Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Summary

1) Nibiru
2) Starfleet Command, Kronos, & USS Vengeance
3) San Francisco
4) Can you learn to take personal responsibility for others?

1) A Killer Opening

Executing step one of the Blockbuster formula to a tee, the film opens on the colorful planet Nibiru as the crew of the Enterprise attempt to neutralize a volcano without disobeying the Prime Directive. When things go wrong, Kirk end up flying his starship by in full view of native population. Although this straight plunge into the action is a little jarring, it’s a fun and visually immersive sequence. While the brisk pace is a bit overwhelming (which will continue for the rest of the movie) the events on Nibiru have important and direct ramifications for the main characters.

2) Two Major Set Pieces

John Harrison attacks a gathering of Starfleet leaders on Earth, leaving Kirk’s mentor and surrogate father — Admiral Pike — dead. Soon after, Kirk leads a covert assault on Kronos leading to a battle with Klingons and Harrison. With little time to figure out what is really going on, the USS Vengeance arrives and opens fire on the Enterprise taking the crew to the brink of destruction. Khan and Kirk rocket through the debris to board the temporarily disabled Vengeance. All these set pieces are big and beautiful, but function as essential plot drivers keeping up the relentless pacing established on Nibiru. Whether or not you think these scenes are effective, this experimental pacing style is not exactly formulaic.

3) A Killer Climax

Here is where the high speed train derails. What should have ended in Kirk’s sacrifice, an event ripe for a story punch, just keeps going. The real climax happens in space with the salvation of the Enterprise, but instead we get a bonus battle chase in San Francisco with Khan, Spock and Uhura. A lot happens but nothing of real consequence. It’s a valiant effort but this climax doesn’t remotely dovetail with the larger themes established earlier in Kirk’s dismissal.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Can you learn to take responsibility for others?

Conclusion

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object? You get the ending to this movie, a sort of non-ending. I think of this film as a grand experiment in pacing. While this creates a tense kinetic urgency, it also results in some unsatisfying narrative pitfalls. The plot must keep moving at any cost so that moments that should be emotionally moving like Kirk’s death completely unravel. The film’s momentum can’t afford to have him stay dead for more than a few minutes.

However despite those setbacks, I would argue that this film is unlike the bland cliches and formulas you might expect from a big budget picture. It’s a thrill ride, not a clunky conventional structure. It succeeds in building exactly the wild frenetic narrative it desires and refuses to compromise that goal, even when it might make sense to. Even if this choice is not entirely successful, it is both bold and interesting nonetheless.

The Story Punch

In line with its inability to build to a real conclusion, the narrative places its story punch at the safest place possible: the beginning. Knowing that it won’t have time to pause later, the story achieves its moment of highest human drama in Admiral Pike’s conversation with Kirk in his office.

Kirk is reckless and proud. He places his own ambition above the safety and wellbeing of his crew. Pike confronts him on this and reveals the stunning news: Starfleet has stripped Kirk of the captain’s chair.

Why? He is not ready for it.

This contradicts everything we expect from a Star Trek movie. We expect the captain to be the captain. We expect him or her to be ready to fulfill that duty. Yet we can all agree that up to this point Kirk has based most of his success on brash luck. He is courageous, yet also irresponsible and too willing to take unnecessary risks. This is perhaps the strongest statement you can make about a character, not that they are unethical or flawed, but that they are undeserving and unable to perform the very character role we expect of them. They are less than they should be.

Throughout the rest of the story, Kirk addresses this internal issue which outweighs the other external issues swirling around him. When he has victory inside, then he can victory out there. That is the true end of this story: Kirk resolving the deep struggle within himself played out on the bigger canvas of the conflict between Marcus and Harrison.

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Top Movies

Cinematic storytelling was alive and well this year with a strong year of record-breaking movies. That means it’s time for a list! Unfortunately I missed a few interesting-looking ones in the theater (Thor 2, Ender’s Game, The Lone Ranger, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2, 47 Ronin, Her) but that’s not quite enough to stop this list.

