play a titan of Industry as well as a diabolical sociopathic villain? Who can make us love them and hate them to equal measure, to empathise with their plight and journey yet disagree with their methods and the pain they cause?
Bryan Crayston has shown us he can do the Bad guy hiding in plain sight as a good respectable man thanks in large part to his time on Breaking Bad. When the part of Lex Luthor was originally announced for Batman Vs Superman, all indication was that it would be Bryan playing the role. The story demanded a much younger Lex which counted Bryan out. Could this be his second chance?
Michael Fassbender already has on screen experience playing a rich genius from ‘Jobs’ and also for playing a well intentioned but diabolical villain as Magneto. After the last X-men film, he might be ready to jump ship and lead his own comic-book movie
Bradley Cooper is the wild card of the selection. Earlier on in his career, he won audiences over with his style, smile, and all-round ‘likeability’. Recently he has shown more depth in the parts he has taken, playing characters who are somewhat broken. He might be the perfect person to step out as the slick charming CEO of Lex Corp whilst behind closed doors being the insecure, sinister manipulator and criminal mastermind
These three currently sit at the top of the list to play Luthor on the big screen but which one of them would you choose? Or would you go with someone else?
Who is your Lex Luthor? Comments below