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Real Life vs Fiction: Faces of a Villain

Posted on | February 3, 2013 | 4 Comments

Recently, I’ve been watching a thoroughly enjoyable crime drama. There’s always quite a number of them floating around: cop shows, superhero movies, episodic thrillers and the like. However, when it is really riveting – I’m reminded of the crucial aspect which makes them work.

A story with only an awesome protagonist lacks the essential element of a solid drama. Good art requires having an antagonist who’s a capable match with strengths similar to the hero, but riven with his or her own demons. Otherwise, we’re bored by the exploits of a leading man easily able to defeat his challenger.

I’ve seen my share of shows where the focus concentrates too much on the internal struggles of the hero. I believe that mostly works for a good book.

In a movie, if the only battle a hero has is against emotional despair, anguish, then recovery, essentially in a vacuum – well, to me, that’s not enough. That is why Superman Returns was a flop. Yes, it made decent box office bank, but it was not a good film. Superman’s most debilitating enemy was a rock, and a bit of emotional distress. The problem with film were: a lead actor who didn’t have the chops to pull off the emotional aspect, and a movie which couldn’t decide whether to be a cartoon, semi-serious comedy or both. And that’s not a good mix for a superhero like Superman if it’s not done well.

Here’s my list of villains that come to mind, whenever the show is sufficiently entertaining:

1 – The anarchist – He brings chaos from the jump, because he is chaos. Like Batman‘s Joker, sometimes his background – revealing the depths of a childhood trauma that made him what he – is told. In most cases, all we see is a character without a past, just a full-tilt off-the-walls bad guy. There maybe times, when he’s dying, he finally divulges who he really is. This happens when the writer(s) attempts to plug plot holes or present comforting resolutions.

Overall, this is a character who’s basically in it for the thrill of disaster and destruction. There is no other reason for it. He may provide excuses, but that’s because he likes the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t believe a word he says. And he’s the ultimate nightmare for the hero, because he’s unpredictable and doesn’t live by a rule book.

In real life, he’s the guy who blows down or shoots up places that are open to the public. Sometimes he leaves a bizarre manifesto, sometimes he offs himself after executing his evil deeds without a word. His true goal is infamy. And thanks to our media, he achieves it, with many copy cats ensuing.

2 – The disabled, disfigured, underestimated guy – The best villain I’ve seen in a while was the character, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, in The Usual Suspects. This film had the feel of a classic Albert Hitchcock movie or Agatha Christie novel. This bad guy hides in plain sight and you never consider him one, because his disability disarms you. Everyone treats him like a less-than and as a character we regard him as such. Yet, he’s hiding a cunning mind beneath the simpleton’s facade.

Update:

Shakespeare had fun with writing about King Richard III, an English monarch, one of the best known historical villains of all time. He wrote about a man who preceded him by 100 years, but that didn’t stop him from speculating about his morals, motives and machinations. There is hardly a movie I haven’t seen about this man. At one place I worked at, I recommended a co-worked watch any Richard III film to get an idea of the mindset of the people around us. She laughed at how accurate it was. Hey, people do not change.

Recently, the remains of King Richard III have been located, by the Richard III Society – who are also trying to reform his image. Yes, that’s the problem with bad guys, they’ve just misunderstood. They had to commit their deeds for the greater good. It’s all justifiable. Hmmm.

3 - The well-meaning scientist or professor who takes his theories a little too far. He meant well, but starts to develop a  messianic zeal to wipe the planet free of human beings in order to save it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's hard to separate the nut job environmentalists making these kind of pronouncements - the human population  should be whittled down to 500 million, by any means - with the bad-guys scientists in Hollywood films. Spiderman (2012) had one of these characters.

One cannot blame doomsday preppers for their anxiety when supposedly sane, rational and well known scientists are making ending-the-human-species-is-good-for-the-earth kind of statements. We are animals, no different from the insects and mammals that are here. We are no worse or better than them in affecting the environment or the earth. People who talk about wiping off most human beings from the planet should just jump off the highest bridge they can find.

4 - The alpha male - He's the perfect top flight above reproach male - as seen in the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962). On the outside, he's guileless: the man everyone respects, loves and adores. In reality, he's been turned inside out. He's often portrayed as a predictable and unassuming character, because he's the first guy we often see in a film, but he's a little too smooth and slick to believe.

