Too often I see fans complain about movie’s having too many villains as though that automatically is a weakness. Most of the time it is, but the idea of using more than one bad guy in a story is far from a fatal flaw. Done well (and it can be done), it enhances the story. Writers and producers are going to have to learn to deal with it eventually, and now’s as good a time as any.
We can start with the obvious, the Spider-Man movies are sort of famous for this and not in a great way. Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 both use three separate villains to the detriment of their plot. Of course, the villains themselves weren’t totally compelling on their own and the individual stories weren’t written in a way that necessitated three antagonists. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, if it can be done in the comics (and its done a lot) then I have to believe it can be done in live-action without things falling under their own weight.
Spider-Man 3 had the unusual approach of developing Harry Osborn’s anger with Spider-Man and Peter Parker over the two previous movies and then trying to have the pay-off in the third while setting it aside in the first act. It then comes back to it again before the climax and turns it around at the end. That’s a lot of plotting in a single movie and honestly, I think it earns Harry the most justification for being the main antagonist. However, then Sandman comes in with a part to play in Uncle Ben’s death to give Spider-Man a personal reason to fight him. And then Venom shows up for the last act to bow to studio demands because everyone likes Venom, right? Right? Spider-Man 3 is a cluttered film, not the least of which stems from the villains motivations. Raimi had a lot to juggle and didn’t do it successfully. We know he can do villains right from Doc Ock and Harry’s father, the first Green Goblin. The third movie should either have been primarily about Harry’s revenge against Spider-Man or Peter coming to terms with Sandman’s part in Uncle Ben’s death. Harry flip-flopping from evil to good to evil to good again was just confusing, but if he had stayed duplicitous for the entire film his role could’ve been more satisfying. Having Peter focus more on Sandman while Harry plotted in the shadows to destroy him while appearing as a friend to his face would’ve made sense and freed up everyone to do more than they actually did.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 is proof that Sony didn’t learn their lesson the first time, or realize that we hadn’t forgotten as much as they thought when they rebooted everything. The reboot wasn’t necessary, or even warranted. The potential was there in either just recasting everyone and shifting some things to the background (Peter and MJ’s engagement, Venom, Harry dying) or just starting fresh. Unfortunately, the foundation was shaky from the start and Sony was anxious to get the Sinister Six rolling as quickly as possible. Thus we have a movie with a pointless Rhino, a lazy Green Goblin retread and an over-the-top Electro. Both films didn’t have a clear purpose on what their villains were for or there to do. Amazing Spider Man oddly enough imitated the Chris Nolan Bat-films but clearly didn’t pay enough attention.
All three Nolan movies use multiple antagonists to challenge Bale’s Batman. Of course Nolan and his brother are skilled cinema craftsman, but they understood what each character brought to the story from the get-go. Batman Begins has Carmine Falcone, Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul. The Dark Knight had the legendary Joker, Two-Face and the mafia. The Dark Knight Rises had Bane, Talia and Rupert Thorne. Everybody had a role in the plot and gets dealt with in one way or another. Except for maybe Rises, none of the movies feel crowded or confusing.
The Nolan films aren’t alone in proper execution of multiple villains, Iron Man had Ten Rings and the Iron Monger. Spider-Man had the robber who killed Uncle Ben and Green Goblin. I think it really is a matter of knowing what part each villain plays in the plot, like anything else in the story. Villain A gets taken out before Villain B, and Villain B gets taken out before Villain C. Each moves the plot forward somehow and makes the hero stay on his toes. It’s really just a point of the hero beating one obstacle before the next but most screenwriters can’t seem to crack it. Having Spider-Man catch the Rhino in the first ten minutes and having him show up again in a robot suit in the last five minutes doesn’t do anything for the audience, even if they know he’ll appear later in the sequels. Their presence needs to make sense in THIS movie and be dealt with. If Nolan had wanted to bring Joker and Two-Face back in his third movie (not that he really could with Heath Ledger’s death), he could’ve because the audience knew them and there was the potential for a new story to be told with them. Even Scarecrow escaping in Batman Begins works because we see he doesn’t win there, he’s gone for now but will be back. When he does come back, its a nice callback but also shows how Batman has grown in the last two years between movies.
Everybody wants the expansive playground of the shared Universe of the comics, which means we’re not seeing 4/5 villains killed off at the end so they can appear later. It’s not really a numbers game, its a matter of what the story needs really. If the story needs one bad-guy, use one. If there’s nothing for two more to do in a two and half hour movie, your story isn’t cutting it.
Superhero movies are still in their infancy as we’re still getting by-the-numbers origins, trendy copycats, and homogenization (in characters and cinema offerings); so I’m not surprised we still have to see the one hero fight the one villain for the duration of the movie. The writers need to break free of the safety of the basics if they’re going to chase the bigger profits and build up these living universes.
To bring it back to Spider-Man, Marvel Studios has to be thinking big now that they’ve got one of their most famous characters back. Spidey’s got some memorable villains and Marvel needs to set Spider-Man Homecoming apart from the Sony films. Having a couple of baddies for Tom Holland to face off with would be a good start. There’s other things that Homecoming could do, but showing a Spider-Man that can handle Kravin the Hunter and maybe the Shocker is an easy win if the script can handle it.
If we’re going to see the Sinister Six, we can’t wait six movies for that. Let’s knock that out in a trilogy.