Not every story has to have a villain, sometimes a character is her or her own worst enemy. But the best villains are some sort of reflection, both of the lead character and audience members. Our own desires for justice and belief in goodness make us want the heroes to win. But our darker desires make us indulge in those moments of villainy, a vicarious way of seeing our own darkness cut loose for a few minutes in a fictional world.
It’s silly to proclaim a single character to be the greatest villain ever. Because, like opinions on a story, it’s all subjective. But unlike opinions on a movie/TV show/book, our feelings toward villains are shaped by our own unique flaws and fears. What may seem terrifying to one person may be strangely alluring to another. In other instances, you may have sympathy for a villain. But you may feel for this character because you innately understand some aspect of him or her.
Yes, there is a certain cool factor that elevates villains beyond where they should normally be ranked. But sleek weapons and a flashy costume will only get you so far.
Do you know why you love a villain so much? If you don’t, chances are you are unaware of some aspect of yourself. Maybe if you realized why, you wouldn’t like what you saw in the mirror. Or maybe you would find yourself able to better understand your own strengths. Your own flaws. Your own weaknesses.
But what makes a villain great enough to not only stick within the mind of a person, but lodge him- or herself within the consciousness of the public?
Playing Off Our Own Fears
Villains come in many shapes and sizes – forces of nature, psychotic individuals, faceless corporations, demons or spirits, monsters, and many more iterations of these themes. In all of these cases, they reflect a type of fear that is either felt on a wide-scale basis or on a deeply personal level.
Basic primal urges come into play on some level – anger, jealousy, lust, gluttony, pride, greed, basically all of the seven deadly sins except for sloth. A really lazy person isn’t a very compelling villain. Except, perhaps, when sloth is personified in a character’s unwillingness to change. Then his or her own personality difficulties can become an antagonist.
Forces of nature and some monsters go straight for an audience’s personal fears. The shark in Jaws isn’t a conflicted individual; it’s a hungry mouth that is swimming near your home and family. Michael Myers of Halloween isn’t the Hamlet of horror movies. He’s murder in the shape of a man. Zombies aren’t people struggling with their own inner desires. They’re a plague that spreads in the most horrifying way possible: eating you. These villains are memorable because they cannot be reasoned with and have little to do with the protagonist’s life. Like real life global disaster, they simply enter the world and wreak havoc indiscriminately. This is a fear of the uncontrollable, the unsurvivable, the unpredictable.
When we put these global fears on screen in a containable fashion, we can confront them more easily and safely, while staying intrigued by them.
The Relatable Nature of Evil
Like heroes, villains have something truly defining at their core, and the most memorable ones have layers upon layers of complexities. Changing motivations, multifaceted beliefs, real feelings, sorrowful backstories, and more make these characters into relatable people. By relating to them, we can embrace them while still fearing them.
The best villains are sometimes more complex than the heroes, with story arcs and human emotions that tie them to our own feelings. They are flawed and have made choices that we can relate to on some level. It’s also what makes bad villains so noticeable. A villain like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World may as well not have any lines in the film, since he’s not a real character. He should just shout “Evil!” every time he’s one screen.
Audiences want believability in characters. The more than can buy into a villain, the easier it is to simultaneously be enthralled with him or her while still fighting back in some manner.
Loki from Marvel Comics is one of the most popular villains in recent pop culture. Why? In some ways, he’s relatable, but he’s also frightening. For ages, Loki was deceived into believing he was one of the godly Asgardians, when in reality, he is the child of their sworn enemies, the Frost Giants. Identity crises, deceptions, and a twisted jealousy of his brother Thor push him to commit many villainous acts. He’s also unlike many other villains seen today. He doesn’t rely on brute force. Instead, he’s a trickster and is often simultaneously funny and deadly.
Walter White is a character who gradually embraces evil. Over the course of Breaking Bad, Walt is given countless opportunities to turn back from the path that he is on. Instead, his greed and pride push him into making more and more wicked choices that ruin the lives of everyone around him.
Villains don’t have to be deadly to be effective. While many of the great villains rack up quite the body count, this isn’t the only way to give a bad guy teeth.
Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t call out a hit on George Bailey. He’s simply a greedy man who prizes his own wealth over the wellbeing of others. Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians may be intent on killing puppies, but it’s because she doesn’t value their lives, she is only focused on her own desires. Greed can manifest in many ways, but the cold and bitter feelings that emanate from it can twist a person’s soul.
As people, we too have felt the tug of greed, pride, jealousy, wrath, and more. Sometimes, these are more relatable than the nobility displayed by heroes.
Evil That Transcends
The best villains can also work in multiple interpretations. The Joker is a prime example of that. In the 50 years that the character has been around, he’s probably been interpreted in more ways than Batman. In comic books alone, he’s been a prankster, a gangster, a mute serial killer, a tactical genius, and many more things. Whether he’s stacking up bodies or simply dosing people with laughing gas, he can be effective in many different ways.
Jack Nicholson’s version of the character in Batman and Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight have precious little in common, yet they are both true to the core aspects of the character. The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series is a frightening yet not typically deadly antagonist, while in Batman: The Brave and The Bold, he’s an outlandish trickster.
In all these versions, The Joker could have once had a life like anyone else, but the onset of madness and an unerring commitment to evil have twisted him beyond recovery. The idea that any one of us could be pushed to become The Joker is what makes him magnetic.
As long as a villain is properly constructed and respected by creators, he or she can flip from page to big screen to television and back without losing character integrity.
A Reflection of Our Better Halves
Often, villains personify the opposite of what makes the hero great. While not every tale involves a protagonist facing his or her polar opposite, there is usually some aspect of the hero that is darkly reflected in a villain. When heroes face enemies, they are, in a way, facing some part of themselves.
Batman’s rogues are fertile ground for these ideas. The Dark Knight is dedicated to order, justice, self-sacrifice, and humanity. The Joker is committed to chaos, Two-Face is obsessed with chance, The Penguin is greedy, and Mr. Freeze has abandoned his human nature. The list goes on and on. Batman’s villains are also mostly psychotics, which is fitting for a man who may be psychotic to some degree, as well.
The recent Marvel Studios movies embrace this idea, as well. All of Iron Man’s villains are some form of twisted businessmen/inventors, the Red Skull is the evil version of Captain America, Abomination is the intelligent yet vile version of The Hulk, and Loki is the craftier and selfish version of Thor. At times, this can be lazy storytelling, but it also helps strongly solidify the traits of characters and create explosive conflict.
Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort are often seen as two sides of the same coin. In Beauty and the Beast, The Beast is a monstrous yet tender hero while Gaston is handsome and brutish. In Blade Runner, Roy Batty is an artificial human who values every second of his limited lifespan while Rick Deckard is a human (?) who sees little value in life.
If you look for it, these reflections can be found in nearly all stories. But the best ones aren’t obvious until you really think about it.
Do you have a favorite villain? What does he or she personify? Let me know!