Overall, we enjoy seeing that he is as corrupt as we initially suspected. The above reproach guy is the one we never liked that much in the first place.

5 - The beta male - He's the disrespected sidekick to the alpha male. He feels he's been hiding his true self while laboring in the shadow of the top dog male. He covets everything the alpha has: women, power, respect or fear and an almost extreme level of worship for his incredible prowess. In some stories, he wants the same woman, or women, of the alpha male. In the animal kingdom this happens all the time: the alpha male always has to keep the beta males in check or they will take his "throne."

Good writing can make these story lines the best of all.

6 - The femme fatale - She does it because she's bored, like Catwoman. She's aroused by the pandemonium she causes, which serves to distract others from her real goals. She enjoys the havoc, but there's no epic story here. She's initially introduced as this retiring, shy, church mouse kind of person, when an earth-shattering event transforms her into a "dangerous", sex-hungry, man-eating type of woman.

As is often the case, since men write this character, they show that they haven't a clue as to how the female mind works. Rarely, are they accurate. But when done well, by the right actress, she can be fun and amusing to watch. Would be interesting if someone came up with a completely believable malevolent female villain. Although it was a comedy, The Devil Wears Pravda came close to how some women operate.

7 - The bent bastard - I was watching a British program, Line of Duty, and I grew to like this epithet. I heard it over and over again. At first, I wasn't certain by what they meant. Then I realized it was a rather clean and clear expression of contempt. They meant someone corrupt, easily bought, with no morals or scruples. This is not a complicated villain with a higher calling or any of the other aspects we find in a typical one. He is the embodiment of the "good man" who stays silent, and does nothing, in the face of evil.

His sole objective is to get more by taking short cuts: shave the edges to make things go smoother, skim a little off the top. He has no ethics, so he's easy to bribe and buy off. This character is a small time thief who usually ends up in trouble reaching far over his head.

What makes him a mark in the first place is that he's a cop or a "good guy" who bends the line one time too many. His firm "rule of law" is a wet noodle. Eventually, his luck starts to run out, because he lets greed take over, unless the writer(s) decide to redeem him.

This was the case with The Shield, but I didn't watch enough of it to see how far the writers went with the main character crossing the line into corruption. I suspected he went far enough at times.

8 - The antagonist - He's the spiritual twin of the hero, in that he has an inflexible, unyielding moral code. He feel he's too good for the world and must fix its flaws. He's a highly intelligent and logical man, but he's the worst kind of extremist. He rigidly abides by his own rule book, which leads to devastating consequences for everyone. He's not someone satisfied with half-measures.

And he is truly the worst of the lot, yet an exquisite match for the hero. Think of  Professor Moriarty for Sherlock Holmes.

The hero is the one who has learned to accept the world as it is. The antagonist is the one who cannot. Hence, the eternal conflict between good and evil.

Ancient Parables

The original source of heroes and anti-heroes have their roots in ancient literature or religious documents. Our modern day superheroes are re-imagined demigods.

People have always hungered for a savior....

Update

Does anyone care to speculate which character-type Christopher Dorner would fall under?

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4 Responses to “Real Life vs Fiction: Faces of a Villain”

  1. Faith
    February 4th, 2013 @ 8:53 PM

    Interesting analysis. That Superman movie did not work for so many reasons and was overindulgent. It also had the look of trying to be a period piece which made no sense. I also feel that way about the Nolan Batman reboot. It was better than the 90′s Batman movies, but just barely. The last installment was horrible with crappy casting, but it made money and that’s all the studio cares about.

    The closest to a proper femme fatale aside from those in the original noir films (like Double Indemnity, would be the Bond villains. I think Angelina Jolie embodies the ruthlessness and appeal necessary to play that archetype.

    Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct was definitely the femme fatale. That movie pushed the envelope and remains one of the best of its genre. Hollywood doesn’t have the guts to make a film like that anymore it seems.

    I think as far as tv shows go, the Anna Derevko character on Alias fit the bill. All of the Derevko sisters were written as single-minded in the quest for power and cunning. Also, Ilythia and Lucretia from Spartacus were definitely willing to do anything.

    As for The Devil Wear Prada, the book character was far more vicious which heightened the comedic aspects, but because the industry knew the character was about Anna Wintour, the movie softened Amanda Priestly considerably.

