Sunday, July 10, 2011

Four Villains improved by Media Adaptions

 One of the biggest stereotypes about comics fans, probably second only to the old “basement dweller” image, is that they needlessly bitch about changes made in media adaptations, even if those changes improve the story, or make it more accessible to the general public. Personally, I've seen both legit complaints from fans, as well as stupid ones, so I sorta see both sides of the issue. On one hand, I’ve seen plenty of comic book-based films that make things more cartoony, less adult, less morally complex, and often, even more inaccessible and off-putting to the public than the original comics themselves ever were. From Tommy Lee Jones’s one-dimensional, unsympathetic Two-Face in Batman Forever, to the in-name only Catwoman film, to the idea of making Man-Thing into a lame “monster rampage” film where the titular creature is a villain, to whatever dumbass’s idea it was to make Jonah Hex into Wild, Wild West, I could go on and on (especially about Jonah Hex).
 But on the other hand, there have been some instances where media adaptions of comics have improved things, some by leaps and bounds, some only by going in a direction that the comics themselves were afraid to go in, or didn’t care to.  I’ve been thinking of making this “original vs. adaption” comparison into a recurring feature of this blog. Since everyone loves a good villain, I decided to kick things off by discussing instances where the portrayals of villains in other media were actually better than the source material. In order from least to greatest:
 I put Loki here because, really, no one ever doubted that he was one of the most pivotal and important villains in the Marvel Universe. But has he ever really been a great character? He could be entertaining in the early silver age, when he was bringing gas station logos to life or turning entire cities into ice cream, but never did he really rise above simply being a B-level Joker and A-level Myxzptlk in his mayhem, other than the fact that he actually had ideas of world conquest. For years, writers have had trouble deciding whether he should be a mischievous prankster or pure evil, all that has stayed consistent has been his hatred for Thor. Sibling rivalry obviously plays into this, but this aspect was never really used to make him sympathetic or complex.
 However, Loki has recently undergone something of a renaissance, going through several transformations, from a woman to a child, where now he’s more or less reformed for the time being. Back in 2004, he actually played a major heroic role in a Spiderman storyline. But it was 2011’s Thor film which finally gave the villain the type of sympathetic backstory he needed. Here, Loki has no intention of actually conquering or killing anyone at first, all he wants is acceptance. He’s shown to be capable of acts of mischief, many potentially deadly, but he’s not really any more reckless or stupid than Thor himself. In fact, as we see, Loki’s opinion of Thor isn’t exactly a belief that he is alone in feeling. It’s easy at first to think of Loki as a jealous prick, especially since Odin seems to approve of him more than he does Thor, however, when Loki learns that he’s been being played for a fool his entire life, and that Odin’s kindness to him has only been to keep him under his thumb, is what drives Loki to full-out villainy. Even then, his goals are noble, in their own, warped, genocidal way; to wipe out the evil frost giants who he himself is a member of.
 Loki’s portrayal in the film is certain to provoke plenty of discussion regarding the nature vs. nurture debate, and it’s a credit to Tom Hiddleston’s performance that Loki manages to come off as unhinged enough to make a credible villain, sympathetic enough to be relatable, and all without going too overboard in either direction. You really have to feel for Loki, exiled by the family that has been playing him his whole life, and having burned his bridges with his biological family too. He’ll be an outsider everywhere he’ll go, what’s left to do, but villainy? No matter if the Loki portrayals in the films devolve into the one-dimensional villain of the earlier comics, at least now we can understand fully why he ended up that way.
