These days we are blessed with a glut of movies across superhero/sci-fi/adventure/robots-vs-kaiju movies. They all have one thing in common: all the good ones feature a memorable villain, a terrible foe, a cunning opponent, a vile scourge. The presence of a worthy villain makes not only for a good story, it tells us about the quality and nature of our hero.
99% of the time just having an excellent foe will yield an excellent story.
But what makes for a great villain? What’s the secret to making an impression as an agent of evil?
Let’s look at some of the top villains in recent memory, and maybe a few not-so-good ones, and see what we can dig up. Because if you ain’t got a villain, son, you ain’t got a movie.
And what better place to start than at the top with the sultan of Sith himself.
Darth Vader vs. Darth Maul
Darth Vader is iconic in a way that actually justifies the use of the word iconic (rare, I know). He is thoroughly evil (well, at least until Return of the Jedi and his total deconstruction in the prequel trilogy). Overthinking It has a superb article on why you should never show the villain’s backstory (reason: it makes the audience too sympathetic and takes away their villainous edge).
Vader wants the rebels and he wants them dead. He wants their base. He wants their fledgling Jedi leader, and he wants it all now. Loss of life is no concern. He will blow up the economically strategic planet of Alderaan just prove a point: he is evil!
Whether he is deathgripping his admirals or slicing off the hands of his progeny, Darth Vader is a villain we love. Cunning, ruthless, and pretty good at TIE fighting to bat, he’s a villain we want to root for despite the reality that he would probably just maim us with a lightsaber on the spot.
If Vader is the prototypical ideal of villainy, then Darth Maul is his opposite.
Who is Darth Maul? We’re not sure. He wears a cloak, he follows orders from another dude in a cloak, he looks like Satan but with more horns. Darth Maul is the opposite of what a villain should be: a total mystery.
As I mentioned in my Jack the Giant Slayer post, a mystery cannot also simultaneously be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.
How does Maul feel about serving Sidious? Just why does he hate the Jedi? What made him choose the Dark Side over the Light Side of the Force? Does he prefer his coffee black or with cream?
Of course, Clone Wars eventually gives us some of these answers in a fairly satisfying way. But let’s face it: Vader intrigued us as a character from the very beginning. His mask, his weird breathing, even his gait, all added to his ruthlessness and imperial leadership. We don’t need a shadow ninja assassin. We need a villain with some personality.
Let’s take the villains of the two most recent Batman/Superman movies.
General Zod vs. Bane
General Zod was a pretty good villain who provided a huge physical threat, up until he abandoned his own twisted logic to become a genocidal maniac. Interestingly, Zod is a product of a planet-wide genetics experiment. Krypton literally breeds its soldiers, its scientists, and presumably its internet bloggers. Natural birth is outlawed, and pre-determined societal roles are enforced through genetic manipulation.
Zod is born and bred to be a warrior and to defend his people at all costs. So far, so good.
Since the Kryptonians do not update the genes of their political leadership to be able to deal with global catastrophes, their leaders are suffer from obstinate anti-scientific apathy. Brawny scientist Zor-El wants to save their race through practical and ethical means, while uber-militarist Zod wants to take control of the planet and save Krypton through Machiavellian determination . Zor-El jettisons the Kryptonian gene pool with his son, and Zod vows to hunt him down.
Zod’s whole motivation boils down to find Kal-El, retrieve the codex from his hot dead body, and retrofit the earth to make way for New Krypton. But wait, that’s not quite correct. First, he offers Kal-El a chance to join him. You see, he’s not quite that bloodthirsty after all. Sure, humans can be exterminated but let’s give Superboy a chance to join us.
General Zod will protect anything and everything Kryptonian, but do nothing for other forms of sentient life even ones that happen to look exactly like them.
One thing I do really like about Zod is how he is temporarily weakened during his initial fight with Superman. His sensory overload at being exposed to Earth’s atmosphere and yellow sunlight actually works in favor of the character. We know what Zod wants, but now we see his struggle in getting it. It’s a great story technique, usually used on the hero but here effectively used on the villain.