    GoldenAh: Oh, you’ve added some awesome points. I continue to forget the women. I think it’s because today – as you’ve mentioned – women aren’t getting the kind of juicy roles like in the old days. We don’t get classics like Body Heat (still my all time favorite) which was a remake of Double Indemnity, All About Eve, and many more with someone like Betty Davis in it, etc.

    You are right about Angelina, I would love to see her in an off-the-hook villain role. She was great in Salt. I avoided it for a time, not sure what to expect, wondering if it would be ridiculous. It was good, although a bit unfinished. I think they were aiming for a female Jason Bourne. She does the best stone cold look around, but when she “emotes” – she’s great as well. She’s one of the few I can think of who can “act” and do action roles.

    No surprise that Anna Wintour is evil. Nearly all of those old white women media, fashion and cosmetics executive hags are mean and nasty. They get a protective layer from feminist BS, since they are included as part of a “victim” class. Worst fields for anyone (who is not a white woman worshiper) with a healthy sense of self-esteem to work in.

  2. Faith
    February 11th, 2013 @ 1:47 PM

    Going through the film archives from the 1940′s and 50′s for roles, the women characters were very well-written. Even though there was a lack of diversity that hasn’t changed much, at least those roles had teeth.

    It’s funny how some of the actresses so revered now like Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, etc were labeled “box office poison” at certain points in their careers.

    It’s hard for me to simply watch a movie or tv show because I analyze everything from an acting and directing perspective, but also because I’ve studied film criticism and psychological archetypes that inform the way these roles were written.

    \Mostly, though it’s because these films were simply better written and acted (even though acting styles are far less formal affected today than then)than a lot of the fluff that’s produced today.

    GoldenAh: I used to read a lot of trashy books – Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, etc. I usually don’t read the bios of authors, but I was really surprised to find out that the writer of a number of those strong and quirky female characters was done by none other than Mr Sheldon. Wish I could write like that.

    I remember someone saying that the material was good then because they were writing for the stage – people sharpened their chops – before the era of big movie productions came about. Sort of like how vaudeville gave rise to the best comedians, because feedback was immediate and the audience kept them honest. Maybe the use of social media can keep them honest again.

    What I like about the old flicks best – they keep the plot straight, with no meandering, and it’s done on time. They weren’t going to drag a story out to three hours. Just like how nobody wants – or really has the time – to read a 1000 page book, they gave you almost exactly 70-80 minutes of a story, and it was almost always concise and well done. Today, they don’t know when to stop a damn movie. :D

    Saw that movie, Man From Nowhere. He reminded me a bit of Keanu when he was younger. Gorgeous.

  3. Faith
    February 12th, 2013 @ 10:16 PM

    Keanu was papped a few days ago. http://www.lipstickalley.com/f17/keanu-reeves-out-riding-his-motorcyle-beverly-hills-2-10-a-475619/

    GoldenAh: Ahhh, and he’s looking good, all furry and what-not… :D

  4. JaliliMaster
    February 13th, 2013 @ 9:13 AM

    Does anyone care to speculate which character-type Christopher Dorner would fall under?

    I think he probably falls under an intersection of some of these characters. I actually have my own take on this dude, separate from film/character analysis, but this post is not the place. Suffice to say, that at first glance, one might think he is an alpha male, but he is, in fact, a classic beta, probably with a little bit of the antagonist thrown in. I could try to expantiate on this, but I’ll think on it some more.

    GoldenAh: I like the idea of calling him a “bent bastard” especially with a cockney accent. LOL.

    I agree with you: he’s Beta male. He played football in his school years. There’s no sport that coddles, favors and spoils the black male more than this one along with basketball. I could see him used to being the Big Man on Campus. I suspect the military was a moderately “safe” environment for him as well. I think it’s when he hit the “real world” that he couldn’t hack it. Cause how is he going to suffer racism (via the LAPD) when the police force is over 75% minority (black, Asian, Latino / Hispanic, other) and has less than a quarter white? To me, that sounds like he went to work for the Detroit Police and complained of racism. I mean, minority-majority is the workforce of today and tomorrow. Was he expecting the white guys to coddle him or something? That wont work in an environment where he has to compete equally with all the other non-black men.

    What gets me is that the couple he decides to kill is an Asian woman and another black male – innocent people who were of no threat to him. I cannot believe people rallied around this critter. Before they go on a killing spree, these guys need to shoot themselves first.

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