In the past few years, comic book superheroes have inundated the popular consciousness, jumping from the printed page to screens on television and in movie theaters and even to Broadway with the “Spider-Man” musical. Even so, I’m a bit baffled at the release of the documentary Necessary Evil: Super-Villains of DC Comics. The movie is seemingly a tie-in to the “Villains United” crossover event running through multiple DC Comics’ monthly comic books, and it isn’t bad or uninteresting. However, even at its best, it’s questionable whether the hardest of the hardcore will invest the time or the money in it, to say nothing of the more casual fans who may find the documentary nearly impenetrable.
Narrated by infamous cinema villain Christopher Lee, Necessary Evil features a surprisingly broad palette of individuals expressing their thoughts on a variety of super-villainous topics: what makes a good super-villain, why they exist, iconic moments in their history, and the underlying psychology driving them. Fans who are familiar with the DC direct-to-video animated features will recognize many of the names and faces in the credits and bonus features on those releases, including Andrea Romano, James Tucker, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Clancy Brown, and Kevin Conroy. A cross section of people connected with DC Comics’ publication arm are also present to talk about the bad guys, including Jim Lee, Geoff Johns, and Dan Didio. Other participants also include a clinicial psychologist and comic book fan (who provides some of the most interesting commentary in the movie); participants in recent DC Comics’ adaptations (including Man of Steel director Zack Snyder and actor Michael Shannon, who was General Zod in that film; several of the crew behind Smallville and Arrow; and producers from the recent Injustice video game); and several people whose involvement in the film seems limited to being comic book fan with a reasonably recognizable name. While the broad selection of participants makes for some interesting divergences in opinion, I think Necessary Evil could do a better job at explaining who some of these people are. I can recognize Marv Wolfman’s name because I’ve been reading comic books for over 40 years, but I’m not sure that even the average serious fan of the Teen Titans TV show would know he co-created the team and many of its villains without a lot more help than the movie provides.
I also feel like Necessary Evil could really have used a bit more structure. The movie is divided into several thematic chapters, but the discussion always feels a bit unfocused. There are interesting ideas expressed throughout, to be sure, but the movie seems to go for breadth over depth. It feels like discussion jumps around all over the place, while a lot of potentially interesting avenues for discussion or debate are not investigated. If participants express differences in opinion, they’re generally not juxtaposed close to each other or explicitly contrasted, which ends up making the discussion feel a bit more homogenized than I think it actually is. It also seems to be heavily weighted to the most recent material, since there seems to be little attention paid to anything older than the 1970’s. My biggest complaint probably comes from the chapter on the taxonomy of supervillainy, which delves into a variety of supervillain types before seemingly relegating every single female supervillain into the “femme fatale” category. It’s a real fictional archetype and probably the best fit characters like Catwoman or Poison Ivy, but it’s questionable for someone like Talia al-Ghul and it’s completely wrong for characters like Giganta, the Cheetah, or Livewire. All the other categories get lots of male examples, so dropping all the female representation into this one category inadvertently trivializes and over-sexualizes the women (although, honestly, that’s also par for the course for a depressingly large number of recent superhero comics). I also can’t help but notice that the commentators in the movie are also overwhelmingly male, with prominent and popular creators like Gail Simone, Amanda Connor, or Devin Grayson absent from the discussion.
There’s nothing wrong with Necessary Evil as a home video release, but it’s also a little baffling why it warrants a release at all. The Blu-ray screener copy we received is fine, of course, although I don’t think the movie does (or needs to) take full advantage of the high-definition video or sound. There are no bonus features on the disc other than trailers and an Ultraviolet digital copy. To be honest, the entire feature feels more like something that should be an extra on the deluxe edition of one of the animated direct-to-video movies rather than a standalone feature release of its own.
Necessary Evil is interesting and probably worth watching if you’re a fan of these characters to start with. I’m not completely convinced it’s worth much more than a rental or a borrow from your local library, though, and I’m also not convinced that there’s enough here to draw a more casual fan deeper into fandom.