The Real Inspirations for Comic Movie Villains

The Real Inspirations for Comic Movie Villains.

by Randy Krinsky

Many writers, artists, and entertainers find inspiration all around them, whether they know it or not. They use this inspiration in their performances, their articles, their music, or whatever art form they use to express themselves. Inspiration can take the form of people, places, and sometimes, other artists or their works of art. As a comic book writer and artist, it is not easy to come up with new and exciting villains to challenge our heroes. It is a daunting task to remain fresh and original.

We all know that many of today’s cinematic villains have their basis in the comics from which they draw their storylines. What you might not know is that many of the most iconic comic book villains were inspired by remarkable pre-existing characters and people. Some origins are easy to ascertain but others are more obscure. It is those that I wish to focus on in this list.

As a comic book reader from way back, I was born to compile this list. I have been researching it for most of my life. I just didn’t know it, until now. Some of these were revealed by the creators outright in interviews; others are common acknowledge but have yet to be confirmed. Some might surprise you; others will have you wondering why you didn’t catch on earlier. So here they are, in no particular order:

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1. Doctor Doom (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): The Fantastic Four (1994)

First Comic Appearance: Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)

Inspiration: The Embodiment of Death

The ruthless and egotistical Doctor Doom (a.k.a. Victor Von Doom) was the creation of comic legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee came up with the name initially, and found it, “eloquent in its simplicity — magnificent in its implied menace. “ Kirby envisioned Doom as the personification of Death, and used armor as a stand-in for a skeleton, covered in an ominous cloak. Kirby once remarked about his influence, “It was the reason for the armor and the hood. Death is connected with armor and the inhuman-like steel. Death is something without mercy, and human flesh contains that mercy.”

Though he was depicted numerous times over the decades in animated form, his first live-action portrayal was by Joseph Culp in Roger Corman’s 1994 never-released, The Fantastic Four.

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2. Two-Face (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Batman Forever (1995)

First Appearance: Detective Comics #66 (August 1942)

Inspiration: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Black Bat

Two-Face (a.k.a. Harvey Dent) was the creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, though Kane is commonly viewed as having conceived of the idea on his own. Finger is credited with assisting in the development of the character. According to Kane’s autobiography, Two-Face’s depiction was inspired by the classic 1931 horror film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; itself inspired by the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The villain’s origin was drawn from a 1930s pulp magazine character, Black Bat, who also disfigured by being splashed in the face with acid.

The villains first on-screen portrayal was by Tommy Lee Jones in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995).

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3. Catwoman (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Batman: The Movie (1966)

First Appearance: Batman #1 (May 1940)

Inspiration: Ruth Steel/Actress Jean Harlow

The anti-heroine, Batman-adversary/love-interest, Catwoman (a.k.a. Selina Kyle) was also co-created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. In his autobiography, Kane explained the femme fatale was partially inspired by his cousin Ruth Steel, with the added sex appeal of 1930s starlet Jane Harlow. The feline theme was derived from Kane’s own feelings about cats, “I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable.” I feel the same way…

This stealthy seductress was first portrayed on-screen in 1966, by a former Miss America, Lee Meriwether, in Batman: The Movie. (Although the character was portrayed previously by Julie Newmar, in the first season of the television series, “Batman.”)

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4. The Red Skull (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Captain America (1990)

First Comic Appearance: Captain America Comics #7 (March 1941)

Inspiration: Hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top (really, don’t laugh!)

I know it sounds crazy, but creator Joe Simon, in his autobiography, revealed that it is true:
“Even sitting at lunch, I was always thinking about heroes and villains, with all sorts of ideas swimming around in my head. Next thing I know, I had a hot fudge sundae sitting in front of me, with the vanilla ice cream, and the hot fudge is running down the side. It was intriguing. The hot fudge looked like limbs—legs, feet, and hands—and I'm thinking to myself. Gee, this'd make an interesting villain, I mused. We'll call him ‘Hot Fudge’ ... Just put a face on him, and have him ooze all over the place…But I looked again at the sundae, and I saw the big cherry on top. The cherry looked like a skull. ‘Wow,’ I said to myself. ‘Red Skull’ … that sounds good.” Wow, indeed! How could someone so ‘deliciously’ evil originally have been conceived from something so… well, delicious?

