There was a moment last fall, around the time WB was announcing the expansion of its movie superheroes into a shared cinematic universe, when I thought the studio should take advantage of its already-developed small-screen heroes and fold those versions of (Green) Arrow and the Flash into its new big-screen venture. They chose to keep the emerging DCCU separate from the CW shows, and I quickly realized that, for the first time in my life, I had been wrong. Of course the CW shows should be separate. Arrow and The Flash have been able to plow through so many notable villains and other characters — one of the shows’ best traits — precisely because they didn’t have to worry about future conflicts with the films.
And now, that ability to go full fan-service is about to reach its arguable peak, with tonight’s Flash giving us the first full episode with Gorilla Grodd — titled, appropriately, “Grodd Lives.”
So why am I so excited for this? Because Grodd is actually the best villain in all of DC Comics. Yeah, I know, the Joker. Or Lex Luthor, Darkseid, Two-Face, or any number of other choices. DC has many villains far better known than Grodd. Even within Flash’s rogue gallery (not to be confused with The Rogues), Grodd usually takes a back seat to the likes of Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, and the Reverse Flash. But the secret truth is that none of these more renowned villains are actually as good as Gorilla Grodd.
Why? Because Grodd is a massive hyper-intelligent gorilla with overwhelming psychic powers. That’s why.
If that description of Grodd sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. And therein lies its genius. Most famous comics characters are ridiculous, but because they’re more famous, we’re so used to them that it rarely feels that way. If Batman never existed until now, you couldn’t create a new character who dresses up like a giant bat and have anyone take him remotely seriously. But Batman has become such a pervasive part of our cultural history that even people who aren’t lifelong superhero fans generally accept his premise without too much reservation. Likewise for Spider-Man, Superman, and most other particularly popular superheroes. Modern storytellers are able to put much more serious or realistic spins on these characters in part because we, as an audience, have already accepted their ridiculous premises.
But how do you take a massive hyper-intelligent gorilla with overwhelming psychic powers and make him realistic? By his very nature, and by the very description you just read, you can’t. At least not fully. You can take the Joker and make him a devastating agent of chaos, as in The Dark Knight, and it’s effective and entertaining, but there’s little to distinguish him from a non-comics insane terrorist. You can take the comic book-ness out of the Joker and still have a story. You can’t do that for Grodd. Because again, he’s a fucking massive hyper-intelligent gorilla with overwhelming psychic powers. Gorilla Grodd will always belong to comic books in a way that most villains never can.
So how will a relatively grounded TV show handle him? It helps for Flash that the show has already laid a strong foundation of super-powered threats; when you’ve already done justice to a guy with godlike weather control powers, what more is a psychic gorilla? The short trailer above for tonight’s episode teases Grodd’s introduction as almost a horror-film type of set-up, which would match the tone of our first glimpse at Grodd earlier in the season:
The treatment certainly works, given how Flash comics have often succeeded in taking Grodd to some pretty dark places. Take my personal favorite Grodd story, his invasion of Keystone City during the Wally West portion of Geoff Johns’ Flash run. (I’m grateful for the excuse to post some of Scott Kolins’s art from that run throughout this post, since it is my favorite ever on the title.)
But as fine as that is, there are other ways to depict Grodd. And I don’t just mean the Robot Chicken version:
I also mean, for instance, the excellent version from Justice League Unlimited. This Grodd is a sometimes-leader of supervillains, with a wry personality and a hatred of bananas. I particularly love the voice work here by Powers Boothe (of Tombstone, Nashville, and more). His voice makes Grodd a little more playful than the deep booming baritone we seem to be getting in Flash.
There are a surprising number of gorillas in comics beyond Grodd and the aptly named Gorilla City that plays such a large role in many of his stories. There’s Monsieur Mallah, the Ultra-Humanite, Gorilla-Man, and many more — enough to lead both the major comic book companies to at one point decide that an ape-based crossover event was a good idea (DC’s JLApe and Marvel’s Marvel Apes … god, people actually got paid for those names). Comic books and monkeys go back far enough that this is a real thing that once happened:
As you might imagine from someone claiming Gorilla Grodd is a better villain than the Joker, I view Grodd as the best of all these apes. But I still find comics’ repeated preoccupation with gorillas to be instructive as to what makes Grodd so good. (And yes, there are differences between apes/gorillas/monkeys/what have you, but I’m going to use all those terms interchangeably out of willful ignorance.)
There’s something primal about our primate brethren that fascinates us. It’s what keeps us coming back to things like King Kong, Planet of the Apes, and especially, Dunston Checks In. We didn’t evolve from apes, but we share a common evolutionary ancestor with apes, so looking at gorillas is like looking into a funhouse mirror of what we might have been. They’re an offshoot from our forgotten history, our closest genetic relatives as a species, creatures that are all at once both foreign and familiar. Relative to humans, apes are filled with both far more innocence and a far more savage ferocity. I think that’s why so many stories with ape protagonists have them cast as dangerous heroes. We see a goodness in them that’s uncorrupted by the fall of man, but are still rightly frightened by their wild strength. We see both the best and worst of ourselves in them; it just depends on the angle.
With Grodd, we see the combination of those fears and aspirations mixed into one deadly bundle. He has a brilliant tactical mind in many of his incarnations, but beyond that, he’s also among the most powerful psychics in the DCU (if not the most powerful). A man without weapons is nowhere near as deadly as a silverback gorilla, but we at least would usually possess some intelligence advantage; not so against Grodd. His brain represents the best of man, but taken to the furthest reaches of what we can even imagine for our mental abilities. Yet he still has all the strength and speed of an ape (possibly even augmented beyond normal), making him so much powerful than any man, with the primal viciousness of a beast. By being both smart and psychic, he’s basically better at being a man than man himself. But his brute force still gives him the animal advantage, too. Grodd is the best of both species in one unrepentantly evil package.
And that’s why Gorilla Grodd is actually DC’s greatest villain. He unapologetically belongs to comic books in a way that most villains never can, no matter how excellent his live-action adaptation is (and I expect it will be very good), because his very premise is comic-y in a way that can never fully be washed away. Yet underneath that silliness lies some deeper significance. Grodd takes many of the reasons we so continually care about our primate relatives in our fiction and combines them into one complete package. And because he takes from the most dangerous aspects of two species, he’s an adaptable character for different types of story; you can make him a dangerous force of nature, like the Flash show seems to be teasing, or a more conniving schemer, as in JLU.
Gorilla Grodd is a massive hyper-intelligent gorilla with overwhelming psychic powers. And in an entire universe of great characters, there is no finer villain than that.