In establishing what our villain wants and how they will go about getting it, the story we are experiencing we hopefully do one other thing of immense importance. All going well, it will establish the critical element of risk:
Risk – The antagonist should have something to lose in the course of trying to achieve their goal/motivation.
Risk is all-important for all characters because it can do more than anything else to make a viewer engaged in what is happening. If there’s nothing to lose for a particular character, be they hero or villain, you can’t say that what they are going through is all that interesting. You can have the most clearly defined goal/motivation that you like, but if the character with that goal/motivation has nothing to risk in trying to obtain/fulfill it, you are wasting your time, because why should I care?
The important thing I want to make clear about this, is that when I talk about risk and villains, I’m talking about a risk that the villain is consciously taking. That is, on whatever scheme or plan they are embarking on, they know what kind of stakes they are playing for. In the course of the story that kind of risk may evolve and change, but in terms of defining an antagonist character well, I’m talking just about what they are voluntarily risking.
The most obvious kind of risk is physical. In the course of trying to achieve their goals or fulfill their motivation, the villain may risk physical harm and even death. Indeed, in most of the films I’ve been using as examples, this is an ever-present thing, just as it is for the heroes, which is why I differentiate between conscious risk and unintentional risk. There are shades to this, and often it is fair to say that the risk of physical harm is an extension to a different kind of risk (more in a second) but it does tend to always be there in some form. You can’t amass a criminal empire, seek vengeance on the hero or try to take over the world without putting yourself in harms way occasionally after all. The important thing is that it be mixed with something else, as physical risk alone is generally not enough to craft a good villain. Your action or adventure movies will often have villains showcasing this kind of risk primarily.
The other more prevalent kind of risk is what I would call “Positional Risk”, which would be a sort of amalgamation of political and financial risk, wherein the villain is risking a loss of status, of power, of ability to influence and such. This often goes hand in hand with physical risk without having its finality, and it’s perfectly fine to mix and match. Political and crime dramas will often focus on this.
Lastly, there is emotional risk, wherein what is at stake is, for example, the avoidance of humiliation or something to that effect which again, can often be tied into positional risk and to a lesser extent physical risk. Comedic villains and kids show bad guys will often settle for this alone, but it can be used to great effect in more serious villains, especially those that are meant to be engendering sympathy from the audience to some degree, or at least be a bit compelling.
This is all tied to the magnitude of the villain’s goal of course, which must be connected intrinsically to the risk involved. The con-artist trying to scam the old lady can be said to be risking his freedom and financial future (positional risk) but is unlikely to risk his life (though it could happen inadvertently). The supervillain trying to take over the world on the other hand knows he’s risking physical harm and positional damage if he is thwarted, but probably won’t care as much about the emotional side of things. Plenty of villains will have just one of these categories of risk, and the very best of them will have all three in the right amount.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Darth Vader mixes physical risk well with positional risk in A New Hope. In so far as he puts himself in the firing line three times in the movie – boarding the Tantive IV, the lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi and then in fighter battle over the Death Star trench – the physical danger to Vader is real, and he openly accepts that this is part of his role. But the real risk to Vader is positional: his goal is to get back the Death Star plans to stop any danger to the station, and thus to the Empire that he is a high-ranking member of, a position worth protecting. In the course of the saga Star Wars will add emotional risk to Vader’s character in the form of his internal battle between light and dark, and in the risk to a family member, but by then Vader is no longer the villain of the story: the Emperor, who stands to lose physically and positionally, is.
On the other hand, Darth Maul is obviously risking himself physically in The Phantom Menace, but not much else besides. In a positional sense, he’s risking his status as being Sidious’ apprentice, but this goes hand-in-hand with the physical risk to the extent that they are indistinguishable. There is no emotion to the character, so there is no emotional risk. As a result, we’re less engaged with Maul than we could ever be with Vadar.
A good cross-body of the three risks in the superhero genre is Loki in Thor. He risks himself physically throughout the story, in his joining of the attack on Johtunheim and later in his fight with his brother. His primary risk is positional, as the scheme he has crafted is to get himself on the throne of Asgard and to solidify Asgard’s dominant role in the nine realms, and if he gets found out, he stands to lose his freedom if not his life. And there is also a big emotional risk that Loki is making as-well, as he stands to lose the love and respect of the parents that he seems to genuinely care for (the sequel making that clear) as well as that of his brother (a less important concern).
