In most kinds of stories, we know who the hero is. We know this because the hero is generally the main character, and is generally easy to spot relative to the bad guy. The hero is trying to stop nefarious things from happening because nefarious things are bad. In most stories – not all, but most – we have no problem thinking “Yes, this is the hero”. And the hero should have no problem thinking it too. They should absolutely be the kind of character that can say “I am on the side of good in this conflict”, whatever the conflict is.
But here’s the thing: every character, good, bad, indifferent, should be thinking the exact same thing. Indeed, I think it is more important for the villain to be of this line of thinking than the hero. And so:
Justification – The antagonist should believe that he/she is not the villain of the story.
Unless you’re dealing with the kind of villain who is clad in black armour, likes to eat babies and may or may not be a flaming eyeball on top of a tower – which does happen occasionally – it is important that the villain does not actually think they are the villain in the story. The antagonist should always be able, even if it’s in a shallow and unconvincing way, to justify what they are doing. Indeed, it can be vitally important to their character that their justification is shallow and unconvincing, because that can tell us something very important about them and their way of thinking.
Your low-scale villain, like the con-man trying to scam the old lady, might be thinking “Hey, the old lady is loaded, she’s not going to miss the cash. Plus I need it to pay for my medical bills/my daughters special school/my alimony for that bitch of an ex” etc etc. The guy trying to take over the world might well be thinking “The earths a mess, between overpopulation, democratic deficiencies, corruption, illness, etc. I’m the only one who can actually get it on the right path. If only everyone could see!”. And the planet-destroying galactic overlord might be thinking “Well, I had to blow up that planet, to send a message to everyone else. Now they won’t dare rise up against me, and I won’t have to blow up any more planets! It’s a win-win!”
A common thread through all of this is the much vaunted “greater good” sentiment, namely that a relatively small villainous act now will prevent worse villainy later, therefore the minor villainy is fine, maybe even heroic really. Whether the villain is aware of their hypocrisy – or hell, even if they are actually correct, though that is presumably all up to personal interpretation – it’s important that the justification be readily understandable by the audience, that we can imagine the antagonist firmly believing in their own moral righteousness. In that, it is important that the justification be connected to the motivation of the character, clearly and succinctly. You don’t blow up a planet just for the hell of it.
Let’s have a look at some examples then.
I’m going to break from my usual habit of opening with Darth Vader in A New Hope – his justification in that film alone is actually a bit murky really, as his efforts to track down the Death Star plans are to protect a WMD he openly derides in one scene – and instead look at Anakin Skywalker in Revenge Of The Sith. I consider Sith to be the weakest of the seven films by a wide margin, and Anakin’s justification for his murderous actions in the film are one of the reasons why. It isn’t just that the love plot between him and Padme is executed so badly – you could theoretically buy that a man in Anakin’s position would be pushed to make a deal with the devil to save the woman he loves and their unborn children – it’s that Anakin’s actions surrounding this fly in the face of logic. Anakin simply believes that Palpatine, of all people, is capable of saving Padme from death, and that his purge of the Jedi and destruction of the Republic is, in the face of all the people who have taught him and loved him thus far – like Obi-Wan and Padme – an acceptable price to pay. It might be a better justification if Sith did a better job of showcasing Anakin’s fragile mental state, but the film doesn’t do that, so instead Anakin comes off as a foolish gullible maniac, who thinks the creepy man in black who likes to murder his fellow Jedi is totally the guy to trust.
In comparison, let’s look at Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, and welcome to the series. Ren is very similar to Anakin in Sith – deliberately so, I would assume – but the execution of this character is so much better. Ren is following the dark side from a childish and immature need to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, and The Force Awakens does a much better job at making this clear to the audience, that Ren is emotionally stunted and a bit of a weakling in many respects, and the only way he can make-up for this is to act like Darth Vader. In a world where his parents are galactic saviours, he justifies himself by thinking this must be the only way to stand out, to reach back into the past to finish what Vader started, and that the continuation of this legacy is a justification in itself.
On the Bond side of things, let’s go back and look at Silva in Skyfall. His motivation is to kill M, and the justification, revealed past the half-way point, is that she left him for dead when she was previously a bureau chief, wherein he was captured and tortured by the Chinese, left physically and mentally broken. While Bond villains, especially in the more recent films, always tend to have “REVENGE” in big letters as their justification, Silva’s works rather well, if only on a primal, visceral level. Once we see the scars that he received, we totally buy both his general instability and how he feels that killing M is the only thing worth anything in his life anymore. The haze of insanity that covers what he does is not all encompassing.