Scott Paulin portrayed the supervillain, albeit as an Italian Mafioso, in the 1990 film, Captain America. (Technically, comic writer Larry Ivie portrayed him first in his 1964 16mm film short, Captain America Battles the Red Skull. Normally, I wouldn’t even mention that but the late Ivie was pretty cool, and his work on “Monsters and Heroes” in the late 1960’s is classic!)

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5. The Penguin (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Batman: The Movie (1966)

First Comic Appearance: Detective Comics #58 (December 1941)

Inspiration: Emperor Penguins/Willie the Kool Cigarettes Mascot

This is another creation from the dynamic duo of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, creators of Batman. The origin of the self-styled “Gentleman of Crime” known as The Penguin (a.k.a. Oswald Cobblepot) has been caught up in the long-standing difference of opinion between Kane and Finger. There has been for years some disagreement over “who created who.” According to Les Daniel’s 1999 book, Batman – The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight, Bill Finger has remarked, “the character was inspired by emperor penguins, who reminded [me] of stuffy English gentlemen in tuxedos.” Bob Kane remembers it differently, saying inspiration was drawn from, “the little penguin who appeared in print to advertise Kool menthol cigarettes…”

The indomitable Burgess Meredith was the first to portray The Penguin cinematically in 1966’s Batman: The Movie.

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6. Fin Fang Foom (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance: Iron Man (2008)

First Comic Appearance: Strange Tales #89 (October 1961)

Inspiration: The title of the film, Chu Chin Chow (1934)

Okay, so Fin Fang Foom only appears as an Easter egg to the fans, very quickly, as part of a billboard in Iron Man (2008), but it was still pretty cool! The menacing alien dragon known as Fin Fang Foom was the creation of Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The backstory has been re-written a few times over the years, but the villain remains the same: a massive, green dragon. The pair wanted a giant creature that could destroy anything in its path, so an alien dragon wasn’t too far a stretch. In a 2005 Alter Ego interview, Stan Lee describes choosing the villain’s name based on a movie he remembered seeing as a child. That movie was the 1934 film, Chu Chin Chow. Lee observed, “I never forgot that name. Those three words just stuck in my memory: ‘Chu Chin Chow.’ So when I was looking for the name of a monster, I remember ‘Chu Chin Chow’ … and that particular meter, that beat, somehow led to Fin Fang Foom.”

Now, we never get to see Iron Man battle the villain, as of yet, in any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, so we don’t have a live-action actor, or CGI portrayal. What we do get to see in 2008’s Iron Man, is a rendering by artist Adi Granov, based on his own artwork for the 2008 comic mini-series, Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas.

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7. The Joker (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Batman: The Movie (1966)

First Comic Appearance: Batman #1 (April 25, 1940)

Inspiration: Conrad Veidt as the clown, Gwynplaine in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs

This anecdote is one of my favorites! The story of the creation of one of comic’s most enduring villains has been argued over for decades. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, in some form or fashion, came up with the concept of the character. To what degree each was involved is where the controversy arises. Artist Jerry Robinson says he brought in a sketch of a Joker playing card and that was the initial basis around which the concept was developed; however, Kane and Finger tell a different story. According to them, Robinson’s playing card was used by The Joker in a few issues but was not the basis for the character himself.

In an 1994 interview, Bob Kane explained how he remembers Finger bringing in a book with a photograph of the silent film actor Conrad Veidt as the demented, disfigured clown, Gwynplaine, in The Man Who Laughs (1928). Finger pointed to the photo and told Kane, “Here’s the Joker.” In an 2009 interview, Robinson would argue back that his playing card sketch reminded Bill of the photo of Conrad Veidt, who would later bring in his photo. The disagreement is one for the ages! Ultimately, no one can deny the eerie similarity between Veidt and the visage we have come to know as The Joker!

