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.
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.
- NY Times – Bones Under Parking Lot Belonged to Richard III
- CNN – Where does skeleton revelation leave legend of Richard III?
- And a great article by Stephen L Carter about villains, What Abraham Lincoln Liked About Richard III
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.
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….
Does anyone care to speculate which character-type Christopher Dorner would fall under?