The biggest superhero news of the month had nothing to do with Superman, Thor, or other A-list do-gooders.
Instead, the bad guys got all the social media love. It’s a head-scratching sign of the times that shows a culture revolting against unvarnished decency.
Warner Bros. released several casting moves behind “Suicide Squad,” the upcoming film based on DC Comics’ legion of supervillains. Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Margot Robbie and Jaret Leto will play Deadshot, Rick Flagg, Harley Quinn and The Joker, respectively.
It’s the cinematic answer to Sinister Six from the Marvel universe, another supervillain troupe slated for the full franchise treatment.
Why is the superhero genre giving the bad guys their close up? The more pressing question may be, what took Hollywood so long?
The small screen is full of law-shredding souls, from New Jersey’s own Tony Soprano to motorcycle bad boy Jax Teller on “Sons of Anarchy”. Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned killer, captivated the nation in “Breaking Bad,” and “Hannibal” focuses on the most notorious cannibal in pop culture history. NBC’s “The Blacklist” features James Spader as a fugitive helping the FBI solve crimes, but only on his mercurial terms.
Let’s face it. We’re a nation obsessed with black hat types.
That leaves storytellers in a bind when it comes to more traditional heroes. The recent “Superman” reboot, “Man of Steel,” ran head first into that storytelling conundrum. How do we make a super-strong, goody two shoes type compelling? That wasn’t a concern when a little-known actor named Christopher Reeve tugged on those blue tights back in 1978.
Even Henry Cavill’s “Man of “Steel” suit didn’t match the source material. The blue was deeper, more subtle in its shading, the red a murky maroon. Primary colors, like the purity of good versus evil, no longer make the cut.
Today’s audiences demand grit, texture and ambivalence in the characters vying for our entertainment dollar. Villains deliver all that and more. That leaves storytellers with diminished options, fearing rejection for heroes who don’t need a refresher course in right and wrong.
The new formula isn’t as simple as it sounds, a lesson the minds behind “Sinister Six” and “Suicide Squad” should heed. Tony Soprano wasn’t all evil. He cared deeply about his children and didn’t kill or maim without purpose … or regret. There’s a reason he spent so much time on Dr. Melfi’s couch. Those sequences weren’t filler. They spoke to the conflicted soul of the show’s anti-hero.
Jax Teller may be an outlaw, but his mission through much of “Anarchy’s” run was to leave the gun trade, go legit and stop the Charming, Calif. body count from swelling. He’s also a single dad who doesn’t want his kids following in his blood-splattered footsteps.
The show’s first season showed Jax finding his late father’s memoir, a blueprint for the better life the father didn’t live long enough to follow.
Poor Walter White started making meth to leave money behind for his family in case his cancer came back with a vengeance. His bond with his sous meth chef (Aaron Paul) endures despite the horrors they face over the seasons.
Maybe audiences seek out villains to find the decency hiding in their blackened hearts. We know Superman will save the reporter dangling from atop a tall building. Watching The Joker dig for the humanity he shed years ago can be more compelling. Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” lacked a sliver of human kindness, one reason that film trilogy may soon be looked back on as both classic and quaint. Leto’s version will likely stray from that template.
Call it the Grinch effect. We wait … and wait … until that sour puss’ heart grows three times its normal size.
Good thing Darth Vader went to the big Death Star in the sky before the “Star Wars” franchise’s seventh film started production. Director J.J. Abrams, the man now holding the keys to George Lucas’s space western, might have made Lord Vader, not Han, Luke or Leia, the star of the show.
The creative team behind DC Comics’ Superman invented Kryptonite early in the comic book’s run because the hero proved too powerful for any foe to defeat. Today, the bigger threat to the Man of Steel is audiences indifferent to heroes fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.”
Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, film critic and fatherhood blogger. You can find more here.