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They say that a hero is only as good as the villain they oppose. As such, it’s to the credit of the DCEU that it puts heroes like Batman and Superman up against villains like Amanda Waller and Lex Luthor.
These villains, along with the Suicide Squad, prove that the DCEU knows how to handle villains. Villains, unfortunately, are one of the places where both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men Cinematic Universe fall short for different reasons. For the MCU, most of the villains aren’t memorable. They get lost in the shuffle of 13 films, with the exception of Loki, who became a fan favorite. Meanwhile, the XMCU has great villain characters like Magneto and Apocalypse, but uses them in thematically incoherent ways.
Neither of those problems exist for the DCEU, which pairs fascinating villain characters with a huge focus on thematic unity. As a filmmaker and critic, I find the DCEU villains some of the best I’ve ever seen. They do things the genre hasn’t had the guts to do before, and they hold beautifully to the themes of both each movie and the overall franchise so far.
Let’s work backwards and start from the Skwad:
Suicide Squad: Amanda Waller, Enchantress, & Task Force X
You can’t talk about about villains in the DCEU without taking into account Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad follows a team of villains, working for a villain in the employ of the U.S. government, who go rogue to defeat yet another villain.
Proving that villains can be heroes on occasion, Suicide Squad depicts an overarching theme of the DCEU so far: that nothing is a “diamond absolute.” We see the people in the villains, from Chato “El Diablo” Santana to Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton, and they are the people who save the day.
Task Force X proves that good and evil are choices, not inherent designations.
Beyond this, Amanda Waller looms as the most terrifying villain in the entire DCEU. Her ruthless nature (demonstrated when she guns down her subordinates) and stoic manner make it impossible to tell what she’ll do next. Combine it with her almost unlimited knowledge of metahuman affairs, and you have a totally human villain who is no less terrifying than Hannibal Lecter himself.
Appropriate, given that making Waller a Hannibal Lecter analogue allows us to witness Enchantress as a Buffalo Bill-type secondary villain. As such, her fairly shallow motivations are in fact far more forgivable than other critics would lead you to believe.
Enchantress, also, speaks to the motif in the DCEU of the role of godlike beings in modern society. She is what society fears Superman could be, if he so chose. Additionally, her plan to destroy the world’s technology to force the world to bend to her reflects one of Batman’s lines from BVS, where he says to Superman, “The world only makes sense when you force it to.” All of Enchantress’s actions stem from fundamentally misunderstanding a world that cannot make sense to her.
The most radical thing in Suicide Squad is this: its two main antagonists, Waller and Enchantress, are both women. This has never happened before in a modern superhero film, or possibly ever in a superhero film. Major female villains in the MCU simply do not exist. In the XMCU, the major female villains — Dark Phoenix and Mystique — are only villains because they’re shoehorned into those roles.
So, Suicide Squad in sum gives us unprecedented female villains in a genre almost totally without them, and these villains and the others in the movie reflect the important themes of the franchise so far. The first theme: that nothing is morally absolute. The second: you cannot force the world to exist on your terms only without becoming cruel and brutal.
Now, let’s talk about another character who deals heavily in these themes: Lex Luthor.
Batman v Superman: Lex Luthor
Where do I begin with the genius that is this interpretation of Superman’s iconic nemesis? Well, with the criticisms, really.
People complain that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is too manic, or not charismatic enough. These ‘flaws’ mean that he does not align with the versions of the character that have come before. People get stuck on the surface level with this version of Lex, and if that’s all you see, then sure, this complaint makes sense.
However, there’s more to it than that.
Lex Luthor as played by Jesse Eisenberg aesthetically differs greatly from the charismatic alpha-male in the comics and various animated series. More akin to the Smallville interpretation of the character, the shadow of an abusive father hangs over this Lex and comes to define, in haunting him, his every move.
Eisenberg’s Luthor marries Golden/Silver age manic theatricality with the core of the character. This core is a powerful man who can’t stand the idea of someone being more powerful and beloved than him. For Eisenberg’s Luthor, this specifically manifests as fear of someday being at risk of abuse again.
This update has precedent in the fact that as times change, the source of Lex’s power changes. During the Gold and Silver Ages, his mad science reflects societal fears about the Cold War. He runs an exceedingly wealthy company in the 80s during the imposition of Reaganomics. He’s a defense contractor in the latter half of Smallville in the mid-2000s. It fits that he’s a Silicon Valley brat in a Banksy t-shirt and Converse sneakers in 2016. He is what our society fears men in power could be, and loathes accordingly.
Lex also puts into words many of the themes that course through the veins of the DCEU. “If God is all-powerful, then he cannot be all-good. And if he is all-good, he cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you be,” he tells Superman — directly engaging the concept of the role of a godlike figures throughout his appearance in the movie.
Lex’s single-minded obsession drives the plot of the movie forward, and he never completely loses. Even when the world eventually mourns Superman’s sacrifice, Lex still goes to jail knowing that Superman is dead.
That hasn’t happened before in a superhero movie, either.
The DCEU may have whatever flaws you ascribe to it, but villains are 100% one of its biggest strengths. Characters like Amanda Waller, the Enchantress, and Lex Luthor create new heights of villainy, and their stories, motivations, and schemes lend layers and layers to the thematic density and coherence of the universe.
Here’s to hoping that they do the same for later films, such as next year’s Wonder Woman and Justice League.