The matter of the defining statement is an important one for all characters in any story, and the antagonist is no exception to that. What do I mean when I say defining statement, in the context of the villain? Simply this:
”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.”
I’ve talked about defining statements on this blog before, namely in regards the pilot episode of Firefly. They should be something straightforward and occur early on in the story. They can be verbal or physical, but they must be understandable to the audience. They can be overt or more subtle, but they can’t be too spelled out or indecipherable. In essence, once you have heard the villain give his/her defining statement, you should understand more about them, what drives them and how we can expect them to try and achieve their goals.
Let’s take a look at some of my favourites, starting with an absolute piece of writing genius. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, our villain is Heath Ledger’s Joker, an antagonist character so perfectly done that I have already looked at him twice. He also has a pitch-perfect defining statement, which we get towards the end of the film’s opening scene, wherein the Joker, incognito, leads a group of backstabbing bank robbers in a raid on a Mafia institution. About to make his getaway, having killed the others, the masked Joker is accosted by the bank manager, who remembers a time when the underworld of Gotham City had a code, and believed in ideals. When he demands to know what the masked man believes in, the Joker whips off his mask – showing his deformed face and ghastly make-up for the very first time – considers for a brief moment and then says:
“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you…stranger”.
In these few words, we learn so much. The Joker has an eerie confidence that will mark so much of what will follow. His words automatically make us think about his origin – which will be a recurring talking point with the character – and what could have happened to make him the man that he is, adding a sense of mystery to the character almost immediately. And, completely in line with the character who will dominate the movie, it’s a grim but very well placed and well thought-out play on words: in other words, a joke. It’s rare you’ll find a defining statement more perfect than this.
One of my other absolute favourites when it comes to this idea is from the other side of the comic book spectrum, that of Obadiah Stane – aka, the “Ironmonger” – in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Played by Jeff Bridges, the industrial tycoon is introduced at an awards show dedicated to praising the genius of Tony Stark, who just so happens to be absent, choosing to spend his time gambling and womanising. The video package showcasing Tony touches on Stane briefly, as the man who kept Stark Industries going between the death of Howard Stark and Tony’s coming of age, whereupon he had to cede the spotlight. When Tony fails to appear to collect his award, Stane is obliged to step up to the microphone and accept it on his behalf, opening up with the words:
“Well, I’m not Tony Stark”.
Stane says these lines in a semi-joking self-deprecating manner, but the layer of meaning underneath them is obvious, in line with what we have been presented about Stane up to this point. He’s a man who kept Stark Industries on the straight and narrow in the face of a catastrophe, and now his role is to accept awards for the younger, flashier boss who can’t be bothered to turn up. Stane isn’t Tony Stark: as far as he’s concerned, he’s better than him, and isn’t acknowledged as such. Stane’s heel turn won’t be tangibly apparent for a while yet, but the motivations behind it are brilliantly foreshadowed in this opening line.
Defining statements don’t have to be verbal of course, they can easily be physical. Darth Vader’s first walk into our lives is a great example, as he exudes both authority and a ruthlessness in the way he arrives after the fighting has been done to get into the Tantive IV, briefly considers the fallen Stormtroopers, and then marches on with air of contempt, as if everything he has witnessed is beneath him. Vader doesn’t really have a verbal defining statement, at least not in his first few scenes, but this suffices to showcase him as someone to be feared.
Defining statements are obviously beyond the scope of just film, and I’d like to look to the interactive medium to talk about one of my favourite examples from one of my favourite games. Dr Wallace Breen is the primary antagonist of Half-Life 2, though you only come face to face with him at the games conclusion. Our main encounters with him come in the form of the “Breencasts”, when his towering head addresses the downtrodden citizens of City 17 from on high. The opening one is our introduction to the new and changed world where Breen is a Quisling puppet of alien overlords, where this administrator outlines his philosophy. I would put his defining statement as three simple little words at the end:
“Welcome. Welcome, to City 17. You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers. I thought so much of City 17, that I elected to establish my administration, here, in the citadel, so thoughtfully provided by our benefactors. I am proud to call City 17 my home. And so, whether you are here to stay, or passing through to parts unknown, welcome, to City 17. It’s safer here.”
