After the drought comes the flood! and by flood i mean the completion of an article i’ve been working on since september of last year…
Anyone who reads this blog will know that i put a lot of weight on the villain’s shoulders to carry action heavy spectacles (in particular, but by no means exclusively), and i place much of the failures of Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and most recently Star Trek Beyond squarely on the antagonists in those movies.
So what pray tell makes a good villain?
Well, just like anything that is inherently subjective, the reasons that make a bad guy good are as numerous as the people who experience their stories, as many people find Kylo Ren to be layered and interesting (i find he’s neither at this moment), or Ultron to be more than just a cardboard cut out bad guy.
So with that in mind, i can only give what i specifically look for in a villain, and what makes them good. Which is exactly what i’m going to do here:
WHAT MUST THEY BE?
The four traits that i look for in a successful antagonist are:
- A Villain is Always Stronger than the Hero
- A Villain is Close or Connected to the Hero in a Meaningful way
- A Villain’s Actions are Understandable in Some way
- A Villain is Ultimately Motivated by Selfishness
I think the best way to approach this (because of its obviousness) is to show an example of when a villain isn’t stronger than the heroes:
I’ll admit that i haven’t played Mortal Kombat X (or any past 3… when it released…) however i do know that Quan Chi is supposed to be one of the big bads of the series, and honestly i don’t get that impression at all from that video. Angry Joe in his review of MKX points out that the player characters seem to be much more powerful than the bosses, and it makes the campaign suffer and feel unsatisfying. Though it is important to note that being “Stronger” isn’t necessarily limited to being physically powerful, as social position, and/or ability to circumvent rules or laws among any number of other things that all add to the villain’s strength.
Simply ask yourself: Would the xenomorphs in the Alien franchise be as memorable if Ripley and Co could make them explode with spit wads? Would the Samurai’s situation in Seven Samurai be as compelling if they weren’t out numbered by the dozens? Would the story even be the same if Commodus wasn’t the emperor and Maximus wasn’t a slave in Gladiator?
Connecting the hero to the villain in a meaningful way is an effective method to make a villain more threatening. If a strong connection is present, it serves to separate an episodic Bad Guy of the Week from the Big Bad of a series. It also can lend much more depth to the interactions between hero and villain, as antecedent information or thematic connection can increase narrative depth and weight.
While familial relationships or past relationships are a good way to create connection (like The Bride’s and Bill’s relationship in Kill Bill, or Angel and Buffy’s past relationship), connections can also be based on aforementioned thematic and narrative elements. The latter is precisely the reason why i consider General Chang to be one of the best villains of the Star Trek franchise, as his character is designed to show flaws in Kirk’s ways of thinking.
Much of the themes in The Undiscovered Country revolve around racism, and the writers use Chang as a way to show the flaws in racist thoughts; as in the film series the major Klingons we’ve seen have been characterised as thoughtless thugs. Kruge from Search for Spock being the most notable, and having the clearest impact on Kirk’s character. Comparing Chang to Kruge is when you can start to see the intent behind the former.
Chang is intelligent, sophisticated, and learned in both Kirk and Earth. As he recites Shakespeare with enthusiasm, and he knows Earth’s history well enough to be offended when Kirk compares him to Hitler. He is also very interested in Kirk, however his interest is not fueled by prejudice, but instead by sincere admiration. His character reveals Kirk’s racism clearly, as Kirk knows nothing about the Klingons and is consumed by hatred for the race. If it weren’t for these thematic and narrative relationships between Kirk and Chang, the regret that Kirk feels towards the end of the film would ultimately come off as unearned.
Compare this to Ru’Afo from Insurrection, as while he shares history with the Ba’Ku he doesn’t share any connection to the main characters of the franchise. You really have to stretch things to find any sort of connection between Picard and Ru’Afo and ultimately any found are tenuous observations at best. Ru’Afo’s weakness in sharing a meaningful relationship with the crew lends greatly to the Episode of the Week feeling of Insurrection as a whole, and is a go to example of how important it is that the villain’s narrative and thematic connections can make or break a movie.
Moral dilemmas are a cornerstone of conflict, as the less black and white the situation or choices are the more interesting and layered the story becomes. Which is why when a villain’s position, or motivation, or goal is debatable, relatable, and ultimately understandable a memorable antagonist can be created.
One of the easiest ways to create this is to focus on vengeance and retribution, as these primal thoughts are easy to relate to when you place yourself in the character’s shoes. Take Khan for example; left on a planet that quickly died taking his crew and wife with it, with nary a peek in by those who left him there. If you were in that situation for the better part of 20 years, wouldn’t it be very easy to let your thoughts slide to vengeance?
