The age-old adage, the DC enthusiast’s most frequented warcry, and the one factor keeping MCU success from completely outranking DCEU triumph: DC villains are simply iconic. However, is there any truth to this widespread ideology lurking in various corners of the interweb, waiting for a chance to stake its claim against any potential challengers?
Before we get to iconicity, let’s get a simpler (yet somewhat connected question) out the way: Are DC villains better than Marvel villains? When accounting for recent MCU success, one would argue that Marvel villains must be superior, as critical adulation, audience reception, and box office success speak for themselves.
One could argue that Thanos was a complex villain, fully believing he was the savior of his story. Yet another could rave about Killmonger’s personal motivations for villainy, separate from any trite and groundless desires to halt heroism. However, this post is not about the quality of the villain, this post is not about character development and narrative logistics.
Better implies a superiority – reliant on objective qualities. More iconic implies a subjective ruling, reliant on what exactly? To determine if DC villains are, in fact, more iconic than Marvel villains, we must determine what it means for a character to be an icon.
What does it mean for a character to be iconic?
An icon is defined as a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration. One could thus, taking the definition one step further, argue than an iconic character comes to represent the very source material it is derived from. The character becomes a symbol representative of the comic book’s lore, emblematic of its entire existence.
In linguistics, the word icon refers to a sign that directly reflects the thing it signifies. When you think about it, a villain whose name directly insinuates his personality could fall into this arena (with a little bit of stretching, as the definition was not intended to be appropriated for this purpose).
Stepping away from the definition itself, and working our way to cinema, the word icon is often used to describe a star who could never be imitated, replaced, or recycled. An icon is unique. An icon is the “one and only” — Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, etc. They paved the way for future artists, yet left their defying imprint. This aspect of the word comes heavily into play when dealing with Marvel and DC villains.
Why DC villains are, in fact, more iconic than Marvel villains
In the DC Universe, the comic books and the movies are defined equally by the villains and the heroes. The Joker represents DC just as much as Batman; Lex Luthor represents the Superman narrative just as much as Clark Kent. Putting this point into practice, Warner Bros. just released The Joker and, rumor has it, a Lex Luthor film is allegedly on the horizon.
Many DC villains also boast titles that directly signify their characterizations and/or their visual depictions: The Joker, The Riddler, and The Penguin all boast personalities and shticks in alignment with their memorable namesakes. When you think about it, this DC trend aligns quite well with the linguistic definition of what it means to be an icon.
On the other hand, many Marvel villains exist as counterparts to their heroes — lacking a vital origin or signature characterization by which to define themselves as more than a hero’s foil. These villains all become the same; they become the big, gray baddie that the MCU has grown all too infamous for.
Marvel villains overlap. They mesh into one. There is not a campy Danny DeVito playing Penguin or a sly Jack Nicholson offering his take on Joker. Rather, there is a great actor thrown up against the bad guy, merely to be defeated. There is a great actor playing the angry bad guy. How can you be an icon if your namesake is not unique or memorable? How can you be an icon if you lack the very qualities inherent to what it means to be iconic in the cinematic landscape (and somewhat according to the definition itself)?