Actor Cesar Romero was the first to bring the villain to the big screen in 1966’s Batman: The Movie.

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8. Galactus (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

First Comic Appearance: Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966)

Inspiration: The Bible

In trying to come up with a suitable antagonist for their hit comic series, Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had to dig deep yet again. This time, however, instead of a super villain bent on world domination, they came up with something truly unique. They came up with a God-like cosmic entity, neither good nor evil, who must consume living worlds in order to survive: Galactus. In the 1987 video, The Masters of Comic Book Art, Kirby adds, “My inspirations were the fact that I had to make sales. And I had to come up with characters that were no longer stereotypes. For some reason, I went to the Bible and I came up with Galactus. And there I was in front of this tremendous figure … I certainly couldn’t treat him the same way that I would any ordinary mortal…and of course the Silver Surfer is the fallen angel. They were above mythic figures, and of course, they were the first gods.”

Galactus appeared in the 2007 film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Unfortunately the film’s representation of the demigod was as a cloud-like vortex threatening to consume the Earth. In a VFXWorld interview, Weta Digital Vfx supervisor Eric Saindon explained how 20th Century Fox wanted the depiction to be concealing, where eventually only a shadow and a fiery silhouette resembling Galactus’s signature helmet would be recognizable. Director Tim Story said cosmic cloud-version was used so a future Silver Surfer spin-off film could reveal Galactus as he normally appears. Sci-fi Writer J. Michael Straczynski had written a screenplay for the spin-off contingent on the success of the Fantastic Four film. Straczynski confirmed that Galactus was to appear in all his cosmic glory. However, the hopes of that film have more than likely faded now that Josh Trank’s reboot is set to be released later this year.

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9. Magneto (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): X-Men (2000)

First Comic Appearance: The X-Men #1 (September 1963)

Inspiration: Malcolm X

The character of Magneto (a.k.a. Magnus, a.k.a. Erik Lehnsherr) was created in 1963, amid the American civil rights movement, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby drew inspiration from civil rights leader Malcolm X (with his non-violent counterpart Dr. Martin Luther King as the inspiration behind Professor Charles Xavier). Both men, Magnus and Xavier, openly fought against mutant discrimination, but while Xavier chose a more diplomatic path, Magneto believed force was the only way to get results. Stan Lee once remarked, "[I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist ... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course ... but I never thought of him as a villain."

Acclaimed actor, Sir Ian McKellen was the first to portray Magneto cinematically, and has done so in five films to date.

  • Barsuglia Photography

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10. The Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): X2: X-Men United (2003)

First Appearance: Uncanny X-Men #129 (January 1980)

Inspiration: The Avengers (1960s British TV series), episode #4-21, A Touch of Brimstone.

The villain, Mastermind was originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby early in 1964, akin to a young Vincent Price. However, it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne who made him a member of the villainous Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club. The Hellfire Club itself is modeled after the popular 18th century British gentlemen's club, but the Inner Circle is fictitious gathering of the most ambitious elite of the society. Mastermind was rebranded as Jason Wyngarde by Claremont and added to the Hellfire ranks. On his website, John Byrne discussed his inspiration for the original members of the super-powered Inner Circle:

"I first encountered Peter Wyngarde, as an actor, on ‘The Avengers’ episode ‘A Touch of Brimstone,' which dealt with ... an encounter with the Hellfire Club .... When Chris decided he wanted to do a Hellfire club arc in Uncanny X-Men as part of the “darkening” of Phoenix, I suggested the “in-joke” of having Mastermind, in his disguised form, resemble Peter Wyngarde and, mixing character and actor, that his name be Jason Wyngarde." In that original television episode of The Avengers, all the elite Hellfire Club members wore period costumes, which carried over into the comic book versions. In addition to Jason Wyngarde resembling the actor Peter Wyngarde, the remaining Inner Circle members were also drawn from names and likenesses of famous actors: Sebastian Shaw's likeness is drawn from actor Robert Shaw, Harry Leland from Orson Welles, Donald Pierce from Donald Sutherland, and Emma Frost borrowed her name from Diana Rigg's character from the show, Emma Peel.