Unfortunately, as much as I actually enjoyed and love Man of Steel, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced? Oh right, genetics.
Vader killed his own men without remorse, but somehow I get the feeling Zod cries whenever he loses one of his men. He does everything “for his people.” It feels inconsistent. It’s a weird mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work.
When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead of moving on or surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes all rampaging bull on us and targeting random civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. Is it his warrior DNA? Is it a psychological breakdown? I couldn’t tell you.
Now in contrast, let’s look at Bane.
Born in the dark, raised by animals, a vicious mercenary with a sinister plan, Bane has something that Zod lacks: control. Bane is 100% in control of his actions and demeanor and how he comes across. He imposes.
In one scene Bane puts his hand on the shoulder of John Daggett, one of the evil conspirators in his plan. It’s clear that Bane is about to do something very terrible to him. But Bane is patient, he is not wildly emotional like Zod. He will enact his punishment, but at the right time.
A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it.
When Batman and Bane face off underground, the masked mercenary is completely in control. He has lured Bruce there, he knows his identity, and he outclasses him both mentally and physically.
Bane is powerful, smart, and calculated in his approach to taking over Gotham. However, we do need to take into account the revelations at the end of the movie. Bane is not the true mastermind of the plot to destroy Gotham, though he does play a huge role. Although we can’’t ever know for sure, knowing how well he pulls of his role, how well he commands his men, and his sheer commitment to his ideology, it’s very likely that Bane is no mere servant of Talia. He is her equal. Bane is just as central to the master plan as Talia, he is still just as evil (he made all of Gotham’s reckoning possible), and he shares a deep villainous bond with Talia.
He was the front villain, while she was the shadow villain. Both are good villains but Talia’s true motivations are revealed only at the end of the film. She is a surprise villain, a plot twist, not the real villain for most of the movie.
Does that take away from the full emotional impact of Bane as a villainous villain to be remembered for all time? Sure, it definitely does. But had Chris Nolan and company decided to go another route with Bane, I think he would have perfectly fit the mold of a well motivated and fully realized villain.
But what happens when you take a fully realized villain and multiply?
Agent Smith vs. Agent Smith 2.0
The Matrix, cult classic and eventual international phenomenon, features a great villain. In the first film we watch as Neo slowly unravels the secrets of the Matrix, all the while chased by the infamous Agent Smith.
Mr. Smith wears sunglasses, speaks slowly and deliberately, and has his facial expression set to grimace at all times. Also, he can dodge bullets, respawn, and kill you to death without even trying.
Sure, Smith likes to pontificate and give lengthy villain speeches about how humanity is a disease that needs to be wiped out, but he’s vintage awesome. Everyone likes Smith so much that we still cringe whenever we see the Fellowship of the Ring and imagine Elrond busting out with a hearty “Mr. Anderson.”
So imagine our surprise when the Matrix Reloaded pops out of the toaster and lo and behold, Mr. Smith 2.0.
Gone is the fearsome unbeatable menace of Agent Smith. Nope, Neo can just beat up 500 of him and fly away. Seriously. The villain is now a self-replicating punching bag. There are several major problems with this.
If the hero can just beat up the villain whenever he wants without a scratch, that is not good. If he can fly away at anytime without breaking a sweat, that is not good. The villain should always be a problem, a huge problem. Smith 2.0 is just self-indulgent, not scary.
Another issue is that it breaks the Rule of Few. Less is always more. At the end of Iron Man 3, the audience is supposed to be wowed at the 30 Iron Man suits flying around punching bad guys. We’re not, we’re confused.
Why has Tony kept all these suits to himself? Why are there so many? Are suits like single use items good for one battle and then thrown away?
In the case of Smith 2.0, having two or three Smiths is better than 500 Smiths. Two Smiths can have a relationship. They can be two places at once. They can surprise you. They can work together. They can be turned against one another. But 500? It’s just a undifferentiated mass. You can’t care for a crowd, only individuals.
The Matrix Revolutions finally admits this by having Neo go back to battling just one Smith. It just doesn’t make any sense to battle a huge army of Smiths because they are just cheap facsimiles of the character we used to know and love.