I have a very simple criteria for the list. Movies I absolutely want to see again and will rewatch the most get ranked higher. Movies I want to rewatch occasionally but not often are ranked lower. Movies that I rarely or perhaps never want to rewatch are not on the list. Now shall we begin?

10) White House Down

Overshadowed by the eerily similar Olympus Has Fallen, this movie deserved better. A comforting throwback to the zany action hero films of the 90’s, it sadly has arrived 20 years too late to make an impact. But it’s okay. White House Down reminds us action movies don’t have to be so deadly serious (Elysium) or stupidly serious (G.I. Joe: Retaliation). They can just be a fun feel-good romp that, while not exactly entrenched in realism, still gives the audience an entertaining spectacle to behold.

9) The Wolverine

Poor Hugh Jackman has played this character so many times that you would think there is nothing left to say about the tortured mutant. But removing Logan from North America and dropping him off in Japan gives him a fertile environment for dealing with his damaged psyche. The ninjas don’t hurt either. While it may not be the most necessary movie of 2014, if Wolverine ever needed another movie examining the curse of his immortality, well here it is.

8) Gravity

It’s rare to see a movie with only two actors and has a trailer doesn’t give away the whole plot. What’s best about this film is how unexpected it is. It shouldn’t have been made. It’s too personal, too experimental, too expensive for such a quiet nuanced piece. How wonderful it is when a simple story like this can appeal to almost anyone.

7) Frozen

Last year’s Les Miserables was technically good but so dreary. Frozen is a reminder that musicals can be fun and that good non-Pixar Disney movies can exist beyond the nostalgic magic of Wreck It Ralph. Rather than handing us  a movie about an evil ice queen, Frozen told us about two sisters whose relationship has turned cold and distant. It’s the heart of the movie and boy does it press all the right buttons.

6) Iron Man 3

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is very interesting, but these are not the superheroes I grew up with. However Iron Man 3 continues to smooth things over not only by making up for the dreadful Iron Man 2 but by making me laugh and refusing to hide its main character behind his armor. Tony Stark is a hugely flawed person, no one’s first pick for a hero, but he rises above sappy sentiment and heroic idealism and stays true to his strength: he can tinker his way through trouble.

5) Monsters University

Unsure of whether I should expect a Cars 2 or a Toy Story 3, I’m glad to say that Monsters University surpassed all my expectations. The care and detail given to every single frame of this film, the absurd hilarity of monster higher education, and the incessant glimmer in Mike’s single hopeful eye all weave together into a coherent world for the story of two monsters who tried to be best at something. The brilliant final act of this film deserves a blog post all to its own.

4) Man of Steel

The Avengers was funny but the Battle of New York pales in comparison to the lightning fast Kryptonian brawl of Smallville, Kansas. This film is absolutely beautiful, the frenetic action scenes unparalleled in any other big budget comic book movie to date. While both critics and geeks voiced their complaints, audiences across the world rejoiced in something quite special: a Superman who actually fit on a big screen.

3) Pacific Rim

A rare original story to make a dent this year (alongside Gravity), Pacific Rim is Guillermo Del Toro’s dark creaturely passion brought to life. After losing his chance to make both The Hobbit and At The Mountains of Madness, it’s a giddy joy to see one of his unique visions realized. The Kaiju are terrifyingly powerful and watching the outmatched Jaegers prevail against them is quite sublime indeed.

2) Star Trek Into Darkness

Abundant character moments, memorable quips, relentless pacing, and plot twists galore create yet another valiantly wonderful Star Trek movie. Focusing again on the strange friendship between Kirk and Spock, the story grounds itself first in characters to support all the action happening front and center. Despite being quite a long movie, every time it ends I find myself longing for more time with these brave, talented and deeply hilarious characters.

2) Oblivion

Tied at number 2, Oblivion was sadly ignored by most people when in actuality it’s a beautiful meditation on the meaning of calling planet Earth our home. Always charming, Tom Cruise helms a story about forgetfulness and self-identity. Unlike so many action movies mentioned on this list, Oblivion gives us ample time to think and reflect as we enjoy the beautiful desolation of our destroyed planet.

1) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This film has the honor of being the only movie on this list that I haven’t actually seen yet. Not fair, you say? Well remember my only criterion for this list is how often I want to rewatch the movie. And considering I have seen An Unexpected Journey ten times and watched the 3 main trailers for The Desolation of Smaug several dozen times, I am fairly confident I will end up seeing this film more times than any other movie on this list. It is the best movie of 2013 and I haven’t even seen it yet!

I hope you enjoyed this list and hopefully there will be more story-centric blog posts arriving in 2014.

Some movies that almost made the list but narrowly did not:

The Croods
Oz the Great and Powerful
42
The Great Gatsby
The Internship
World War Z

Movies that weren’t even close to making the list:

After Earth
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jack the Giant Slayer
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Now You See Me
Elysium
The Host
The Lone Ranger
Safe Haven

Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

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Everyone intuitively gets that a story has a main character, but what often gets overlooked is a special little story element known as the Influence Character. In contrast to the Main Character, the Influence Character is not the lens through which the audience experiences the story. Instead, the Influence Character challenges and prods the Main Character to consider another path, thereby also forcing the audience to rethink their point of view. The tension between these two characters creates much of story’s overall dramatic tension.

In Dramatica theory (an overly complicated but sometimes useful narrative framework) this secondary character, the Influence Character, provides an opposing alternative worldview from that of the main character. Through the interactions between the Main character and the Influence character, the story is allowed to develop and exercise its major themes. It is the influence character who forces the main character to grow and even change course, creating the gut-punching drama needed for a great story.

One familiar example given in the book is Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Story of Two Methods

The overall story of Star Wars is the rebels trying to topple the evil Empire. The main character story is Luke’s personal journey to become a Jedi and fight the empire. The influence character is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wisened Jedi, who pushes Luke to learn the ways of the force.

Luke wants to do something with his life: get off dust-covered Tatooine bowl and join the Rebel Alliance. He is young and headstrong, wanting to become a Jedi quickly so he can fight. Kenobi is a retired Jedi, wanting Luke to complete his training but also wanting Luke to slow down and invest the years of quiet meditation and self-restraint it takes to become a Jedi. Although they both have the same goal (stopping Vader and overthrowing the Empire) their relationship exhibits two possible means of getting there: brash enthusiasm or slow deliberate preparation. Over the course of the movie, Kenobi tempers Luke’s eagerness through his constant reminders that defeating Vader will require acquiring the patience and persistence needed to wield the Force.

The Influence Character model works pretty well with Star Wars, but does it hold up with other stories? I can’t really say. And speaking of Star Wars, the Luke-Kenobi relationship is only a small fraction of the great drama of the movie. Is Kenobi really that unique and special of an influence character? That’s a tough question to answer.

What other movies out there can help us test this concept of the influence character? Any movie that has two central characters who are at odds with one another but forced to work together is a probably a good candidate. Some examples that come to mind are Toy Story (Woody and Buzz), Star Trek 2009 (Kirk and Spock), and The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus).

Toy Story: The Story of Two Attitudes

Woody, our main character, wants to be Andy’s favorite toy believing himself both special and the de facto leader of the rest of the toys. The arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a naive but loyal space ranger, upsets Woody’s world. Woody believes that Andy has a special connection to his cowboy and is happiest when playing with him. Buzz innocuously replaces Woody as Andy’s favorite, simply letting Andy make his own decisions and playing along.

In his jealousy Woody does the unthinkable, pushing Buzz out the window and accidentally stranding himself as well. For the rest of the film Woody and Buzz learn that they share the same goal of making Andy happy and fulfilling their duty as faithful toys. In their adventures outside the house the two learn from each other and eventually forge a deep friendship and mutual respect in spite of their different approaches. Ultimately Woody changes through the influence of Buzz and decides to focus on being the best possible toy for Andy even if that means he is no longer the favorite.

This works well with the influence character theory. Woody and Buzz, who both share the mission of making their owner Andy happy, disagree on the method and yet manage to become friends and learn from one another in the process.