Then look at Greene in Quantum Of Solace. What is his motivation? To grab some land in Bolivia that will give him control of the country’s water supplies. His justification? …Power? Greed? A general assholishness? I think, especially in a Bond villain, you need a little bit more than that. Greene is essentially evil-Bill Gates in many ways, and doing all of the things that he does – murder, mayhem, political coups – needs a bit more than the almighty dollar to work in a franchise like this. At the end of the story, Greene is going hand-to-hand with James Bond for God’s sake: why!? The film fails to adequality tell you this, and so the villain is a failure.
The Dark Knight’s Joker is, as always, an interesting case, wherein his justification is deliberately clouded by his dialogue and actions. The Joker wants to sow chaos and make everyone else as ugly as he is, outside and in, but why does he want to do this? There is a quiet but irrepressible anger inside the Joker character, which is understandable if one or any of his proposed origins is true, and I think that Joker’s justification for his actions stems directly from that: the fickle hand of fate – or chaos – picked him out for suffering, so why should everyone else get of scot free? To take some ideas from an inspiration for The Dark Knight’s version of the character, the Joker sees himself as the only one who truly gets the world, with all of its pain, misery and façade of civilization, and feels a need to wake people up to their own hypocrisy, insofar as they fail, wilfully or not, to see things from his point of view. In other words, the world is a bad joke, and the Joker justifies himself by insisting that he can’t be the only person made to laugh at it. That comes through in The Dark Knight, without ever being said explicitly.
Let’s take a bit of a swerve and look at a more intangible concept, within another Christopher Nolan film. Inception doesn’t really have an all-out villain, just “the Shade”, the subconscious remnant of Mal Cobb, that remains inside Dom’s head and haunts his efforts to continue extracting, and later incepting. The Shade is a villain all of its own though, with motivations and justifications for its actions, it’s just you have to remember that it’s really Dom, or just a part of him. The Shade wants Dom to come back to Limbo and live there with his wife, as he did for decades in the dreamworld, justifying itself by insisting that it is what Dom has always wanted – partially true – and that Dom needs to atone for his “betrayal”, when he incepted his own wife. Further, there is still an element, ever-present, that the Shade is carrying on the real Mal’s suicidal mission, to convince Dom that what he thinks is the “real” world is, in fact, a dream: and it may not actually be wrong. The Shade’s actions tie into the higher metaphysical point of Dom’s journey, to accept that he is responsible for his wife’s death, and to be capable of moving past the guilt, lest it destroy him from the inside.
Two of the more recent films that I have seen provide a decent contrast on this score. Take Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, and the character of Ego. I liked Ego’s motivation – using the power of his offspring to essentially remake half the universe – but the justification for it was weak, to the point of almost being non-existent. When queried as to why he feels to need to undertake the “Expansion” he remarks merely that, on his previous travels throughout the universe he was “disappointed” with the life that he found. Ego never says why he was disappointed, what is was exactly that he was looking for and what he is planning to do once his “Expansion” begins, but this is what it comes down to: he’s disappointed, he’s a God, lets do this. You need more than that.
And it doesn’t have to be especially detailed or intricate to work, as we can see with Ares in the very recent Wonder Woman, a similar villain but much better executed. Ares operates on a fairly boiler-plate Paradise Lost analogy, having grown jealous and resentful of humanity and the love that they received from Zeus, which prompts him to rebel, which leads to his failure and exile, which leads to ever greater resentment towards humanity. Nothing too inventive here, but it works because it’s understandable, it ties into Ares’ motivation (causing humanity’s destruction through more destructive weaponry) and it taps into a basic emotion like jealously (whereas Ego’s was comparatively difficult to get engaged with: boredom). We don’t have to side with Ares to believe that he could easily be jealous of the love, affection and preference that his elders gave to humanity, and we don’t have to disbelieve him when he says that his plan is to return the earth to an Eden-like state one humanity is gone. For Ares, the greater good sentiment is alive and kicking, and it works in Wonder Woman without the antagonist ever really threatening to become iconic.
So that’s justification, and the end of us covering the villains’ character. But we’re only halfway there. Now we have to look at the villain a little bit closer, at actions and traits, to really get into the nitty-gritty of what makes them effective, and what doesn’t. The very first thing on that score, will be, in the eyes of the audience, the strength of the villain’s capability.