Speaking of characters we know and love, let’s talk about Star Trek.
Nero vs. “John Harrison”
Boy am I sick of people writing “John Harrison.” If you care about Star Trek at all and don’t live in an underground bunker cut off from the rest of civilization, you should definitely know by now that there is no John Harrison, only KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN.
J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek reboot film had a fairly interesting villain, a vengeful Romulan named after the oppressive and incompetent Roman emperor Nero (Romulus = Rome, get it?)
Contrary to popular belief, Nero did not sit around for 20 years waiting for Ambassador Spock. In deleted scenes we find out that Nero was captured by Klingons and stuck rotting in prison for 20 years. Nero is a brooding, angry, and particularly troubled Romulan.
He actually has a backstory that is explained on screen. Hanging out in his simple mining vessel, he watched as his planet imploded, along with his wife, evidently due to the gross incompetence of a senile future Spock. I would be angry too.
As decent a character setup he gets, Nero then pulls a General Zod and goes off the deep end, blowing up every Federation planet he can get his hands on. Clearly this is an unbalanced individual with no real goal except to multiply pain and suffering across the galaxy until someone stops him.
But wait, maybe that is what he wants. Maybe he is hoping someone will come and stop him so that his own personal misery can come to an end. Maybe his true goal is to find some kind of inner resolution for him and his crew, the last of their kind.
Nope, he’s just evil. Even when Kirk offers him the chance to live, Nero would rather die in agony. He doesn’t care about his personal pain, he just wants to inflict it on others.
Nero is a functional villain, but he’s just so over the top. His blind rage makes him an easy target, it makes him predictable. He’s a huge threat, but nothing a brash cadet and straight-thinking science officer can’t handle.
Instead of going further in exploring his deeper psychology and some further motivation for blowing up the Federation, instead we get campy shouting. At least some villains want to, you know, take over the world or something.
Star Trek Into Darkness definitely ups the ante with Khan. Now here is a villain with some personality. Although his identity and motivations are shrouded in mystery, it’s very obvious to everyone how truly formidable an opponent he is. In fact, that’s part of what makes him so effective. He’s better than everyone else and he knows it. He can outwit you, outsmart you, outmanipulate you, outpunch you, outanything you.
Even when he’s locked up in a Starfleet cage, he makes you believe that he can break out and stab you in the back at any moment if he so pleases. After all, he’s got those piercing Benedict Cumberbatch eyes.
The story ends up in an odd situation where the crew needs Khan’s help in taking out the evil-but-for-good-reasons Admiral Marcus. They know Khan is bad. They know he will probably betray them. They know conventional weapons and use of force has no effect on him.
Making the heroes work together with the villain is a good way to build tension and up the ante. It’s not so much IF they are going to backstab but WHEN will they backstab. Nero would never play along because he’s been dumbified by his rage. Khan holds in his rage and saves it for lengthy monologues. At least it’s a step in the right direction.
Where Khan falls short is his motivation. It’s a secret for so much of the movie that even though I’ve seen it twice I don’t really remember what it is. To rescue his people? To start a war with the Klingons? To heal sick children with his magic blood?
The downside to making Khan a mystery is that we don’t really know what he wants. But I’m sure it was important or whatever.
Loki vs. the Joker
When I first heard Loki was the primary antagonist of the Avengers, I was a little shocked. I never really considered Thor either a first class superhero or superhero film. I thought even less of his main villain. Surely we’d seen enough Loki in the first standalone film.
In the words of Thorin Oakenshield, I have never been so wrong.
Loki makes a fine nemesis. And it’s not because of his powers of illusions or fighting skills. It’s not even because he has an army of CVS brand aliens at his disposal. Loki is a great villain because of what’s in his mind. His power is pure belief, a belief in his own vast superiority over others.
We totally get why Loki is madly jealous of his brother. Le’ts face it. Thor is not the sharpest tool in the realm, blessed with more testosterone than tact. It is absolutely clear that Loki is the more gifted of the two. But Loki is cursed with bad blood: he’s a blue-faced Frost Giant and sworn enemy of Asgard. Laden with divine daddy issues, Loki must look on while his meathead of a brother inherits the throne. What would you do in his place?
