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We need good villains

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What makes a good baddie asks CONSTANTINOS PSILLIDES crying out for more of them to create good movies

 

WARNING: Minor spoilers for Rebel Moon

In Zack Snyder’s space opera Rebel Moon, a high-ranking representative of the Evil Empire visits a lowly farming village on a planet on the edges of the Universe. There, the movie’s villain predictably brutally murders the village’s elder and orders the rest of the village to hand over almost all the food they have produced. The villagers cry out that doing so will leave nothing for them and that they will starve. He nods indifferently and leaves.

Why?

Looking for reason in a space opera is in itself absurd but villains being villains for villainy’s sake shows a lack of inspiration. I get the killing of the elder, as people who only understand cruelty and self-preservation do not believe in leading by example, but why starve the farmers? It doesn’t make sense. Let’s say that a lot of them die: who is going to plough the fields next year? Soldiers? Other farmers? Why not leave them enough so they can survive? This is by no means a dig at Snyder. He is just the latest in a long line of creators who write non-convincing villains.

I know it sounds like I’m overanalyzing but writing a proper villain is a key component to a successful movie. A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist.

Villains are our deepest desires and flaws unleashed upon the world and as we do nothing without reason, so do movie villains. That, or they are so iconic that their very presence is enough to instil fear and terror. Like the case of Darth Vader, perhaps one of the most recognisable villains of all time.

The examination of multifaceted villains’ motivations and backstories is one of the things that draws readers to them. Even if they cannot support the villain’s actions, readers can sympathise with their problems when aware of their prior traumas, wants, or fears.

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Black Panther’s Killmonger

Let’s stay in the realm of the fantastic. When asked to name their favourite villain in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, most people will turn to the first Black Panther film and choose Killmonger. Brought to life by Michael B Jordan, Killmonger was rejected by his people, forced to spend a life in a place where he was discriminated against and then learned that his home country kept the technology and equipment that would allow him and the rest of his people to thrive. By the end of the movie, he is made to be over-the-top evil (wouldn’t want Disney to accidentally inform people about the evils of colonialism) but by mid-movie I found myself on Killmonger’s side!

Sometimes, the introduction is the key. A seemingly regular character whose words and actions barely hide the monster below.

Take Hans Landa for example, the villain in Inglorious Basterds. The opening sequence with him looking for a Jewish family that hides in a farmhouse is a perfect example of a well-written, terrifying villain. Just by appearing friendly and asking some seemingly innocent questions he manages to turn a hard-headed, courageous farmer into a wreck of a man who betrays everything he stands for within five minutes. His warm persona barely hides the murderous psychopath beneath: the farmer and everyone watching know Landa’s true, terrifying nature.

Sometimes, underlying threats are not good enough. In that case, full depravity and absolutely no redeeming qualities are what you need, such as was the case of Game of Thrones’ most hated character, the boy King Joffrey Baratheon. The basis of the character is simple: every brat you know and hate but with absolute power and zero conscience.

If the target demographic isn’t children or creators are not going for mindless fun, a complex villain can make or break the series. Sometimes, they are so complex that the audience doesn’t even realise that they are rooting for him to succeed. Such is the case of the chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White, in Breaking Bad. A man who never took responsibility for his mistakes and blamed his misfortune on everyone except himself. A character who spreads death and pain in his wake, destroying anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with him.

Good villains are not evil for evil’s sake. Most understand that they are in the wrong but choose to ignore it either because they believe in a higher cause or because they prefer to prioritise their needs before everyone else’s.

Good villains make great movies. And we need more of both.

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