(The below has been updated to include links to my various posts on the topic.)
It is my belief that the world of film has a villain problem.
When I was going through my annual awards, I realised something. I was going through the categories and deciding winners, when I came to “Best Villain”. And looking at it, and looking at the list of films I had seen in 2016, I couldn’t think of any villain or antagonist that I felt worthy of much praise.
Just look at my top ten. Sing Street has Don Wycherly’s Christian Brother, but he’s a small enough part really, merely the most human face of the negative elements surrounding the Conor character. In Krigen, leaving aside the faceless Taliban, the villain might be said to be societal expectations of the military being out of sync with what they can actually do. Hail, Caesar! had Channing Tatum’s secret communist, but he is only revealed as such very late on. Creed has “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, introduced past the halfway point and an antagonist who fits neatly into Rocky Balboa’s declaration that the real opponent is yourself: “The other guy is just in the way”. The Siege Of Jadotville has a French mercenary who, while decent appears only in a small number of scenes, with Mark Strong’s poor performance ruining the only other antagonist character. Anthropoid has no single villain, with the target of the assassination plot appearing only in his assassination scene. Sully has the apocryphal over the top NTSB investigation. Spotlight has societal pressure and cover-ups as its villain. Rogue One had the flashy cape and otherwise empty personality of Director Krennic. Moana has villains that appear only in single scenes.
And should we even mention the superhero genre in 2016? Civil War’s titular character was more villainous consistently than Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo. Lex Luthor was one of the weakest parts of Batman V Superman. Evil wizard in Doctor Strange was a nothing character. The Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad were as much victims of its botched editing as anything else. X-Men: Apocalypse favoured style over substance with its titular bad guy. Deadpool’s Ajax was a sideshow. Only in The Killing Joke, a story based entirely around the villain, did the superhero genre put its antagonists in their proper place.
It would seem that filmmakers are, more and more, interested less in singular recognisable villains, who share a significant part of the story with the protagonist, and instead are opting for the abstract concept as the villain. And in films where they are required to have one, like the aforementioned superhero films, or other blockbuster mainstays – Star Trek Beyond, Ghostbusters, The BFG, Fantastic Beasts, The Magnificent Seven all spring tom mind from 2016 alone – the focus has shifted so much to the protagonist, or the team of protagonists, that the villain is often treated as little more than an afterthought, a vessel to chuck your heroes at during the pertinent beats of the story.
I’ve had a think about this, and I’ve decided that, every few weeks or so, I’m going to expand on what I think makes a good antagonist, in a series of posts that will be based upon the following checklist. I’ve considered the introduction, the traits, the evolution and the resolution that swirls around a good antagonist, and come up with the following 16 points:
Meeting The Villain
- Introduction – The moment that the villain is introduced to us must be noteworthy in some way, to single out this individual.
- Distinct – The antagonist must be distinct in some way from others, whether it be some physical aspect, or some action in the moment that we meet them, that marks them out as different.
- Defining Statement – During or around the villain’s introduction, he/she should have a defining statement, which sums up their character or line of thinking in a simple way.
- Kick The Dog – The opposite of the famous “Save The Cat” trope, the adversary should perform some relatively minor villainous action early on in the story.
The Villain’s Character
- Goal/Motivation – The villain must have a goal, or a motivation for their actions, which is clear, believable to the audience, and something that this character clearly wants, enough that he/she is willing to do the things that they do to achieve it.
- Risk – The antagonist should have something to lose in the course of trying to achieve their goal/motivation.
- Consistency – The actions of the villain must have a consistency to them, the same as any character.
- Justification – The antagonist should believe that he/she is not the villain of the story.
The Villain’s Traits
- Capability – The audience must believe that the adversary, through his/her own power or through the resources they control, poses a threat to the hero.
- Credibility – The audience must believe that the adversary is a credible threat with his/her capability, and will use that capability to achieve their goal/motivation.
- Sympathetic/Compelling – The villain should be, even in just a very minor and maybe fleeting sense, somewhat sympathetic or compelling to the audience.
The Relationship With The Hero
- Contrast With Hero – The villain must in some way, major or minor, be a direct contrast to the hero character.
- Equal With Hero – The adversary should be, whether physically, mentally or in some other way, on a par with the hero.
The Villain’s Path
- Escalation – The bad guy should, at some point in the story, escalate their efforts and activities to a higher and more dangerous point than they were before.
- Defeat – The manner of the adversary’s eventual defeat should be meaningful or ironic in some way.
- Consequences– Regardless of their final fate, the actions of the villain should have lasting consequences for the hero.
I suppose I should take the chance now to point out that a villain who encapsulates all these points can still fail, due to problems with script, editing, delivery of lines, etc. Similarly, I don’t think that a villain has to embody all 16 in some way in order to be successful. I’m no film student, just an amateur enthusiast. In the coming weeks and months, this amateur enthusiast will look at some good villains – a certain Dark Lord of the Sith and Clown Prince Of Crime for example, as well as some lesser known ones – and I will look at some bad ones – get ready for plenty of the MCU on that score – too. And together, we’ll look at what really makes a good bad guy, and why too much of modern cinema is getting it wrong.