So now that i’ve laid down the ground rules for what makes a good villain, lets look at some in depth examples. However instead of looking at successes let us instead look at failures, as i feel we have more to learn from our failures than triumphs.
Let’s look at something recent as well; something that highlights a disturbing trend for the very poor writing that i see developing in recent blockbusters. I’m going to dissect Krall from Star Trek Beyond, and attempt to explain why he is such a let down for me.
First lets look at the four major points of good villianry and see if Krall fills them out.
Spoilers by the way:
Krall is indeed physically stronger than Kirk or the crew; easily throwing a 200 pound man into the air and across the room with ease (until he loses that strength conveniently at the end of the movie), his fleet of swarm ships very easily destroys the Enterprise, and lastly his Machiavellian like scheme puts the crew of the Enterprise on a defensive and disorganized state.
It’s very hard to screw this particular point up, any villain who is the instigator of the conflict will naturally be in a position of power. So Krall isn’t lacking in anything here.
The way i see it, Krall is written to be a dark reflection of Kirk or a representation of what Kirk might become if he succumbs to the initial despair he feels at the beginning of the movie. As Krall turns out to be a former Starfleet captain, who was sent out to explore deep space just like Kirk.
Krall succumbs to the hopelessness of the void, and this is especially so after he and his crew are marooned on a distant planet. Also he is meant to reflect the brutal pre-Federation past, where violent war was the norm and how uncompromising soldiers like Krall were needed to secure humanity’s future in a violent galaxy.
The basis for interesting conflict and the start of moral dilemma is there in his thematic connections to Kirk and Starfleet, but if we look at his connections in conjunction with the other points i find that these themes are only satisfying at a surface level.
Insanity is one of the laziest ways to justify a villains motivations, it’s too easy just to say that:
“well he’s evil and megalomaniacal because he’s crazy”.
Is that satisfying to you?
As it’s certainly not satisfying to me, as it’s only the most surface level explanation for a character’s actions a writer can give them. The Joker, while being completely crazy has very strong personal and thematic connections to Batman that give his insanity more weight, as a result the writers are free not to rely completely on Joker’s psychosis to make interesting stories.
Krall has none of these, largely its because the writers give him very little screen time to form any strong motivations and resort to lazy shortcuts. Other than his insanity Krall’s other reasons for hating Starfleet and Humanity are completely unrelatable to me, which leads us to his biggest flaw.
Balthazar M. Edison, who later became Krall was a decorated pre-Starfleet war hero for Earth. He fought in wars against the Xindi and Romulans, and was rewarded for his deeds by being given the first ship capable of warp 4 and tasked with spreading the nascent Federation’s wings. Krall secretly didn’t like this, in fact he felt himself being put out to pasture and deeply resented the Federation for “Breaking Bread” with the enemy.
Just look at the narcissism on display here, this man served bravely in the brutal wars that preceded the Federation, and for his contributions he was given a great gift. He was allowed to take the first steps out into the wilderness and explore beyond the confines of known space. And he hates it, he hates it because he hated the compromise that comes with negotiation, he can’t stand to be in the same room with those who he had fought.
Also as my girlfriend pointed out after we had watched Beyond, as a highly experienced military officer he would and should have known the risks associated with deep space exploration. He accepted command of the USS Franklin after all, but when he crashes on the surface of some unknown planet many thousands of light years away from Starfleet’s borders, he accuses the Federation of abandoning them. He (and his crew) turn completely inward and plot revenge early against the Federation for their plight as exemplified in his final captains log:
“… I will do whatever it takes for me and my crew… The Fed-Federation do not care about us. You’ll probably never see me again. But if you do… be ready.”
I had to ask: How does the Federation not care? They gave him a great reward for honourable service to humanity. Where is that pragmatic attitude that Edison must have had, to deal with the hard decisions that come in war time? I can only conclude that he did his deeds to satisfy his bloodlust and vainglory.
Also his assertions that unity is a weakness of Starfleet all the while relying on aid from his crew (as well as selfless sacrifice from them) show a shocking lack of self awareness. Krall displays all the tell tale signs of extreme narcissism: he lacks self awareness, cares nothing for interests other than his own, and uses his suffering as justification for wanting to murder millions.
As i said earlier Krall highlights a growing problem among blockbuster villains; how the writers themselves don’t seem to understand or can’t see that villains are selfish by their naturesand don’t try hard enough to cover that up. Look at the shocking lack of understanding the two writers have of their own creation (taken from his memory alpha entry):
“The thing that we didn’t want him to be was just out for revenge [….] We wanted his motivation to be more complex, and more mysterious.”
Who could honestly watch Star Trek Beyond and not see that Krall wasn’t out for personal revenge, i mean look at the dialog they gave Krall when he’s about to murder millions of innocent people:
“I fought for Humanity! Lost millions to the Xindi and Romulan wars. And for what? For the Federation?! To sit me in a captain’s chair and break bread with the enemy!”
Justin Lin is also completely clueless how incredibly selfish his bad guy is with quotes like this:
“If we really want to deconstruct what the Federation means, we need to have an antagonist with a valid point of view… It can’t just be someone twirling their moustache. For the audience, when they hear [Krall’s reasons] they might not agree with them, but they have to accept it’s a valid point of view.”
To all that i say: No.
No, i don’t “have to” accept Krall’s poorly written motivations. As Krall doesn’t have a valid point of view because the writers and Lin fail miserably at demonstrating why unity is a weakness; the Federation has united humanity and a myriad of alien races for mutual benefit, it has expanded the frontiers of science and exploration for all who live in it, the crew themselves stick together and defeat Krall with team work.
Krall himself depends on unity! As his whole fleet of swarm fleets depends on coordinated efforts, and he counts on one of his crew to undertake a dangerous mission of subterfuge to bring the Federation to their planet.
Was that the point? I really don’t think so, as the writers nor Lin seem aware of Krall’s crippling faults; as his extreme selfishness removes any hint of sympathy, and his horrible philosophies undercut by his incredible ignorance remove all sense of understanding (other than the fact that he’s clearly crazy, and a moron).
This is the danger of romanticising villains. Of attempting to justify their causes instead of trying to write ways to make them understandable, as it will only highlight the villain’s selfish nature more. If the film makers really wanted to have Krall’s anti-unity philosophy have some ground beneath, it they needed to have the Federation and the crew* on the verge of breaking apart, they needed to show the possible failures of compromise. Instead they show the complete opposite, and the movie suffers considerably in its wake.
In short Krall is a “Baby’s First Bad Guy”, he’s a card board cut out caricature whose complete reliance on his selfishness and insanity make him nothing more than a mustache twisting villain.
*in fairness to the writers some of the crew are on the verge of leaving and going through emotional turmoil, but not enough time is spent on any of it. we’re just wisked from shoot out to explosion to fist fight at breakneck speed.