In 2002’s Insomnia Robert Finch murders Kay Connell in a fit of rage, fed by his frustrations at her continued relationship to her abusive boyfriend, and after she laughed at his attempts to romance her. While the act is abhorrent, what motivates the anger is all too understandable for those who have faced rejection.
Insomnia also has the added element of Man vs Self in Will Dormer hiding his accidental shooting of his partner to avoid life behind bars (i think that’s a relatable position), but also to protect his life’s work (all of the people he put away could have their cases reopened). Because Dormer’s moral dilemma is so high he becomes the primary antagonist in his own life, with Finch being more of a warped or dark reflection of what may happen if he rationalizes his way out of his own guilt.
Lastly if we really go for broke we can debate how Ozymandias created world peace with deplorable methods (in the graphic novel). And it is because of this moral ambiguity the heroes decide to remain silent.
This article is based on a screenwriting essay that i wrote 10 or so years ago, and for the previous point i chose the word justifiable instead of understandable. I’ve changed it because villains are very easy to romanticise, as good ones with strong connections and understandable motives can almost be justified in their actions. However it’s their selfishness that is their biggest flaw, and ultimately leaves their positions unjustifiable.
Look to Ozymandias’ actions once again, note in his various speeches how many times he says: I, Me and My. Note his total belief that he was the only one who could force humanity on a right path. Note his speaking on behalf of The Comedian, and lacking any guilt for having murdered him. Note his motivations of wanting to surpass Alexander in uniting the world. Lastly note his exclamation of: “I DID IT” when his plan seemingly succeeds in creating world peace.
Only a man totally convinced he is doing the absolute right thing can murder millions, and this is especially so when he can intimately murder those who helped him. Although he says he experiences the deaths he’s caused by forcing himself to dream of their faces, he never intends to either kill himself or turn himself in after the fact. This is the ultimate expression of his selfishness, as he undoubtedly believes himself to be above answering for his actions.
Will Dormer in Insomnia struggles with his own selfishness; wrestling with his guilt in covering up his partners murder and having planted evidence in a child killer’s apartment to ensure a conviction. He ultimately acts selflessly when he decides he can’t live with letting Kate Connell’s murderer get away with it regardless of the consequences for himself, and decides to not let his fear of what may happen with his other cases (his “life’s work”) get in the way of doing the right thing.
STRONGER, CONNECTED, UNDERSTANDABLE, SELFISH
To close this post out, Marilyn Manson said something interesting about villains in a CNN interview about his then upcoming album Born Villain:
“In any story, the villain is the catalyst. The hero’s not a person who will bend the rules or show the cracks in his armor. He’s one-dimensional intentionally, but the villain is the person who owns up to what he is and stands by it. He’ll do the things that are sometimes morally questionable, but he does it because it’s his nature to do it and it doesn’t fluctuate. It’s the fable of the frog and the scorpion, all those stories that just say, whatever you’re going to be, stick to it in confidence. Don’t waver or life will fuck you over.”
There are two major things i disagree with Manson on in his assessment; firstly villains like Chang or Walter Finch ever or truly own up to what they are, as they either believe they are in the right or reason their way into accepting what they did was right.
Secondly and as i’ve said above, it is very easy to romanticise Villains as they generally are the catalysts for their stories and conflict. However if you look past all of the reasons a villain might have for doing what they do, past the tragic back stories, past the moral ambiguity, or the charismatic characterizations you’ll find the Villain to be just as one-dimensional as the Hero.
As their selfishness is their fundamental aspect (indeed it is their nature, just like the scorpions), and its presence is what taints their actions no matter how seemingly justifiable their cause is. The best Villains in our various stories manage to hide this (or should i say the writers do), as they balance this aspect of themselves with all the rest that goes along with their character.
Interestingly enough this is also why Villains can resonate with their audiences, as it’s very easy or even gratifying to look inward. To illustrate this, in the recent The Light Between Oceans Michael Fassbender must make a moral choice to either report a fatal accident or keep his wife happy, James Berardinelli in his review writes:
“Can any of us say that, when placed in the position of these characters, we would act differently? The nobler part our natures might argue that we would but the human part might say otherwise.”
A good Villain can reflect this darker, or in James’ words more human aspect of ourselves and its that human quality that overall encompasses what i’m looking for when i judge a whether the bad guy is a good one.
How about you?