Worthy Adversaries: Villains Take Center Stage

Who doesn't love a good villain?

Now more than ever, it seems showbiz is all about the bad guys, from Heath Ledger's deliciously devilish turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight" to Spencer Pratt's train wreck tantrums on MTV's reality soap "The Hills."

In fact, the Hollywood Reporter recently speculated the next film in the "Spider-Man" saga may well focus instead on Spidey's nemesis Venom. And there have been reports that Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp may step up to play The Riddler in the next installment of "Batman."

"The bottom line is, it's fun to be bad on screen," said Tim Kring, the creator and executive producer of "Heroes," which will be all about villains this season. "There's a kind of deliciousness to playing a character who is not bound by the same rules that the rest of us have to live with. It's fun to play -- and it's certainly fun to write. We're doing those big scene-stealing kind of bad guys. For us, it's all about iconic storytelling, every character has to decide whether they're a good guy or a bad guy. It's a cultural shorthand."

The rise of the villains can be attributed to the dark times we're facing, said professor Jonathan Young, director of the Center for Story and Symbol.

"On a social level, the rise of unusually virulent adversaries reflects collective fears," Young said. "We now have horrific dangers such as terrorism, a sinking economy and environmental devastation. As chaos swells in the political world, the viciousness of movie villains intensifies. These film images mirror our stresses and provide an artificial but satisfying temporary focus for our emotions. We can walk out of the show chanting, 'It's only a movie,' when, in fact, such characters signify tangible dangers in the real world."

And it seems Hollywood history is repeating itself.

"This has happened before," Young said. "Back in the 1950s, at the height of the nuclear threat of the Cold War, there was a rash of monster, horror and disaster movies. The creatures from outer space that threatened to destroy Earth were metaphors for the fear of annihilation. Now our terrors show up as the creepiest villains in film history."

But Hollywood's penchant for bad guys is nothing new.

"It goes all the way back to Shakespeare and Richard III," said Adam B. Vary, staff writer at Entertainment Weekly. "You cannot have a hero unless you have a villain -- and your hero is only as interesting as the villain. In classic storytelling, you wouldn't have someone to root for unless you had someone to root against."

These days, though, Hollywood's all about exploring the bad guys' baggage.

"Villains have always been important, but now they're definitely more complex and nuanced than ever before. So when you create more interesting characters, naturally, the trend feeds on itself," said The Hollywood Reporter's Steve Zeitchik.

In regards to the "Batman" nemeses, "If the Nolan brothers are writing these ambitious, meaty parts, then the talent is going to be there to meet the challenge. So when you have someone of Heath Ledger's caliber putting out an Oscar-worthy turn in 'Dark Knight,' you'll have interest from other high-caliber actors in the next one."

Zeitchik noted that even the heroes in Hollywood have gone gray.

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