If you’ve never talked to me about movies you should know one thing: I believe the most compelling movies is a great villain. Oh yeah, good heroes are great but they are only astounding with great villains. Luke Skywalker is not as good without Vader, Indiana Jones isn’t as compelling without Nazis, Atticus Finch just doesn’t have that same punch without racism (okay maybe not the last example).
So… I’m curious. What makes your favorite villain? I figured I’d go over a few and why I think they work really well.
Vader is 100% the top villain in pop culture. I don’t think anybody could even counter that someone outside of real life people like Hitler could top Vader. The thing about Vader though is his entire back story is so well known that it’s hard to divorce him away from that. So let’s take two Vaders: Pre-Empire Strikes Back reveal & Post-Empire Strikes Back reveal.
Before the Reveal
Vader before the reveal is just a pure bad ass. He’s menacing. If you look most of the stormtroopers and commanders in the first film are at least a foot smaller than him. His costume is a huge contrast with it’s shiny black vs the stormtroopers white which stands him out. There’s never a scene in the first movie where he doesn’t really dominate the scene.
The 2nd factor is that he ruthless. He kills a rebel commander without qualms interrogating him, he force chokes his own officers, and he kills Kenobi all within the same movie. The Kenobi scene really cements as the villain though because throughout the movie you liked Kenobi and he is destroyed by Vader. This twist I think is really the most powerful part of Vader, he kills a HERO. Yes, Kenobi was older but it wasn’t always clear that he was going to die.
The 2nd film gives him one of the most recognizable themes in all of Star Wars. The Imperial March (or Vader’s theme). Star Wars without it’s soundtrack is nowhere near as iconic. The Imperial March really gives Vader a theme that matches his evil.
After the Reveal
If you don’t know, Vader is Luke’s father. The twisted back story I think is what propels Vader from “classic villain” to AMAZING villain. It gives him mystery as you don’t truly know what turned Vader from what could be a considered good person to a villain. They never really go into it in the original trilogy and that allure of not knowing is what makes him better.
It makes his crimes so much more personal. He’s attacking not only the rebel alliance but his own son. He killed his former master, he betrayed the Jedis that Luke has found a 2nd family in. It’s suddenly so much of a better story. The personal nature of his villain ties him into Luke more which makes it so much more about than “saving the world”.
His redemption arc makes him into a sympathetic villain. It gives him a type of redemption and even absolves him of some of his son because the Emperor was willing to use him as a pawn to get Luke.
The short summary:
– A truly devastating physical appearance
– The murder of a sympathetic main character
– A mysterious background that gives him depth without going too deep into it
– The personal nature and attachment to the main hero.
The only thing that Vader is lacking is… motivation? It’s never clear to me why Vader does what he does. He seems to want to take over the Empire from the Emperor but they never really go into it.
Mr Freeze (Batman The Animated Series)
Me Freeze has a few origin stories but I think the most recognizable one in the cultural zeitgeist is the story of Victor Fries and his wife Nora. “Heart of Ice” is the origin episode in the Batman TAS. For those who don’t know. Victor Fries freezes his wife illegally using his company’s equipment to prevent the disease she contracted from killing her. His boss finds out and in a fight pushes him into the freezing chemicals killing his wife and destroying his body so that he has to wear a frozen suit.
Heart of Ice again has an excellent sound track again, which is going to be a common theme. The gentle intro is a whimsical nature that more reflect his wife with an almost Christmas style theme. It’s actually just the music from the last thing he has from Nora, a spinning ballerina. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS1dd7lIRcA
Mr Freeze is a classic revenge story. The revenge story is always a good premise but not only that, but the nature of his enemy is a greedy capitalist boss (who I think most people love to hate). He’s could even be put into an anti-hero level but he hurts others too much to achieve his revenge. This sympathetic story is what gives him more than “ruthless villain”. It informs his villainy. That level of hatred is powering him.
Another interesting factor is the contrast between him and Batman. Batman lost his entire family and he wanted revenge and he became a hero. Freeze loses his family but can’t let go of his anger and becomes a villain. They both suppress their emotion but Batman never admits to losing his. Freeze says he’s frozen of emotion but he’s deluding himself which gives him a level of depth that makes him very human. His anger is there and it’s powerful. You can see how much he loves to freeze the boss that killed Nora and how much vindication he gets. This all makes him very… human.
The part that I love about Freeze is that his back story and his tragic past inform him. EVERYTHING he does ties to that incident. But in a very common sense and human way. This isn’t fucking Thanos being like “I’m just gonna cut the population in half”. There’s no clear connection that empowers him, it’s just a single thing. Other revenge stories I think make the hero go through so many levels and actions in order to act his revenge. Count of Monte Cristo is an elaborate revenge where the hidden anger powers his actions, but Freeze is raw.
The last part of Mr Freeze is the fucking writing. Vader didn’t say much but Freeze is eloquent as fuck. One of my favorite lines that show him off are easily: “Think of it, Batman. To never again walk on a summer’s day with the hot wind in your face and a warm hand to hold. Oh yes, I’d kill for that.”. The fact that his body is broken is just a tragic connection to this. But even if he didn’t have the broken body the line would still hold.
Combined with quite a few freezing puns that don’t come off as corny. When talking about his wife and about to do his plan: “This is how I shall always remember you: surrounded by winter, forever young, forever beautiful. Rest well, my love. The monster who took you from me will soon learn that revenge is a dish… best served COLD.” Batman Forever lines are way worse like: “Ice to See you”.
The short summary
- You have a sympathetic story but that element is really tied into character. His revenge, his emotions, his lines are all tied to death of Nora and the destruction of his body.
- A villain who says they have no emotions but wear their emotions on their sleeve
- A similar origin and contrast to our hero.
- Excellent soundtrack
- Amazing lines from our villain. Memorable ones.
Mr Freeze weakness though is the revenge is very limiting as a story. The subsequent stories of Mr Freeze demonstrate this. His subsequent stories about saving “Nora” who has been retconned alive. He has to save her in one episode which gives him nothing of interest to his emotional depth. Though Sub-Zero is a decent addition as he has to weigh killing an innocent person in order to save his wife.
So we talked about what makes a good villain. So what makes a boring villain?
I fucking hated Thanos. The central motivation of Thanos is not power or something that makes sense. It’s this weird sense of “I need to save the world but killing half of the people in it”. Maybe there’s an argument here about the power of delusion or the fears about climate change but meh. He’s got all the ominous and strength of Vader but with out any of the heart or mystery.
Sauron is BORING AS FUCK. He’s just… evil? Like he’s just the incarnation of evil. The consequences of his empire and his damage are always on this grand scale vs a personal scale. Aragorn’s kingdom was destroyed, the Shire has no stake with Sauron, if there is something it’s done with ominous nature. At least in Harry Potter Voldemort has that same ominous but you can feel his impact on Harry himself. It’s all this huge grand scale that makes the main story to save the world. The Ents and Sauraman have a better conflict in the world.
The interpretation of Pennywise varies differently based on movies/mini-series/books so I’ll only talk about the latest set of of movies.
They constantly go between this “I want to make children fear me in a very long drawn out manner to eat them”, but then he kills others without any of that setup. He eats bodies and kills people for just nothing.
His central power seems to be tied to the fear that he produces in them and he can be reduced to nothing if they don’t fear him. But they already discovered that in the first movie.
What are you favorite villains?
So what are you favorite villains. I love knowing what makes a good one for you.