Star Trek (2009): The Story of Two Approaches

The central relationship of Star Trek is eerily similar to Toy Story. Kirk is an arrogant emotion-driven cadet while Spock is a calculating logic-driven commander. Both are the best Starfleet has to offer but their vastly different approaches lead them to butt heads almost immediately. When a decisive crisis befalls them, the pair spar openly. The human goes with his gut, the Vulcan sticks to his rational assessment. Officially in charge, Spock ejects Kirk from the Enterprise leaving Kirk to find his way back to ship. This is great drama, two beloved fan-favorite colleagues forced into a situation where they cannot get along.

When Kirk finally gets back on the ship, he manages to tap into Spock’s inner emotional turmoil thus proving that underneath the Vulcan’s stoic demeanor lies the same primal instincts that make Kirk such an effective captain. Ultimately Spock rejects this approach but gains a new appreciation for Kirk’s innate leadership and decides to defer to his moral authority. This relationship is expanded further in Star Trek Into Darkness.

In this story, the Nero threat and destruction of planet Vulcan are all just background stuff, an excuse to test the bonds between these two dissimilar characters who play off each other so well but just don’t know it yet.

The Matrix: The Story of Two Worldviews

Neo, our Main Character, has his life changed forever when he meets a mysterious man named Morpheus. Under his influence, Neo decides to leave the Matrix and discovers a new reality he could never have imagined. However Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One (an anagram for Neo) while Neo is certain that he is just an ordinary guy, not at all what Morpheus is looking for. Morpheus is defined by his faith in the One. In contrast, Neo is defined by personal experience and the self-knowledge that he is really quite ordinary. Their two incompatible worldviews form the central dramatic relationship of the movie.

This all comes to a climax when Neo, still not believing himself the One, goes back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus from certain death, thus becoming the One he never thought he would be.

Those three examples fit the bill nicely, but I’m concerned that the Influence Character is not easily producible. What about movies that aren’t focused on two buddy characters? One examples that come to mind are The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Hobbit: The Story of Two Influence Characters

Clearly the Main Character in this story is Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. But who is the Influence Character? The two obvious ones are Gandalf and Thorin, but both seem to represent opposite views and have quite a different relationship with the young hobbit. For the first hour of the movie, Bilbo’s struggle is that he does not belong out in the wild on adventures and such. He firmly believes himself a homebody. Through Gandalf’s influence and prodding, finally Bilbo takes a chance by signing the contract and joining the company of dwarves.

For the first section of the movie, the influence character is clearly Gandalf. The playful relationship between hobbit and wizard is really all about convincing Bilbo to leave home behind and go on the adventure. It is Gandalf who brings down the domestic destruction upon the hobbit hole, inviting ravenous dwarves in to pillage the pantry and scuff up his home. However once Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s charge the Influence Character almost immediately switches to Thorin, the friction between Bilbo and Gandalf having been resolved.

Thorin interestingly now plays on Bilbo’s hesitation at joining in the first place. Bilbo never wanted to leave home, took a concerted risk in coming, and now must deal with Thorin’s constant reminders of his inadequate preparation for the quest at hand. This new Influence Character seems to confirms Bilbo’s greatest fears: he never should have come. The rest of the movie deals with the relationship between hobbit and dwarf-king as they work to resolve their irreconcilable attitudes on Bilbo’s place in the company.

An Unexpected Journey seems to employ two different Influence Characters, Gandalf and Thorin, at different times to great effect. (Notice how at the end of the movie Gandalf and Bilbo’s relationship remains unchanged since leaving the shire. Perhaps it’s best to never have two Influence Characters both active at once.)

