This is an area I’ve been itching to write about for quite some time and now finally find myself with the time and examples to do it some justice. When audiences go to see movies they often find themselves rooting against the villain as much if not more than they find themselves rooting for the protagonist. A good or bad villain can make or break an entire story, if one has a good foil for their protagonist then audiences will be more likely to get engaged with the on-screen battle but if the writing falls short and audiences find themselves looking at a cardboard cut-out stereotype of a villain then there really is no urge for them to get invested.
So, what makes a good villain and what makes a bad one?
I can sum this up in one word if people don’t feel like reading on: Understanding.
If you’re still here then allow me to elaborate on what that one crucial word means in the world of cinema.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan features the greatest villain to have ever graced the vast Trek universe, Khan Noonien Singh. Not only does Khan literally radiate charisma even viewers un-savvy with his backstory will understand his motivations and reasons behind his incredibly intimidating mannerisms. An intimidating demeanor, masculine flamboyance, heightened physical and intellectual abilities, and a superiority complex all make Khan an incredible villain but what really makes him work is that audiences ‘get him’. Star Trek fans will know all-too-well about Khan’s backstory and the reasons behind his intense hatred and desire for vengeance against James Kirk but the stellar writing of Star Trek II laid it all out for newcomers in a matter of minutes. Khan is perpetually enraged because of Kirk’s decision to banish him and his people to a desert planet, an experience which not only claimed the lives of many of his kin but also his wife. What we have, on the surface, is a “good vs evil” scenario but this time we actually understand and somewhat empathize with the evil that Khan represents. We see the cat-and-mouse battle between our hero and our villain play out on an epic scale, fueled by our understanding of both sides.
Another good example, also from the Trek universe, can be found in the recent J. J. Abrams Star Trek. Nero loses absolutely everything by the indirect actions and shortcomings of Spock; his homeworld is destroyed, his wife is dead, and he finds himself stuck nearly a century in the past with his crew of miners aboard their colossal mining ship. He’s therefore driven not by greed or a lust for power, but by a sense of revenge, honor, and equilibrium. This is perhaps epitomized by his choice to not kill Spock out of spite but to make him watch as he bestows the same misery he has suffered upon him. Again, like Khan, audiences ‘get him’ and therefore respond better to his actions.
Superhero movies have come an incredibly long way as far as writing goes. Where we once had characteurs of villains, commonly found in the old-school Batman movies and those awful Fantastic Four movies, we now have more fleshed out case studies. The best comic book villain adapted for screen in recent years, for me anyway, has to be Loki in 2011’s Thor. Loki is perhaps the best example of a truly “Sympathetic Villain” depicted on screen for quite a while. Whereas previous comic book villains were either evil because they had to be or stereotypical power-hungry megalomaniacs the Loki we see in Thor is not quite evil… we can see things from his side. Loki was a villain we saw not start out as such, we first saw him as a good brother figure to Thor, a protagonist who unwittingly sent Loki down the dark path which made him what he became. He’s the sort of villain where you look at his story and say “You know what… I understand you but there was a certain point where if you just hugged-it-out that would have been the end of it”. During the ending climax of Thor we see the title protagonist face off against Loki but he still cannot bring himself to go all-out against him because he feels terrible for what has transpired. This sentiment carried over to The Avengers where Thor tries desperately to appease Loki and does all he can to stop The Avengers killing him, because he understands where he is coming from and so does the audience.
Another phenomenal case is that of Dane Dehaan’s portrayal of Andrew Detmer in Chronicle. Not only does Andrew not start out as anything remotely villainous we actually see him as a decent person holding a lot of troubles and responsibilities on his shoulders. Tragically, we see the abuse he suffers from multiple directions to the extent that we end up wanting him to turn evil and use his new found powers to wreak havoc… which he does. It’s quite something when the audience finds itself rooting for the villain going on a bloody rampage across a city… the monster we have seen be created. If you’ve not seen Chronicle please do, it’s a fantastic movie that is the first realistic look at what the origins of a super-villain may entail.
The other type of villain that works well is the one that audiences think they understand but feel that there is more to him than meets the eye. Die Hard succeeds on so many levels but where I feel it excelled particularly well was with it’s villain. Once you are first introduced to Hans Gruber, played brilliantly by Alan Rickman, you might be forgiven for assuming that he is just another slimy suit-sporting villain common in action movies. However, this pretense is shattered when he displays the ability to have complete control of a situation by merely being there and when we see that he has a razor-sharp mind capable of defeating our protagonists. Sure, there are scarier villains, there may even be more iconic villains in action movies, but when it comes to slickness, suaveness, intelligence, and cool-factor, Gruber has the competition beaten. The greatest praise I can attribute to Alan Rickman’s charismatic performance is that part of you wants him to come out on top and a bigger part of you wants to actually BE him!
Slick suit, sharp mind, charismatic beyond compare, and surprisingly intimidating when he wants to be…
That’s a good villain, the one that keeps you thinking.
So, what makes a bad villain? Well, pretty much the antithesis of what I’ve just said really. A bad villain is one that you can figure out within a matter of seconds, one that you understand but don’t empathize with, one that you simply don’t care about, and one that has bland and/or recycled motivations. Boss Hogg in Dukes of Hazzard is the perfect case study for all of the aforementioned. The second that Hogg is introduced to the audience we can instantly tell, from his mannerisms and appearance alone that there is not much to him beyond narcissism and greed. Sure enough, that just about encompasses his entire ambitions in the story; he has lots of money and wants more. What the hell do I care then? He’s bland, he’s uninteresting, and could have been picked from a catalogue titled ‘Rent-A-Villain’.
Cut-out-and-keep villains such as Hogg can be found all over other genres, usually in the old action films of the Arnie, Stallone, and Norris glory days. They served their purpose, which was to be hated and to be eventual cannon fodder but they were not all-that-engaging. This is why Hans Gruber was such a break from tradition, one of the many breaks that Die Hard pulled off. Hans initially comes across as being transparent but we quickly realize that there may well be more going on here… cerebral villainy at it’s best folks.