Why movie villain schemes have gotten ridiculously complicated

Do you remember the Joker’s evil scheme in the 1989 film Batman? It’s a fairly straightforward one, involving spreading terror through a poison he’s designed called Smilex. Initially, the poison is to be released through a combination of cosmetics and toiletries, but after that plan is foiled by Batman, the Joker tries to do it via balloons during a city celebration. It’s a straightforward evil scheme as evil schemes go, an uncluttered plan for an uncluttered movie that’s more about a mano a mano confrontation, visual style, and theme than it is about watching a convoluted scheme unfold.

Fast-forward to The Dark Knight in 2008, and just try to describe the Joker’s evil scheme there. There’s something about infiltrating the mob, multiple bomb attacks planned, blackmailing Batman into revealing his secret identity, a social experiment involving ferries, deliberately getting caught to be put in prison, etc. If the Joker’s plan from 1989’s Batman is an obvious called strike right in the middle of the plate, The Dark Knight’s Joker’s plan is the equivalent of the infield fly rule.

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It’s not just a change in comic book villains’ plans, though. Consider the difference between Emperor Palpatine’s plan in Return of the Jedi versus the complicated machinations of the prequel-era Palpatine. In Jedi, he simply let the location of the second Death Star be known and hid its operational status to lure the Rebel Alliance into a simple but clever trap. It played on the urgency of the rebellion to go for a strike while they still could, while also deliberately adding the temptation of his own presence there as a target. In contrast, his plans in the prequels involve taking control of both sides of a civil war, engineering political crises to achieve no-confidence votes, designing clone armies in secret, etc. The schemes are more complicated but also more absurd, as they almost require Palpatine to have a level of control and range of presence that make him little short of a demigod in the Star Wars universe.

Then there’s the evil mastermind plot that was the inspiration for this article, that of Sherlock Holmes’ sister in this last series of the BBC’s Sherlock, in which she hatches an incredibly elaborate scenario involving impersonating a therapist, a prison breakout and takeover, intricate psychological manipulations involving life and death decisions for Sherlock, Mycroft, and Watson, planted bombs, a coded message buried in a song, and more, all in a plot made more absurd through having been planned largely through a five-minute conversation years earlier. Again, incredible powers of planning and manipulation are attributed to the villain who, while not overtly claiming superpowers, seems to have them nonetheless.

So why are we getting more elaborate and convoluted schemes from supervillains in sci-fi movies? I see a few different possibilities. One is the perception that the modern audience is more savvy, they demand more complex storytelling, and they enjoy picking apart such plans on forums, social media, and websites. There’s something about seeing a complex plan coming together onscreen, and it adds rewatchability so that the viewer can go back and see a detail in the plan that was overlooked the first time. Another possibility is that the influence of serialized storytelling has shown the potential for more elaborate plans to unfold across multiple movies. This seems to be happening with the Infinity Gauntlet storyline in the Marvel movies.

Finally, there’s the possibility that the current understanding of having powerful villains in a comic book based or sci-fi story implies that such a villain be hyper-competent. In the past, the villains featured could be bumbling or ineffectual, seen more as a source of humor than a potential threat to the hero. Part of that may have been a reluctance on the part of writers to create effective, brilliant villains who would have inspired respect, or worse, admiration from impressionable young readers. Part of the 1954 Comics Code Authority standards read “if crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity”, “crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals”, and also, “Criminals shall not be presented as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.”

The unfolding of a successful and layered scheme onscreen can make a villain look charismatic and clever, while leaving the hero looking reactive or dull-witted by contrast. Lex Luthor’s manipulations of the titular heroes of 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as part of yet another complicated, multi-pronged plan had that effect at times.

Lex Luthor in film is a great example of what I mean, and a particularly relevant one as the kind of villain who we often see with convoluted plans. Lex isn’t a match for Superman as a physical threat or through superpowers, so he uses his intellect to build technology, weapons, manipulate others to pit them against Superman, or amass wealth and political power to be a threat. All of that is fine in that you don’t need Superman slugging it out with a rival every issue, but earlier Superman movies were able to convey “evil genius” without involving excessively detailed schemes that involved a further level of Plan Bs in case the original plan failed.

And to bring this back to the Joker, he’s another villain character who’s not a physical threat to Batman and not usually noted as much of a fighter. So the writing aims to elevate the threat by focusing on his genius, except Batman is supposed to be no slouch himself when it comes to intelligence, and so you then have the brilliant detective one step behind, which can only be accomplished through escalating plots and the eventual excess we often see. It’s kind of like early M. Night Shyamalan films and the “twists” that became famous, where it seemed like he was sometimes on a quest to top every previous one.

It’s fitting that in a science fiction or superhero movie era of escalating budgets, and escalating, intricate serialization of storylines in both movies and TV, that the escalation of villainous schemes seems to be taking hold in this way as well. It didn’t start specifically with the Joker in The Dark Knight (which to be clear, is a very good film), but that seems to have given the trend a boost. It may have influenced recent Bond films as well, especially with Silva’s deliberate planned capture in Skyfall and especially the way in which Bond is shown to be the manipulated chess piece on the board by Blofeld in Spectre, much like the heroes or protagonists in some other examples here.

The complicated master plan can be used well at times with good writing, and depending on what level of realism the story is going for. More often to me, it seems like a lazy way to make a villain look more effective and a cynical way to up the stakes of a story by putting protagonists in contrived predicaments and allowing them to be manipulated. What ever happened to the villain who only has a simple hostage-taking scheme, new secret weapon, or wants to pay the cashier in nothing but small change?

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