If there’s one critique that’s levelled against the Disney’s Marvel movies—besides formulaic plotting, derivative film scores, and dragging their feet on making female-led movies—it’s their frequent use or unmemorable villains.
Since these movies are based on comic books (a goldmine of no-goodniks) and are made by Disney (also known for their nasties), it seems odd that so many of these foes are so forgettable.
Meanwhile, you’ve got Warner Bros. and their DC Extended Universe. This year, DC’s movies have finally gotten some momentum (hey, falling off a cliff counts as momentum!), but they botched the introduction of not one but two major baddies. I’m not the first person to point out DC also has a villain problem, although instead of creating characters audiences will never remember like Marvel, they’ve made two over-the-top messes audiences would like to forget.
Both studios seem to be missing the mark, creating villains that audiences don’t want to watch because they’re either forgettable or ridiculous. So why is it so hard to make a good bad-guy? What makes a villain good in the first place?
I’ve put together my own list of the attributes all the best villains from the silver screen have. This may not cover all of the problems DC and Marvel have been having with their antagonists, but I think this list highlights some of the pitfalls any storyteller can avoid when writing rascals and reprobates.
1. Villains have to be multilayered
This one should go without saying, but no one likes watching a villain, or any character really, that’s as nuanced or faceted as a bag of cement. Any character in a superhero movie, aquatic fairy-tale adventure, elaborate revenge-based casino heist, or character-drama-centered-around-a-bake-sale-turned-prison-riot has to have character traits that make them interesting, motivated, and entertaining to watch.
With villains, what makes them compelling is that the audience loves to hate them and maybe even secretly wants them to succeed. Whether it’s a cannibalistic serial killer, an immortal squid pirate, or just an oil tycoon with a strong distaste for adorable forest animals, the bad guy or gal has to have something that makes people like them. And usually that means the villain has to be understandable, if not entirely relatable. They’re fully fleshed-out as a character and have motivations like you or me that allows us to sympathize, if not fully empathize or endorse, their actions.
So let’s look at some examples. Let’s say you have a maniacal space overlord who is hunting the protagonist across the galaxy in order to stop them from getting the secret item that will turn the tide in some dramatic conflict.
In the case of Darth Vader, he’s entertaining to watch from the start because he looks and sounds cool. And just before the audience starts to get bored with his emotionless bug-eyes, you start to learn more about his history and his inner conflict. Ignoring his less-then-compelling prequel backstory, he’s relatable because he wants to both reconnect with his long-lost son but remain loyal to his Imperial overlord.
Meanwhile, the Dark Elf Malekith has zero character traits other than “wants to destroy the universe for some reason.” It’s pretty hard to get the audience to care about someone who wants to end all life, but it’s even more difficult when you never bother to explain, y’know, why someone would want that in the first place. In addition, for some reason the writers/director decided to make him speak in an alien language for the whole film so there’s an extra layer of distance between him and the audience. He’s as far from a relatable character as you can possibly get.
This isn’t to say that audiences should be cheering for the bad guys and gals, or weeping over their tragic backstories, but for any character to be interesting, you have to be able to understand things from their point of view. You may not agree with any of Darth Vader’s actions, but you understand why he’s conflicted and how, from his perspective, maybe the Empire isn’t so bad. For Malekith, there’s no justifiable reason for anything he does. Is he trying to destroy the universe because he doesn’t like people? If so, what happened to him? We never get to find out, so we’re forced to assume he’s just being bad for badness’ sake.
Which brings me to:
2. Evil characters should never be pure evil
Now, there are quite a few exceptions to this rule (Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Satan from Paradise Lost, Satan from just about everything else), but as Marvel’s own Tom Hiddle- wait, does he get to keep the -swift after the breakup, or go back to -ston? Anyway, as Tommy-boy once said: “Every villain is a hero in their own mind.”
No human being wakes up and decides “Today is a day to be evil,” and cackles maniacally while pouring their morning coffee. Even that one politician you hate doesn’t have a secret agenda of wanting to make your life miserable. If a character embraces the idea of being “pure evil,” it’s because something pushed them there, or they don’t believe that what they’re doing is actually “evil,” in any strict sense. One way of another, they feel what they’re doing is justified in some way.
So even if the character is meant to represent the spirit of chaos or the power of greed, they have more a reason for committing acts of villainy other than “because that’s what they do.” Maybe they have a philosophy they want to prove, or want to take out their anger on those who have wronged them in the past, but they aren’t just evil because well, someone’s gotta be.
Let’s look at an example.
Actually, you know what? There’s been enough digital ink spilled about Heath Ledger’s Joker to drown a… computer analogy of some kind.
Let’s do a different comparison.
So in Spider-man 1: Man, Hope We Never Have to Reboot This Series, the Green Goblin, while revelling in his ability to create chaos and devastation wherever he goes, actually has a reason for attacking everyone. First, he wants to get revenge on all the businesspeople who defunded his military science experiment and later on, he also wants to convince Spider-man to join him, proving there can be no real heroes and thus justifying his anarchic spree.
Meanwhile, with Suicide Squad’s the Joker, the character shown to audiences seemed to want to kill people and cause mayhem because… well, for the parts of the movie he was present for, it was to rescue Harley Quinn from the titular Squad. But why did he turn her evil in the first place? Well… because he was lonely, maybe? If so, then why did he almost abandon her when he threw her in the pit of acid? We’re never given any clear motivations for this character other than “because he’s the Joker and he’s kuh-RAZY!”
