Villains as Fashion Heroes

Superheroes may save the day, but Steve Carell's Despicable Me proves it’s the bad guys who win in the costume department, says Sean Macaulay. VIEW OUR GALLERY of villains in diabolical ensembles.

07.08.10 10:57 PM ET

For all those people who grew up feeling more affinity with fun-loving Lex Luthor than uptight Clark Kent, once again there is a supervillain to warm the heart.

The hero of Universal’s new animated feature, Despicable Me, is Gru, a criminal mastermind in the high-style tradition of the best Bond villains. Along with the requisite exotic accent (voiced by Steve Carell), Gru has a bizarre pet, an army of henchmen, an underground lair, and of course, an absurdly grandiose master plan. “We are going to pull off the TRUE crime of the century,” he announces to a noisy rally of minions. “We are going to steal the MOON!”

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But just like the supervillain’s overelaborate death-traps, such diabolical grand schemes are doomed to failure because of their overweening narcissism. The evil-doer can’t resist telling the world about his plan, often laying out a formal dinner with a full lecture on the scheme for the one secret agent who can foil him. This emotional neediness was brilliantly parodied in the Austin Powers films with Dr. Evil. His out-of-date gambits for world attention are the most quoted (“We get the warhead and we hold the world ransom for... one million dollars!”) But really, the films are a feast of riffs on the tropes of Bondian megalomania, with the supervillain as controlling, perfectionist host—right down to his meticulous outfit. “Do you like your quasi-futuristic clothes, Mr. Powers?” a tightly buttoned-in Dr. Evil asks. “I designed them myself.”

A trademark outfit is vital to sending out the right signals of imperious power as real-life dictators understand all too well. The uniform is the man, and the man is a self-willed marvel who will not be denied. You will look without success for casually thrown-together knitwear pieces—supervillain couture takes its cue from into the two extremes of 20th-century despot chic: the unsmiling minimalism of Stalin and Chairman Mao (not even a bourgeois necktie), and the florid militaristic dress-up of Hitler and Mussolini.

For moon-stealing Gru’s wardrobe, the makers of Despicable Me settled on a retro mix of Cold War-era industrial-functionalism and King's Road ‘60s flair. Gru has a classic no-frills jacket with zipper, plus businesslike turtleneck, drainpipe trousers, and pointed Mod boots. His only sartorial flourish is a long, stripy scarf, which can’t help but evoke the British cartoon villain, Grimly Feendish. Like Dr. No, Hugo Drax, or Blofeld, Gru saves all his razzamatazz for his gadgets—and his rocket-launching outfit.

Despicable Me takes the narcissistic comedy of the supervillain further by giving Gru’s brash, young rival, Vector, his own supervillain corporate logo. (Even evil can’t resist building brand equity in the digital age.)

“For the design language of the film, we wanted to make sure Gru was the more traditional supervillain,” explains Chris Renaud, the co-director of the film. “He has the Cold War style of steel rivets and lots of black. His lair is not normal, but it can at least pass for a suburban house. Vector is the reverse. He’s a loud techno-geek. He wears a bright orange tracksuit. All his gadgets are white with orange trim. He has a huge compound with a big, orange V outside it.”

The choice of tracksuit for the upstart supervillain is inspired. Its informality is so fundamentally wrong for any true supervillain; its casualness so antithetical to the vaunting ambition of the authentic criminal artiste. “Man has climbed Mount Everest,” says Goldfinger with finger-pointing passion, “gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime!”

It is this extroverted brashness that separates the classic supervillain from your run-of-the-mill evil nemesis. Their grand schemes are always attention-seeking feats of laborious ingenuity. Goldfinger doesn’t want to steal the gold in Fort Knox, he wants to make it radioactive for 58 years. Lex Luthor doesn’t just want to bomb California, he wants to create a new West Coast: “My West Coast. Costa Del Lex. Luthorville. Marina del Lex…”

The key to any great supervillain—and why we secretly like them—is that they are not destroyers, at heart, but creators. They don’t want riches or power, they want to realize a vision. They are arrogant and remote. Their certainty is breathtaking. But there’s no denying their artistry.

In The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, published last year, Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith note that “superheroes are largely conservative figures, usually content with the status quo… [while] supervillains, on the other hand, are out to change the world. Supervillains are active; superheroes are reactive.”

Such ambition deserves a wardrobe to match, and the makers of Despicable Me do not disappoint. Which is just as well, because the penalty for failure is death by piranha tank.

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Sean Macaulay is a screenwriter, humorist and journalist, specializing in symptoms of the post-macho midlife crisis. He was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007, and has written for The Daily Telegraph, Radio Times, Punch, and British GQ. He was most recently creative consultant on Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which was voted Best Documentary at the Independent Sprit Awards. You can follow him on Twitter here.