Pennie’s Picks: In Defense of 5 B-Team Bad Guys

Everyone has vices. They entice us, thrill us, and make life just a little more complicated than it has to be. For me, my two (non-chemical) vices are interrelated: bad guys and underdogs.

On the surface, this may seem like a contradiction, but with the army of reboots, rehashes, gritty retellings, and high-gloss, high-budget fanfic that gets released every other week, I now have a nearly inexhaustible source for both of my driving passions. With every warmed-over hero iteration, there’s always the accompanying bad guy--and with the avalanche of reused material, said baddie is probably going to have to fill the roomy leather thigh-highs of some infamous predecessor.

Below are five rebooted bad guys from the critical or commercial B-Team: the less loved, often mocked, or unfairly compared. Join me, gentle reader, and maybe together we can find a little sympathy for these particular devils.

5. Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal

Okay, okay... I admit it. I’m starting out with a softball on this one. Just Google Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal and you will find the fan love out there. Everything from poetic slash fic to lovingly rendered fan art to Tumblrs to Pinterest boards--all that adulation for our favorite Danish serial cannibal. But I felt compelled to include him because cinema purists will always adore Anthony Hopkin’s turn as the much more animalistic Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Sure, Hopkins gives his Hannibal real menace combined with enough unwholesome sexuality to make you squirm, and yes, he simply radiates a kind of mad genius intelligence that makes a paunchy 60 year old seem formidable in a room full of armed guards. I’ll give you all this. In contrast, Mikkelsen’s detractors have accused him of underacting, sleepwalking through scenes, or worst of all, making a scheming cannibal ubermensch boring (a charge you could never level against Hopkins, even in the ludicrous film Hannibal).

Mikkelsen never threatens to eat anyone’s anything will fava beans, and he never hisses or spits, or whatever it is Hopkins does at the end of that scene (you know what I’m talking about. You’re probably trying to imitate it right now, aren’t you?) But that’s not because he doesn’t care about the character or can’t be bothered to show his metaphorical fangs. Mikkelsen plays a Hannibal that is still years away from incarceration, a man who must hide his monstrosity from the outside world if he wants to keep eating people steak whenever the fancy strikes him. In contrast, Hopkins plays a Hannibal who has been imprisoned for decades with no hope of escape. Even the sharpest minds dull a bit with solitude and confinement, and having no outlet, criminal, artistic, or otherwise, for his craziness, he’s warped into the teeth-sucking, leering, creepy uncle we all love today. The younger Hannibal Mikkelsen portrays has to be guarded, less theatrical, more normal in every way. Rather than being the “boring” Hannibal, Mikkelsen’s interpretation of the character is all the more terrifying for his ability to fit into society. Which of course makes it more chilling, and more tragic, when Hannibal confronts the faithless object of his affection, Will Graham, with the line, “I let you know me. See me.” Man, that gets me every time.

If you need to step away to compose some passionate slash fic, that’s okay. CineDump understands.  

4. Steven Webber’s Jack Torrance

Let me just start by saying that Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterclass of creepiness. From beginning to end, Nicholson just drips cruelty and a certain unhinged je ne sais quoi, that is very effective in setting the tone for this uncanny movie. It’s a performance that’s been lovingly parodied, studied, and fetishisized in every way.

And then there’s the guy from Wings.

It’s no secret that Stephen King pretty much loathed Kubrick’s vision of his novel, and the miniseries starring Steven Webber and 90s CGI hedge animals was his attempt to set the cinematic record straight. It was a fool’s errand to begin with, and the miniseries boasts every flaw Kubrick mercilessly cut from the novel (slow pacing, too much backstory, drawn out set pieces), but damn it if Webber doesn’t try to carry that whole thing on his gangly shoulders.

Webber is no Nicholson, but he’s not trying to be. The Jack he portrays is much closer to the novel’s and not simply a clone of Jack “Here’s Johnny” Nicholson. While Nicholson’s Jack seems ready to start bashing heads in before he even has the job, Webber’s Jack is a basically good guy with a few flaws. Slowly, we watch these weaknesses overwhelm the scraps of virtue Jack has managed to hold onto, making his last minute face-turn at the end of the miniseries more believable even if it does border on the sappy.

Is Stephen Webber as scary as Jack Nicholson. Hell no. (See, Jack Nicholson, I’m on your side--really I am). But Webber’s portrayal is ultimately more human, more complex, and more tragic. If you’re the insufferable type who always claims the book is better, then maybe Webber is the traumatized, screwed-up Jack Torrance just for you.   

3. Jared Leto’s Joker

There’s a special place in Movie Hell for people who defend Jared Leto as the Joker. The floors are sticky, the AC keeps cutting out, there’s a couple in front of you who won’t stop laughing at everything that happens, and the only movie they play is The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Knowing all this, I’m still willing to gamble my cinephile soul on this underdog.

First off, there was no way Leto’s performance would have been well received. We’re all still talking about Heath Ledger’s generation defining portrayal of the world’s deadliest, most flamboyant hobo. When it was made in 2008, just a few short years after 9/11, interpreting the Joker as a wild-eyed extremist who loves chaos for its own sake tapped into something in the American psyche. Now, in 2017, even though there are still fears about ideologues with bombs, think about what dominates our lives. If you answered the Internet, you win all the points.

