Supervillain to the Rescue?

Revisiting the melodrama and the good fight
August 20, 2015 Updated: August 24, 2015

Pack evil together tightly, twist to foment anger, and release. When the bowels of the earth spew out enough villains, people will come—DC Entertainment is hoping.

“All this ‘good versus evil’ is kind of played out right now. It’s time for bad versus evil, right? Time for a movie about bad guys,” said director David Ayer at the San Diego Comic-Con about his movie “Suicide Squad,”  scheduled for release in August 2016.

“Suicide Squad” is based loosely on the story of “The Dirty Dozen,” a film in which convicted, sometimes deranged, criminals undertake a suicide mission during World War II. The 1967 film received some praise by contemporary critics but for the most part was considered appalling. Bosley Crowther for The New York Times wrote that it was peopled by a sadistic bunch of animals, and with heavy sarcasm, young Roger Ebert wondered how the film could have possibly passed censorship codes which forbid the depiction of certain kinds of cruelty.

A scene from "The Dirty Dozen."  (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
A scene from “The Dirty Dozen.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Is Ayer right? Will villains supplant heroes in our entertainment? If so, if “Suicide Squad” popularizes a new kind of action movie, it will encroach on a territory established long ago, and one which endures for good reasons.

Just about every action adventure is a melodrama of one type or another.

Most Popular Genre Ever

Just about every action adventure is a melodrama of one type or another. The most popular and money-making genre in history, it has been firmly entrenched in the Western mainstream since the middle of the 19th century and has entertained ever since with contrived, formulaic, convoluted plots, and splashy spectacular effects, such as floods, earthquakes, and any disaster ingenious writers can come up with.

Although the genre has kept these aspects, it has mostly done away with another of its hallmark features: excessively emotion-driven performances. In fact, melodrama gets its name from the combination of the words “melos” (think melody) and “drama” since music (like today’s soundtracks) helps intensify the audience’s emotional experience.

Add to the genre package stock characters, especially a hero and a villain. Often the hero was also a victim, whom the villain preyed upon. Think of “Ben Hur” or “The Count of Monte Cristo” where the heroes are unfairly imprisoned, one aboard a galley ship, the other in a dungeon.

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, condemned  to the galleys for a crime he didn't commit. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, condemned to the galleys for a crime he didn’t commit. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

But popular now is a triangle of characters: victim, villain, and hero as rescuer. Tear jerkers (also known as soap operas) typically focus on the victim. These films emerged from the idea of the damsel in distress tied to railroad tracks.

Action adventures, on the other hand, typically focus on the rescuer. The action adventure moved as far away from excessive emotion as possible, reinforced by our current paradigm for acting—realism. Manly, stoic virtues replaced self-pitying victims or revengeful heroes. (The victim is still present, but has enlarged to become the whole human race.)

Superhero to the Rescue

Not surprisingly, the hero as rescuer populates superhero movies, and recent comic book films have fully embraced the genre. The payback has been huge. The updated Superman flick, “Man of Steel” (2013), grossed $668 million worldwide, Similarly, “Captain America” grossed $370 million, while the last film of “The Dark Knight Trilogy” alone earned a whopping $1.08 billion.

In order for melodramas to work, they must appeal to our sense of justice: Debts that are owed must be compensated, inflicted wounds healed, universal values honored, and balance restored. Moral opposites must exist. Evil is fought by an equal good.

Despite all the enjoyable campiness in the 1978 film “Superman,” the hero embodied modesty and civility as much as an arsenal of superpowers. He was a super-good guy. 

Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and Superman (Christopher Reeve) in the blockbuster, "Superman." (Dovemead Films)
Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and Superman (Christopher Reeve) in the blockbuster, “Superman.” (Dovemead Films)

Other good heroes? In “Man of Steel” (2013), the updated version of “Superman,” the lonely and necessarily alienated Superman is still motivated by others’ well-being, and “Captain America” (2011) showcases a patriotic hero facing Nazi villains.

Even in “The Dark Knight Trilogy” where the evil is darker and violence and mayhem intense, the good fight continues. Batman gives up love in the first film, his reputation in the second, and nearly his life in the third. Self-sacrifice is a hallmark of goodness.

Despite that historically the melodrama has fulfilled our sense of justice, the hero may be changing. In an insightful article, author Devin Faraci analyzes how Superman in “Man of Steel” is no longer the great protector.

Superman fights General Zod, his equal in superpowers and in determination; yet during the movie’s last fight sequence, the battling duo inflicts wanton destruction on Metropolis. Building after building crumple in a city that, as far as we know, remains inhabited. Never is Superman concerned about the thousands of lives being obliterated. Only when humans are directly in his line of sight does he realize that they exist—kind of a big undersight.

So Superman, now lacking conscientiousness (to say the least), is not quite the hero he once was.

And Batman, only a man to begin with, has become a problematic hero—one not purely motivated. In fact, “The Dark Knight Triology” earned critical praise partly because of its depth of characterization. Actor Christian Bale has explained that he played Batman so that the character was always just a hair’s width away from acting out his buried wish to avenge his parents’ deaths. 

Christian Bale as Batman in "The Dark Knight." (Warner Bros.)
Christian Bale as Batman in “The Dark Knight.” (Warner Bros.)

In the case of Batman, is the melodrama simply reverting to the composite figure of victim-hero—like the Count of Monte Christo or Ben Hur—or is it that, like Superman, the character is simply not as good as he once was?

Bad Versus Worse

The Warner Bros. trailer for “Suicide Squad” doesn’t give much away, but if it follows the melodramatic structure—hard to think of a comic book epic that doesn’t—the team of DC villains will still need a moral advantage over their enemies.

Whether the melodrama can hold up will depend on how bad the squad of villains is because moral opposition, however skewed, is necessary. We need to side with someone in a battle, and we choose whoever grabs our sympathies.

On a continuum of bad, there’s a huge difference between an anti-hero like Han Solo from “Star Wars” and a villain like the Joker  from “The Dark Knight.” Solo may be mercenary, but his heart is in the right place whereas the Joker is a sadist. Sure we like to see Hans Solo get away with being bad, the Joker—however fascinating—not so much.

Thus, at some point the melodrama stops working—when the lines between good and bad are blurry.

If, however, “Suicide Squad” follows the structure of “The Dirty Dozen”—a thriller, not a melodrama—the only moral dynamic operating is that the foe must be beat at any cost. We don’t want the Nazis to take over the free world, and so any and all measures are fair play.

Here we would move closer to something like “Natural Born Killers,” a satiric crime thriller. Creative sadistic violence and gore will predominate in this scenario of “Suicide Squad” without the redeeming social commentary that made the 1994 film palatable for some.

Will we be thrilled by sadists or root for justice? It will be interesting to see how bad the villains in “Suicide Squad” will be and how the public will greet it. 

And it will be just as interesting to see next year’s wave of melodramas: Batman and Superman are slated to meet in the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a new film of “Ben Hur” is scheduled for 2016, and David Goyer has signed on to direct an adaptation of the “The Count of Monte Cristo.” 

Will good, and the melodrama, prevail?

Sharon Rudorf has a doctorate in theater and taught theater in the Chicago area for years.