Traditional Approach vs. Non-Traditional Approach

Many stories will have clear and straightforward Influence Characters as in the movies we discussed above. They fit the bill perfectly, and the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character becomes the central emotional axis of the entire story. Some examples of traditional influence characters in movies:

Skyfall: M influences Bond to serve his country

Oblivion: Victoria influences Jack Harper to stay home

Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan influences Anakin to resist the dark side

Inception: Ariadne influences Cobb to confront his inner demons

The Amazing Spider-Man: Captain Stacy influences Peter to weigh the illegal actions of Spider-Man

The Dark Knight Rises: Bane influences Bruce to give up hope for Gotham

The Dark Knight: The Joker influences Batman to reject his ethical restraints

Avatar: Neytiri influences Jake to fully embrace Navi’i culture

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Clementine influences Joel by erasing her memories of their relationship.

The Sixth Sense: Cole influences Dr. Malcolm to believe in ghosts.

Back to the Future: Doc Brown influences Marty to fix the timeline.

Those are traditional examples of the Influence Character at work. But what about movies that don’t work quite as well?

Iron Man 3: Is it Harley or Pepper or the Mandarin, I don’t know. The best candidate is probably the Mandarin but it’s a little unclear since their interactions are limited. More likely is that the functions of the influence character are split up between those three characters each representing an opposite worldview from Tony in different areas. The Mandarin influences Tony’s approach to military stuff, Pepper influences his approach to relationships, and the kid Harley influences his approach to dealing with his psychological wounds.

Contagion: The real main character of Contagion is the disease itself. It evolves throughout the film following a typical character arc. The epidemiologists influence the disease by searching for a cure.

Pacific Rim: Pentecost influences Raleigh to fight dispassionately, Mako influences Raleigh to fight passionately. Two influence characters who both influence Raleigh to fight.

Jurassic Park: The rampaging dinosaurs influence the humans by exposing their hubris.

The Avengers: Nick Fury influences the Avengers to assemble.

Lincoln: No idea who the influence character is, perhaps Mary Todd or even the entrenched idea of slavery itself.

Man of Steel: Jor-El influences Kal-El to inspire humanity, Pa Kent influences Clark to conceal his identity, General Zod influences Kal-El to reveal himself. Lois and Martha Kent do stuff too. That’s a lot of Influence Characters and perhaps one explanation for its poor critical reception.

So What Did We Learn?

Some movies fit the model perfectly. Other movies are a bit harder to cram into the model. However even the ones that fit quite well also have a lot of other things going on in the movie: tertiary characters, subplots, external forces that come from outside the Influence Character relationships, and more.

I don’t think the Influence Character is absolutely necessary for every story. Obviously you could create a working story without one single character who represents a diametrically opposite view from the main character. However when it works, it does seem to work pretty well. Movies that mishandle the resolution of the Influence Character relationship tend to suffer as a result (e.g. Bane in the Dark Knight Rises or Superman’s dads in Man of Steel).

A lot of stories have what appear to be multiple Influence Characters broken up to represent different aspects of the Main Character’s worldview. That appears to be okay as long as you follow through correctly, but it seems much more difficult to pull off.

Some other observations that we didn’t have time for but deserve to be mentioned:

  • Many superhero movies tend to fall into the trap of relying only on the villain for the influence character when they could be exploring the interesting counter-perspectives of other characters.
  • Romantic movies usually feature the two lovers who serve as Main and Influence Characters respectively.
  • Buddy films about two unlikely partners or friends are the same way.
  • Stories that tend to happen in the mind of one person or that are about a person wrestling with their own opinions could potentially have the same person be both main character and influence character ala Fight Club.
  • This is just a jumping in point to the the concept of the Influence Character. I’m sure some of the Dramatica people and other narrative experts have much better things to say.

Bottom line: The Influence Character is a useful tool in telling stories but not a hard and fast rule that every story must obey. You would be wise to implement a well-defined Influence Character (or some other outside force) that provides a strong counter-perspective for the main character in your story. If you are going to have multiple Influence Characters, make sure they have a clear analog in a different aspect of the Main Character’s worldview (as in Iron Man 3).

Now’s it your turn to help me in the comments:

  • What other Influence Characters do you recognize from film, tv, or books?
  • Are there any movies that have NO Influence Character whatsoever?
  • How would you explain the Influence Character(s) of a complicated multi-part narrative like The Lord of the Rings?

From Vader to Zod, What Makes A Great Villain?

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?”