Loki has a decent backstory but that’s not what makes him great. Where the story really gets good is when we see what a truly viable threat he is to a team of superpowered Avengers. Like Khan, he is a master manipulator. He knows how to get into their heads. Getting captured doesn’t stop Loki. It’s just another vantage point from which he can get exactly what he wants. He uses getting locked up to exploit his enemies’ weaknesses and advance his plan.
How do you stop an enemy that wants you to stop him? How do you out-think someone who is already five moves ahead of you? It’s maddening. And it makes for fantastic villainy.
Like some of our other villains that we’ve examined, Loki is calculating. He is smart. But since he has an agenda, that means he can be stopped. His ultimate weakness is his pride.
Loki believes he is better than puny earthlings. He feels slighted at being denied the right to rule. And that is his downfall. Prevent Loki from accomplishing his goals and he is beaten.
But what if there was a villain who could not be beaten so simply?
What if a bad guy had no plan and no agenda?
What if a villain just wanted to run circles around society and the reveal the dark underbelly of human nature?
The Dark Knight brought us a compelling vision of the worst kind of villainy: the kind you can’t understand. The Joker has a plan, lots of them in fact. He robs banks, gains leverage over the mob, targets key Gothamites, and aims his crosshairs at Batman. But he is not motivated by normal desires. He does not want revenge or power or recognition. He wants chaos. He wants anarchy. He wants to show us the effects of moral entropy.
Chaoos is his means and chaos is his end.
Turn ordinary citizens into murderers. Upend the bonds that hold society together. Trash our so-called morality and expose its deep hypocrisy.
Why? For no reason at all. Because dogs chase cars. No reason, just for fun.
Although the other villains we’ve discussed probably couldn’t be reasoned with either, the Joker stands alone as a special villain. He is not clouded by emotion or personal stakes. His backstory is neither straightforward nor important. How he arrived at his current mental state makes no difference.
He is a time bomb, a living weapon aimed against society itself. He is a one-man war against law and order. He has no purpose, needs no purpose. He makes a mockery of purpose.
The Joker is not a person; he has no name like Jack Napier. He is an avatar, like Batman, a symbol for something larger. He embodies cynicism in its most extreme form. He transcends our tidy categories of what makes a good villain and becomes something else altogether: the force of anti-humanity. This is a Grim Reaper wearing green hair and white make-up.
Most villains attempt to break the hero, but it takes the rarest of villains to actually succeed.
Ok Let’s Recap
So what have we learned today?
A great villain doesn’t come around too often. Even ones I thought were pretty great like Khan and General Zod and Bane actually have some serious flaws that hurt their shot of making the list of “Greatest Villains of All Time.” The truth is a good villain is hard to find.
Here is what we have learned about great villains:
Villains show they mean business (Darth Vader)
Villains don’t hide in the shadows (Darth Maul)
Villains stay consistent in their moral outlook and demeanor (Zod)
Villains maintain absolute control of themselves and their environment (Bane)
Villains provide an imminent physical threat to the hero (Agent Smith)
Villains remain distinct, not a faceless army (Agent Smith 2.0)
Villains have an underlying psychology that is consistent with their actions (Nero)
Villains have a clear motivation and goal (Khan)
Villains get inside the hero’s head (Loki)
Villains go beyond physical victory to earn a psychological victory as well (The Joker)
This is just the beginning of a start of some initial observations we could make about great villains. There is plenty more that could be said. But perhaps what is more interesting is the why.
Why do we gravitate so strongly to these devious foes?
Why are we so intrigued by the dark nature of villains even at the expense of the heroes who oppose them?
Why do they make us reconsider our very humanity?
Villains at their core are much more interesting than the somewhat bland heroes who rise up against them. Villains are the primary catalytic force for the stories they are in. Somehow they tell us something about the Dark Side, about human nature itself.
In a future installment coming to a blogosphere near you, I’ll take a deep breath and ask, “What makes a great hero?”