On screen to date, we've only seen depictions of the characters of Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost. The former being first seen in X2: X-Men United (2003) as portrayed by actor Charles Siegel, while the latter was seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), portrayed by Tahnya Tozzi,. The pair were more prominently featured as the main antagonists in X-Men: First Class (2011) by Kevin Bacon and January Jones, respectively.

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11. Harley Quinn (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): (actually on TV) Arrow (March 19, 2014)

First Comic Appearance: The Batman Adventures #12 (September 1993)

Inspiration: Actress Arleen Sorkin from TV series, Days of Our Lives

Originally, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm collaborated to create Harley Quinn, but they were directly inspired by a 1989 episode of the soap opera, Days of Our Lives, entitled "Shane's Fairy Tale." This particular episode contained a dream sequence where actress Arleen Sorkin dressed as a court jester. Dini, a long-time friend of Sorkin, used her appearance to create the look and persona of Harley Quinn. In fact, Harley Quinn's given first name is Harleen, similar to Arleen. Harley Quinn’s first appeared in a 1992 episode of "Batman: The Animated Series," as the faithful, demented, excessively infatuated girlfriend of The Joker. However, due to her immense popularity, DC Comics opted to include her in the pages of the Batman comics. Arleen went on to voice the character in several animated series and films.

The first live-action appearance we've seen to date is a cameo in a 2014 episode of the television series, "Arrow," entitled "Suicide Squad" (season 2, episode 16) where Harley is seen from the back only, portrayed by Cassidy Alexa, and voiced by Tara Strong (also, the voice of Harley Quinn in several video games). Margot Robbie has been cast as the character in the upcoming 2016 Warner Brothers film, Suicide Squad.

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12. Kingpin

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)

First Comic Appearance: The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967)

Inspiration: Actor Sydney Greenstreet

Allegedly, the imposing crime boss, Wilson Fisk, the "Kingpin of Crime," was based on the equally imposing actor, Sydney Greenstreet. It's easy to see a likeness in the two after watching Greenstreet's most famous films, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Created by Stan Lee and John Romita, Sr., Fisk had no true super-powers yet continually bested and escaped the super-heroes that came for him. His cunning intellect allows him to hide his agility, stamina and immense strength behind a seemingly rotund appearance. He remains a force to be reckoned with in the Marvel Universe.

The villain's first live-action depiction was in the 1989 television movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, where David Banner (Bill Bixby) and Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) attempt to topple the criminal empire of the Kingpin (portrayed by John Rhys-Davies).

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13. Venom (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): Spider-Man 3 (2007)

First Comic Appearance: Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #8 (December 1984)

Inspiration: Mail-in suggestion by comic reader, Randy Schueller

One of the greatest threats in the Marvel Universe is the symbiotic, sentient alien known as Venom. What was to become an archenemy of Spider-Man, began as a simple suggestion for a new costume design for the friendly, neighborhood webslinger. Imagine the surprise when, in 1982, spidey-fan Randy Schueller received a letter from the Marvel editor informing that not only did they like his costume idea, but that they would like to purchase it outright from him for $220! Two years later, Schueller's costume idea debuted in the comics and began to take on a life of its own! The costume idea was originally modified by artist Mike Zeck into a symbiotic alien that took the form of a costume. By 1988, after the contributions of many other artists and writers, the idea developed into the entity we now know as Venom, thanks to the involvement of Todd McFarlane. Since then Venom has had many incarnations, many host bodies, and doesn't appear to be slowing down yet.

There are plans for Venom to get his own feature film. However, with rights belonging to Sony Pictures, we can only guesstimate when that might take place! Venom made his first live-action appearance in the 2007 film, Spider-Man 3, portrayed by Topher Grace, as the Eddie Brock version of the villain.