The delivery is important here as well – Breen smiles just a fraction with that last sentence, as if thinking the best about the best way to get across his meaning as effectively as possible. Volumes are said with those three words, both about Breen himself and what Breen thinks of his actions. “It’s safer here”: for humanity, subservience to the Combine is safer than resistance, or being alone in a hostile universe. “It’s safer here”: for Breen himself, being the King of a world under the boot of an all-powerful oppressor is better than being just under the boot with everyone else. “It’s safer here”: Humanity is better off with Breen in charge. It is at once a statement of argument, explanation and justification, and it tells us much of what we need to know about Breen immediately.
It’s hard to find an example of this being executed badly: usually, a bad defining statement is just the absence of one. But there are a few examples I would think of negatively.
Let’s harp back to Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Green. I’ve already outlined how I think his introductory scene is one of the weakest in the history of Bond villains, and what I would deem to be his defining statement is part of that. Bear in mind that this is James Bond we’re talking about here: the introduction to the villain needs to set him up as a threat, both to the main character and in a larger sense as well. Dr No, Goldfinger, Alec Trevelyan, these were all people who were both a physical match for Bond, either themselves or through intermediaries, and a threat to the stability of the world at large. And you know that right from the moment that you met them. But not Dominic Green who, having botched an ill-considered assassination of Camille and then seen her stroll right into his headquarters to berate him for it (why is she doing this?), proceeds to start being a bit creepy and threatening at the same time in his lines, but all to little purpose:
“I knew we shouldn’t have slept together. I think I’m starting to like you…Please don’t talk to me like I’m stupid. It’s unattractive…There’s nothing that makes more uncomfortable…than friends talking behind my back. It feels like…ants under my skin. It’s been that way forever. I remember when I was 15. I had a crush on one of my mother’s piano students. Somehow I overheard her saying very nasty things about me. I got so angry…”
And on and on. See, this is all well and good, but there’s no point to it. So Green is a bit of a leech, alright, but that has little bearing on his plans or his relationship with the hero. So he has an anger problem: this is counter-acted by his generally unimpressive physical appearance. So he doesn’t bear betrayal very well: who does, and this doesn’t really come up again in the movie. Everything about Green is dull, predictable and plodding.
Also, consider the character of Dennis Nedry, in the otherwise breath-taking triumph that is Jurassic Park. We meet Nedry first as he goes over the details of his ill-fated mission for “Dodgson”, over breakfast in some tropical eatery. As things wind down, Nedry gets the bill for his food, and essentially suggests Dodgson pay it:
“Don’t get cheap on me now Dodgson”.
Which would be perfectly fine as a defining statement, encapsulating Nedry’s greed, arrogance and over-confidence, all things that will trip him up later. But Jurassic Park can’t leave it at that, putting the following line in after:
“That was Hammond’s mistake.”
Something about that addition always bothered me. Jurassic Park’s script is otherwise sublime in terms of nuance and subtly, but here Nedry just seems to blurt out his primary motivation for screwing over InGen.
And in terms of non-verbal failure, contrast Vader with our introduction to Darth Maul, also non-verbal, which I’m sure was an intentional choice to draw the comparison with Vader. But this falls short in terms of being a defining statement. Maul is just a flickery image on a hologram, introduced at the end of a meeting between Sidious and the Trade Federation, as a sort of vague threat. Maul steps into the holoimage when called by Sidious, but aside from his somewhat fearsome appearance – though, we don’t see the nice colouring that really marked him out – he’s a non-entity. We learn nothing about him here, in terms of genuine character, just that he is Sidious’ lackey. He doesn’t have a sense of authority, ruthlessness or contempt, he just looks tough. That’s not enough.
So, through the villains introduction, distinctness of physical form and defining statement to outline themselves and their motivations, we have the picture of an effective antagonist formed. But we do need something more from the early stages, that little extra kick to mark the villain out as the person they are in the story being told. And I mean that in a semi-literal way.