Basing his look and persona on the materialistic, ends-justify-the-means, wannabe badasses of Instagram, Leto’s Joker is diametrically opposed to the haunted lone wolf Ledger portrayed. Much closer to the Joker of the 1990s animated show, Leto gives the world a bad guy that’s showy, selfish, silly and destructive. If Leto’s Joker were real, he wouldn’t be telling you for the 20th time how he got his scars, he would be posting another video of his latest crime to YouTube and sitting back while the views roll in. He’d have millions of followers on Twitter. He’d be offered his own reality show. He would replace Tony Montana as the weekend gangster’s patron saint as his face adorned oversized tee shirts and overpriced caps. Like it or not, this Joker is this decade’s monster, and Leto does a good job of making him as smarmy, histrionic, and self-centered as the majority of the people you can encounter on the Internet.  

Sure, this decades’ baddie is less... well... badass than others, but who can we blame but ourselves? Maybe if we pull together, rise above our differences, and overcome our collective shallowness, we can have nihilistic, brutal killers as our bad guys again. And isn’t that a dream worth reaching for?

2. Hellraiser Revelations

Do you remember Hellraiser Revelations? No, it isn’t the one in space. No, it isn’t the one where it was all a computer game. No, it isn’t the one where that guy gets whipped to death in the back of an ice cream truck. No, it isn’t--

Okay, I’ll just tell you.

Released in 2011, this little seen and much maligned film replaces fan favorite Doug Bradley as the iconic sex monster Pinhead with a much poutier Stephan Smith Collins. I’ll be honest--Stephan Smith Collins is not that great as Pinhead. Not even my soft, rotting heart can defend this underdog (and you know, I really thought I could when I courageously started this article). I just don’t like this Pinhead, so let me count the ways: He has none of Bradley’s sometimes comical gravity. He rushes through his lines. He shakes his head too much (a weird criticism, I know, but this character is not one that lends itself to a lot of wasted movement).

Instead, I’m going to cheat here and plug the movie instead. Yes, this Pinhead is nothing to write to the Order of the Gash about, but the story in this film is kinky, crazy, and something worthy of Barker at the top of his game.  It features incest, soul-crushing grief, ritual murder--everything that made the original something you couldn’t talk about at book club. Tightly constructed as a short story from an early Book of Blood, it takes place on one night as two families of vanished teens meet to commemorate their lost loved ones. As tensions rise and accusations mount, the families watch a videotape that puts them right into Pinhead’s leather-gloved clutches.

More emotionally complex and sexually perverse than Barker’s so bland I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-white-bread The Scarlet Gospel, this is an often defamed film that needs a second viewing. If you don’t get too hamstrung by Stephan Smith Collin’s Pinhead, it has some pretty wicked sights to show you.

1. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor

Oh, do I ever hate myself for this. Jesse Eisenberg is completely wrong in every way for Superman’s arch industrialist villain. He’s weird, diffident and just ever-so creepy. He’s at his best when he plays cringing hangdog types, like his starring role in the marvellously underappreciated film Double. I was entirely ready to hate him until I was stranded in a hotel room in rural Oklahoma with nothing to do but watch Batman vs. Superman.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Lex Luthor as a character. Superman was always too much of a boyscout and anyone who could shake his apple tree, even just a little, earned my misguided childhood respect. In the cartoons, he’s imperious and built like a Patrick Stewart themed tank. In Smallville, he’s a brooding, Byronic sexpot with all this tortured longing and a little devilish streak as fine as a crack in a China plate and dangerous as an active fault line.

And then’s there’s Eisenberg. With a mop of unkempt hair, ill-fitting, too-trendy clothes, and a penchant for stuttering or just rambling near nonsense, this Lex Luthor was unlike anything I’ve seen before. But somehow, in this dark, heavily moving film, he was just that right splash of lime juice to cut through all that depressing hero fat.

The two titular heroes of the film are already sad-sacking around enough for two franchises, filling the dark skies of Gotham with the fumes of their existential rage. To add another serious-as-Strindberg alpha male to this cluster would be like tossing tear-based gasoline on the world’s saddest fire. Instead of a capitalist’s wet dream, we get a awkward, fumbling kid who seems too socially inept to make a simple speech (usually virtuosic monologuing is the centerpiece of a bad guy’s repertoire of skills), much less manage a multi-billion dollar empire. Despite these strange affectations (or maybe because of them), this Luthor disarms people with his boyish smile and clumsy over-eagerness, making him able to move around all levels of society, equally out of place in a ramshackle apartment as his own ultra-modern soirees. He flies below the radar because despite his wealth and power, no one suspects this silly, earnest lunatic of anything until it’s too late.

Like Leto’s Joker, Eisenberg’s Luthor is a sign of the times. Like so many of us today, he struggles to interact personally with those around him, fixates obsessively on increasingly narrow fields of interest, and is ruthlessly dedicated to his point of view, even when evidence to the contrary is presented to him. Maybe the movie going public in general will always hate this cinematic adaptation of Lex Luthor, and that’s okay, but we have to recognize that much of what we find distasteful in him is what we also hate about ourselves. In so many ways, his flaws and ticks and short-sighted crazy ambitions are our own, for better or worse, like it or not. In a small way, he’s a distorted funhouse mirror of a very bad, very weird part of modern day America.

And isn’t that what we need villains for anyway?

Pennie Sublime