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14. Darkseid (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): None ... yet

First Comic Appearance: Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #134 (November 1970)

Inspiration: Actor Jack Palance/Adolf Hitler

The militant megalomaniac ruler of the planet Apokolips, Darkseid was created by Jack Kirby after leaving Marvel Comics for rival DC. According to his biographer, Mark Evanier, Kirby based Darkseid's appearance on the actor Jack Palance and his personality on the World War II German dictator Adolf Hitler. Darkseid is one of the most powerful and evil characters in the DC universe and remains ranked in the top comic villains of all time.

The only live-action appearance we have, to date, of Darkseid was in the 10th and final season of the television series, Smallville. He is a dark force that threatens the world and is slowly revealed throughout the season, culminating in Clark Kent (Tom Welling) becoming Superman to defeat him. With rumors that Darkseid will be the primary antagonist in the upcoming 2017 film, Justice League Part One, stock in this villainous character should only rise.

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15. Thanos (Marvel)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): The Avengers (2012)

First Appearance: Iron Man #55 (February 1973)

Inspiration: The New Gods: Metron & Darkseid (c. 1970-1971)

Thanos, "The Mad Titan," is a powerful cosmic villain with an infatuation with the embodiment of Death. Talented soon-to-be-writer and artist Jim Starlin first came up with the initial idea for the villain while sitting in a college classroom. However, the idea for Thanos was planted in its raw form by the existing work of another already-acclaimed artist, Jack Kirby. In a 2002 interview with Jon B. Cooke, Starlin elaborated, "Kirby had done the New Gods, which I thought was terrific. He was over at DC at the time. I came up with some things that were inspired by that. You’d think that Thanos was inspired by Darkseid, but that was not the case when I showed up. In my first Thanos drawings, if he looked like anybody, it was Metron. I had all these different gods and things I wanted to do, which became Thanos and the Titans. Roy took one look at the guy in the Metron-like chair and said : “Beef him up! If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one!”

Thanos makes a cameo in a mid-credits scene in the 2012 film, The Avengers. He is portrayed by actor Damion Poitier, and is set up to be the antagonist in future Marvel films. Actor Josh Brolin appears as Thanos in the 2014 film, Guardians of the Galaxy. Brolin himself confirmed that he will reprise the role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 (2018) and Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 (2019).

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16. Talia al Ghul (DC)

First Cinematic Appearance (Live-Action): The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

First Comic Appearance: Detective Comics #411 (May 1971)

Inspiration: 1930s Fu Manchu novels/On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

The morally ambiguous, anti-heroine, Talia al Ghul, is the daughter of the fearsome leader of the League of Assassins, Ra's al Ghul. She has been, at times, an ally, an enemy, and a romantic interest, to Bruce Wayne (a.k.a. Batman). She is the mother of Bruce Wayne's son, Damian. Comic writer Dennis O’Neil, artists Bob Brown and Dick Giordano worked together on the formation of the character. All three concede that Talia is the union of ideas inspired by early Fu Manchu novels as well as the 1969 James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The relationship Bruce Wayne has with the al Ghuls directly mimics that of James Bond in the Bond film. In the 2008 book, Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City, Dennis O'Neil remarks "The mysterious Ra's al Ghul was introduced at this time as well, his daughter and Batman-love interest Talia and his Himalayan headquarters both directly inspired by the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

Though Talia has appeared in numerous animated adaptations, her only live-action screen appearance to-date was in Christopher Nolan's 2012 film, The Dark Knight Rises. She was portrayed by French actress, Marion Cotillard.

Whether they are conscious of it or not, all artists get motivation from what is around them, on screen, in books, or from what is transpiring in the world at any given moment. Inspiration can be drawn for anywhere. These eighteen are only what I was able to compile within a week's time. There are many others out there and many more characters still yet to be created. From where would you draw inspiration? What truly inimitable creations will be the next to be inspired by what has gone before? Will you be the one to do it? I hope this list helps you on your journey.

Main Image Courtesy of DC Comics

3 Week Diet
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  1. Britton Thompson
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