Now, to be fair, apparently there was a lot of Joker moments left on the cutting room floor and we’ve only seen scraps of him. But part of the reason his debut was so disappointing was because we were never shown any of his motivations or character traits that tell us why this version of the character does what he does. If he really is just evil for the sake of being evil, then it makes sense why he seemed so uninteresting on screen and why Leto’s performance was panned. You can’t deliver a compelling performance if there’s no depth behind your character to begin with.
The bottom line is, pure evil isn’t interesting, in the same way a purely good hero with no character flaws is incredibly boring. This of course brings me to…
3. The antagonist shouldn’t be the polar opposite of the protagonist, but rather offer a skewed alternative of what the hero desires
Part of what makes a character compelling in their own right is not being defined solely by their relationship to other characters. And this applies perfectly to villains.
An antagonist that is nothing but the exact opposite of the protagonist can make for some interesting stories, especially comedic ones, but it’s hard for any audience to see them as anything than an extension of the hero.
For superheroes, this rule extends to superpowers and abilities. As fun as it is to watch The Flash race the Reverse-Flash, or Sonic the Hedgehog race Shadow the Hedgehog or… some other example that doesn’t involve racing, a rivalry like Batman and the Joker is so much more compelling because the Joker doesn’t pull out his own Jokermobile and Jokerbelt to combat the Dark Knight (Yes, I am aware he’s used items like these in the past, but there’s a reason he doesn’t pull them out that much).
George R. R. Leave-Me-Alone-I’ll-Finish-It-Eventually Martin levelled this critique at the Marvel movies after watching Ant-Man last year, saying:
“While Yellowjacket [from Ant-Man] makes a decent villain . . . I am tired of this Marvel movie trope where the bad guy has the same powers as the hero. The Hulk fought the Abomination, who is just a bad Hulk. Spider-Man fights Venom, who is just a bad Spider-Man. Iron Man fights Ironmonger, a bad Iron Man. Yawn. I want more films where the hero and the villain have wildly different powers. That makes the action much more interesting.”
Exactly. One of the classic examples of a compelling fight (both in action and drama) is in Disney’s Peter Pan when the hero faces off against Captain Hook.
Instead of just having two dudes flying around, swinging their swords at each other, Peter and Hook each have advantages and disadvantages over one another. Pan can fly, allowing him to attack Hook quickly from all angles, but Hook is larger with a longer range of attack. This allows their fight scene to mirror their characters, as Peter is on the defensive, using his cunning and prankish nature to outsmart the stubborn but still lethally imposing Captain.
Of course Marvel has been successful in the past with Loki and Thor, reversing Peter Pan’s brains vs. brawn trope so the hero is the one whose brute force is meant to overcome the clever tricks of the villain. However, by and large the Marvel heroes have been just fighting their mirror images: super-soldier vs. super soldier, guy-in-robot-suit vs. robot-who-wants-to-be-a-guy, etc., which means the best fights on screen are still when the heroes fight one another.
While DC doesn’t yet have enough movies to have their villains fall into any kind of repetitive pattern, their recent announcement for the next Batman villain is less than promising.
Deathstroke, pictured above, is a well-trained assassin who specializes in all types of martial arts and uses an array of weapons, tech, and ninja-training to take down his opponents all while striking fear into their hearts. He will be fighting Batman, a man who is ditto what I just said. This does not bode well for a compelling face-off, physically or thematically.
Add to that the fact that Deathstroke’s personality is a piece of sandpaper, his character arc is a stagnant puddle, and his motivation is less complicated than an episode of Blue’s Clues, and you’ve got the least interesting villain since one of Captain America’s punching bags.
Ughh. I’m sorry but, Deathstroke is just the worst. He’s like if Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid married a bag of gravel and their child was raised by a stack of lumber with a five o’clock shadow. He’s more gruff and grizzled than a chain-smoking rusty pipe and his emotions are as flat as a pancake that got caught under a belt sander.
OK, I think I’m done.
So I think this highlights a lot of the problems these two superhero franchises have been struggling with.
Characters like the Joker and Enchantress in Suicide Squad, or Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy suffer as either unmemorable or intolerable because they aren’t given the proper motivations and fleshing-out for the audience to understand why they do what they do.
Even though Enchantress and Ronan are given short lines of dialogue to explain their characters, it’s not enough to tell audiences why these characters chose to become villains; you have to show them. It doesn’t matter how imaginative or unique their designs, movements, and teeth makeup may be, without demonstrating what’s behind all the sinister plotting and dastardly deeds, the audience will not feel invested.
Meanwhile, the characters in these films that do work as compelling villains are able to balance villainy with sympathy quite nicely. I think General Zod of Man of Steel, Loki of Thor and Avengers, and Amanda Waller of Suicide Squad pull this off, with each of these characters demonstrating believable motivations behind what they do, whether it’s saving a species, wanting respect and recognition, or just wanting to save the world (and commit some illegal activities on the side).
So this is what I and (I believe) audiences want to see more of moving forward: villains that are their own, unique characters, with plausible motives, and three-dimensional personalities.
Oh, and a killer monologue, because we haven’t gotten a good one of those for a few years.