Mad Hatter:
 Here’s an example of a character, whom when regarding the comics, was one the creators just plain didn’t care about. The first Mad Hatter showed up in 1948, as an Alice in Wonderland-styled robber. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Batman villain inspired by Alice, Tweedledee and Tweedledum predated him by several years. You’d think in the Golden Age, where writers were often likely to go overboard with literary references, that this story would be brimming in clever Lewis Carroll allusions, but it isn’t, in fact, the Hatter isn’t even the main focus of the story! The main focus of the story is Vicki Vale, that’s right, the story which introduced the Hatter was also her very first appearance, and the Hatter himself is just…kind of there. He makes a few “off with their heads” cracks and sips tea in his hideout, but nothing really memorable or clever. The story could have used the Penguin just as easily.
 The concept of the Hatter was abandoned until 1956, when Bill Finger created a character named Jervis Tetch; a fat, mustachioed hat collector obsessed with adding Batman’s cowl to his collection, but who was only called “The Mad Hatter” in the story’s title and as a joke by a background character. Tetch really only appeared in cameos showing get-togethers of Gotham’s criminals after that, but he actually made more appearances in the 60’s than many higher-pedigree Bat-foes. In any case, Tetch was THE Mad Hatter for years in the comics. He even showed up on the Adam West show, where actor David Wayne gave him a surprising amount of menace, if you could overlook that his hat shot laser beams out of it. Tetch also showed up in the 90’s Batman newspaper strip, where, in spite of a rather sympathetic origin story, he was treated as a cold villain.
 Eventually, the Alice-inspired Hatter was brought back in the early 1980s, and claimed that Tetch was an impostor, in a story which introduced the concept of him using mind control. There was confusion for years, even after Crisis, as to which Hatter was the official one, with Jervis actually popping up in the Barr/Davis Detective Comics run as if the other Hatter never existed. However, the Alice-based Hatter became cemented as THE Mad Hatter in 1992 when he was featured in the episode Mad as a Hatter of the Batman animated series, voiced brilliantly by Roddy McDowall. Here, Jervis Tetch (yes, here the two characters were combined) was a brilliant but miserable little man who had been obsessed with the story of Alice in Wonderland since childhood. Working as a scientist at Waynetech, continually bullied by his bosses, and suffering from unrequited love for his secretary Alice, Tetch attempts to use his mind control devices to make it appear that he’s popular and well-respected when consoling her over her abusive boyfriend. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Tetch goes mad with power and Alice reconciles with her boyfriend. While in lesser hands the character could have come off as a creepy stalker and potential rapist (this backstory for the Hatter was based off of a man who shot up his office when a coworker spurned him), McDowall generates some genuine pathos for the lonely little man, but also makes him chillingly psychotic when he becomes angry. A bizarre combination of whimsy, menace, romanticism, and dark humor, and loaded with Lewis Carroll analogies, this episode and its portrayal of the Hatter instantly made him more complex and viable as a villain than he had ever been portrayed before.
 Sadly, the comics have never really used this portrayal, the villain has since usually been portrayed as either a generic nutcase who speaks in quotes at best, or as a sleazy pedophile at worst. Too bad, but maybe it’s for the best, without McDowall’s excellent voice-acting, as well as considering that sleazy, pedophilic overtones are pretty much inherent with anything Alice-related, maybe the Mad Hatter just won’t work in comics the way he did on the cartoon.
On a side note, I’ve always wondered why they didn’t make the second Mad Hatter a pedo instead, I mean, just look at that mustache.
                                  Chris Hansen would like you take a seat, Mr. Tetch...