The Dark Knight’s Joker is an interesting case on this score also. There is physical risk insofar as the Joker is deeply emmeshed in the dangerous world of Gotham’s criminal gangs, and later he’s going toe-to-toe with the Batman. But in another sense, the physical risk is actually minimal to the Joker, because he doesn’t seem to care about pain or even death, gleefully laughing when Batman is beating him half to death in the interrogation room. Later, in his final confrontation with Batman, the Joker mocks the idea of his plans being undone when the physical risk becomes manifest: “Did you really think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?”. For the Joker, it’s all about the positional, and to a lesser extent emotional risk, really, as the crux of The Dark Knight is that battle for Gotham, a philosophical war that the Joker loses when the people on the boats choose not to blow each other up. Joker risk his ability to influence and terrorize, and the conclusion shows that his ability to do this has its limits. And he risks finding out that not everybody is as ugly as he is, which turns out to be true.
A quick detour into the world of fantasy will bring us to The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, where the primary villain is Saruman. The Lord Of The Rings has a bit of a villain problem itself in many ways, and Saruman in the middle installment in part of that. The physical is only sort of half-there: the White Wizard stays locked up safely in his towner throughout the proceedings, and is never in direct physical danger, even when the Ents are over-running Isengard. The positional risk is much clearer, though Saruman is never seen as acknowledging its potential existence, even when he sends his entire army out to crush Rohan leaving Isengard undefended. The emotional stakes are comparatively lacking for Saruman, who does have a back-and-forth with Gandalf that might cover this, but which only happens onscreen in the first and third installments (and only in the extended edition in the latter).
Let’s look at a slightly more ridiculous villain next: Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, the human embodiment of the Soviet Union in what was little less than a Cold War propaganda picture. Drago risks physical pain and even death in the ring, though he is more likely to dish it out really. Beyond that, things get progressively more sketchy: there’s a positional risk in Drago’s matches against Apollo Creed and then Rocky, insofar as Drago’s privileged position as one of the USSR’s top athletes will be in jeopardy if he loses. But there’s very little emotional risk at the end of the day, as Drago remains, by and large, an expressionless mask of a character, not unlike Maul.
As a change of pace, let’s look at a different villain that I thought was quite good even if the film as over-rated. FitzGerald in The Revenant manages to hit all of the three risk elements fairly well. Throughout the film, he’s putting himself at physical risk, in the wilderness, at the hands of Native Americans and then when being hunted down by Glass. He’s at positional risk throughout as well, as his entire livelihood is based on getting the pelts back for profit, and if his ruse in leaving Glass for dead is discovered he will likely be arrested (at the very least). And there is a certain, subtle, emotional risk as well: FitzGerald’s entire mental state hinges on a hatred for Glass and his “half-breed” son, and he is at risk of an emotional disintegration as the narrative proceeds and his position becomes increasingly untenable.
I’d also like to talk about the last villain I watched in something which was in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Spoilers ahead. The villain of this piece is initially made out to be a Golden Space Queen of a people called the Sovereign, but that turns out to be a bit of a swerve ahead of the revealing of the real villain, which isn’t exactly made clear until well past the half-way point. It turns out that the real antagonist of the film, on a “Galaxy in peril” scale, is Kurt Russell’s Ego, a “celestial” who wants to, essentially, remake the galaxy as he sees fit, and needs the quasi-celestial power in his son, Peter “Starlord” Quill, to do it. The risk involved is multi-faceted. There’s a physical risk insofar as the beating heart of Ego, his “light” at the centre of the planet that truly represents him, is nearby, a MacGuffin that if blown up kills Ego. There’s a positional risk, insofar as Ego’s desire to remake the universe, with himself at the centre, is at risk if his plan goes south. And there’s an emotional risk, as Ego risks alienating the son he has just discovered, by revealing the depth of his ambitions and having Quill reject them. Ego ends up losing on all counts.
So, risk is an easy thing to introduce, but a hard thing to perfect. The next entry will be discussing a much more important issue related to characterisation, wherein the audience opinion of the antagonist character will be sorely tested: consistency.