Baxter Stockman:
 Really, I could have put all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle villains on this list, because even if they weren’t improved as characters on the cartoon shows or the movies, they were all given more prominence. When people say the original Turtles comics were dark and filled to the brim with deaths, they aren’t kidding; almost all of the villains were done in one. The mad scientist Baxter Stockman is notable for several things, being the second villain the TMNT fought, being April ‘O Neil’s employer, later attempting (almost successfully) to kill off April, and being set up to be Donatello’s personal archenemy. He was also one of the few black supervillains in comics at the time, too. Otherwise? Not much else. Baxter was as one-dimensional as you could get; his motivation for attempting to conquer the world with his mouser robots and killing people? He thought it would be fun. No, seriously.
Bizarrely, this most one-dimensional of one dimensional villains has been made, repeatedly, into the most sympathetic and complex villain in both cartoon adaptions. While much hated for its banal plots, animation mistakes and departures from the comics, the 1987 Fred Wolf cartoon did have some rather daring double entendres, fun B-movie references, great music and boasted one of the funniest gay couples in television history in the characters of Shredder & Krang.

 Here, Baxter (now white to avoid accusations of racism) was a well-meaning, benevolent inventor who was trying to solve the city’s rat problems. Baxter’s inventions worked too well, however, and he was continually out of a job. The scientist was then manipulated by Shredder into giving him his mouser robots. Unbeknownst to Baxter, Shredder used the robots to launch an orgy of destruction (which realistically, had to have killed thousands. Shredder wasn’t always incompetent on the cartoon). After the turtles confronted the mousers, what did they do to Baxter? They made him take the blame for everything and stole his van. Baxter was committed to an asylum, then was broken out and was continually abused by Shredder into making weapons, until finally Krang tried to kill him by throwing him into an atomizer, which turned him into a fly-monster by fusing his DNA with that of a fly.
 As shamelessly unoriginal as this idea was, as well as that Fly-Baxter was easily the most silly-looking villain on the show, it’s impossible not to pity him. He was just a guy looking for work who got royally screwed over, robbed and framed, and then stripped even of his own humanity, with his intelligence and memories of his human life rapidly diminishing. Some fans find the character’s high–pitched, buzzing voice irritating, but not me, because each time Stockman would appear, he would be less intelligent, less human, more animalistic, and a little more deranged. In spite of the repetitive plots of his episodes, you knew each time Baxter would show up he’d go a little crazier, and then have some other horrifying indignity heaped upon him. In a way, this made him the closest thing to a genuinely frightening villain on the show. It may not be Greek tragedy, but compared to other 80’s cartoon villains, who else was as sympathetic? There was something compelling watching the fly-man desperately trying to become human again while talking to his only friend (a sentient computer), constantly lapsing into fly-like behavior and forgetting his goals. And the big kicker was; Baxter never got a happy ending.
 In the 2003 cartoon, Baxter is more similar to his comics self in that he’s thoroughly amoral, but only at first, in a nod to the ’87 cartoon, here he works for Shredder. Only, rather than being berated or given an impossible sci-fi punishment like being atomized or shot into another dimension, Stockman suffers a more…disturbing fate: He gets vivisected, alive. Evil as he was, these scenes are some of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see in a kids show. This led to an infamous episode called Insane in the Membrane (which was banned) where he attempts to recreate his body by having his brain transplanted into a clone of himself, only for the clone body to rot. Coupled with flashbacks to Baxter's dying mother, the episode is truly overwhelming in its mixture of pathos and horror, rivaling even the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Gorier than most horror movies, it truly needs to be seen to be believed. There’s a new TMNT cartoon coming out in 2012, as well as a possible new live action movie. If Baxter is in either, let’s hope the filmmakers remember the pathos the cartoons gave him that made him such a great, compelling character, something he never was in the comics.
Mr. Freeze:
 I have to admit, I’ve never really been too comfortable with science fiction themed villains in Batman. Oh, I know that all of Batman’s villains are science fictional to some degree, but few are to the overt degree that Poison Ivy, the various incarnations of Clayface, some of the lesser known ones like Dr. Double X, and of course, Mr. Freeze are. They just seem…gimmicky.
And that’s all Mr. Freeze, or as he was originally called, Mr. Zero, was; a gimmick. Just one of many Bald Evil Scientists ™ in comics, he was already a criminal even before becoming a freak. After stupidly spilling chemicals all over himself while readjusting his “freeze gun” (which looked like a kettle) he was forced to live in subzero temperatures. Obsessed with ice apparently even before his accident, he started stealing diamonds (“ice”) before confronting Batman and Robin, where he accidentally cured himself by, not kidding, having a steam bath.
 Lamest origin, gimmick and ending ever. Could be worse though, “ice” is now a term for crack. Also, he seemed like a pretty happy guy, so his cure didn’t really have any emotional impact.
For some reason, this one-shot joke of a villain was chosen for use on the Adam West show, where his name was changed to Mr. Freeze and he was actually one of the most frequent villains on the show besides the big timers like Joker, Catwoman and Penguin, and was played by three different actors; George Sanders, Eli Wallach and Otto Preminger (!!??). He was subsequently revived in the comics, where his name was changed to fit with the show, and with no explanation for how he returned to his frozen state. For some reason, he was also used on the various Batman cartoons, even though his appearances in the comics were as infrequent as two appearances a decade. Before long, he was being played as comedy relief; the Joker once referred to him as a “Second-rate Captain Cold”.
What’s bizarre about all this is, why would such a minor villain be so frequently used in the media adaptions? He wasn’t exactly easy to draw or instantly recognizable, nor were “freezing” effects easy to use on television. It’s like Mr. Freeze was an ex-child star adopted by the media because they felt sorry for him. But the funny thing is, this constant media exposure helped propel him into being one of Batman’s most recognizable opponents. The funnier thing is, the idea of a sympathetic, tragic Mr. Freeze, an idea long ascribed to the Batman: The Animated Series episode Heart of Ice, actually began on the Adam West show of all places! Not exactly renowned for three-dimensional characters, especially villains, the show portrays Freeze as the one villain Batman feels pity for, and whom he vows to someday cure of his affliction. Actually, Batman has good reason to feel guilty for Freeze’s condition; in this continuity, Batman himself was indirectly responsible for Freeze’s accident! This is the closest the Adam West show ever came to having a gray morality.
 For the most part, guest star George Sanders, a truly excellent actor, plays Freeze as a cackling one-note villain, not far removed from the comics or the show’s other zany, overacting villains, although his silly puns and delightfully fake accent are infinitely more amusing than Schwarzenegger’s ‘comedic” portrayal in 1997’s Batman and Robin. But there’s one great moment where Freeze has Batman at his mercy, and they sit down for dinner James Bond-style. Slowly, Freeze stops overacting and seems collected and calm, trying to make conversation with Batman. Batman tries to reason with him, promising him a cure, but then Freeze snaps:

" This I do not believe. No, you must PAY for what you did to me, for forcing me to live like this: never again to know the warmth of a summer breeze, never to feel the heat of burning logs in vintertime! Revenge. That is what I need! Revenge! I will have revenge! "

 Sounds quite a bit like Freeze’s vow of revenge in Heart of Ice, doesn’t it? Yet, the thing is, Sanders doesn’t deliver these lines bombastically or over the top, he remains calm and collected, but shaking, just a bit, barely concealing his red-hot rage. He genuinely loathes Batman, and genuinely intends to kill him, and for the first time in this goofy show’s history, you believe he will do it. What’s more, you want him to. It’s a fantastic moment of acting from Sanders, and really makes you wonder  how good the show could have been had it been filled more often with such moments. Alas, the scene lasts only a moment and subsequent episodes would return Freeze to being a goofball, but the seed was planted for Heart of Ice.
 As for Heart of Ice itself? What is there to be said that hasn’t been said? Here Freeze isn’t just a sympathetic villain, he’s so painfully sympathetic it’s hard to use the word “villain”. Here, Freeze is a scientist trying to cure his dying wife, whom he places in cryogenic suspension, only to get screwed over by his corrupt boss, who attempts to destroy Freeze’s experiment. Freeze struggles with him and is apparently killed by being doused with chemicals, only to survive in a way that makes him wish he were dead. Having lost everything, all that is left is a cold, ruthless killer. One of the darkest, most intense, and most morally ambiguous episodes you will ever see in a cartoon, this episode singlehandedly elevates Batman: The Animated Series from a merely good show to art. Equal parts Death Wish and The Abominable Dr. Phibes, what makes the episode so fascinating is that Freeze, had this story been told solely from his viewpoint, as well as if he had succeeded (and gone on to fight crime, possibly), would be considered the hero. Batman, self-righteous and a defender of Freeze’s  greedy boss, in essence, comes off as the real villain of the piece. Yet, Freeze is no angel either, indiscriminately freezing henchmen and civilians to achieve his goals. This episode instantly turned Freeze into one of Batman’s most well-known and popular villains, and the comics subsequently adopted the show’s backstory.
Unfortunately, Freeze’s next-big media appearance, 1997’s Batman and Robin, pretty much killed the character for many. Nevertheless, Freeze remains a mainstay of Batman’s rogues gallery, all because of one really great episode. Let’s just remember that George Sanders got there first.

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