We have established our villain, we have given him some character, now we need to start looking at what makes them loom large over the audience, in terms of the power or abilities they have, their willingness to use these things, and how they reflect in the eyes of those experiencing the story. First, we need to look at the very simple concept of capability:
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.
More dirt simple, almost obvious stuff here if I’m being honest, but still easily messed up. The antagonist character has to be capable of exerting influence over the hero and the story, capable of carrying out their goals, capable of being a threat. This goes hand-in-hand with credibility – the next entry – but for the moment I’m just going to focus on the possessing of this capability, the different kinds, and how important it is that we understand that the villain has it.
Capability can be mental, material or physical, but it has to be present. Whatever the villain wants, it’s no good if he/she isn’t capable of getting it, or capable of finding additional capability. The con-man has to be somewhat of a smooth-talker if they are going to cheat the old lady out of her savings. The villain trying to take over the world has to have access to lots of resources, maybe a doomsday weapon or two. And the planet-destroying galaxy-conqueror presumably has to have access to something that can destroy a planet.
Take that away from them and they are nothing; a con-man who stumbles over his words and can’t lie his/her way out of a paper bag isn’t an effective antagonist. A villain trying to take over the world without a penny to his/her name isn’t an effective antagonist. An overlord trying to destroy a planet by chucking a few missiles at it from orbit isn’t an effective antagonist.
Good portrayal of capability is simply done: we have to see, early, but not necessarily very early, what power or resources the villain controls, in a demonstrable fashion. It’s the same whether the capability is physical, material or mental. It doesn’t have to spelt out at all – seeing the evil overlord with legions of troops massing behind him is enough to let us know that he controls armies for example – but it just has to be done in such a fashion that it doesn’t come as a huge shock later, when the evil overlord suddenly sends his legions into battle.
Let’s look at some examples:
Vader’s capability is manifest right from the off. In the opening scene he’s clearly in command of vast resources, in the form of spaceships and soldiers, that attack and kill on his command. Physically, he’s very quickly lifting rebel soldiers up and throwing them around in his second scene. His intellectual capability comes to the fore later, in his expanded efforts to hunt down the Death Star plans. The point is made quickly, and largely wordlessly, that Vader has differing kinds of capability, and that this is more than enough to lead him to the fulfilment of his goals.
Maul too is capable in his own way, even if his flaws as an antagonist are manifest in other departments. His goal is to track down the Naboo Queen and defeat the Jedi guarding her, and he does the first part with nary a problem, and is clearly physically capable of going toe-to-toe with Jedi where it counts. So, there is clearly at least a little bit of mental and physical capability there. Materially is where Maul suffers, despite the fact that he is the right-hand man of Darth Sidious/Palpatine, as he sent after the Queen and the Jedi alone, for some reason, so there is only so much of a threat that he should be considered capable of being.
Bond villains tend to be a mix of physically, materially and mentally capable, insofar as they can face up to the hero in a fight, have the resources to back up their plans, and can generally outwit the hero too. Silva in Skyfall is, yet again, another good example of this in action. Long before we actually meet him, his intellect and material capability have been exemplified, in his attack on MI6 and general strong-pulling, and towards the latter half of the film his physical capability also becomes apparent as the bullets start flying.
On the other end of the scale, the likes of Dominic Greene succeed in some areas, but not in others. Greene obviously has material capability owing to his part in the criminal Quantum organisation, and in the goons he controls, and the film tries to showcase him as having a mental advantage, though that really only extends to outsmarting other bad guys, and not the hero himself. Physically, as previously mentioned, Greene falls down, lacking the kind of action-villain prowess that Bond films generally require, as becomes obvious by the time we get to the last act of Quantum of Solace.
On the comic book side of things, we can look as far, again, to The Dark Knight’s Joker, whose mental capability is obvious in his intricate plans and organised chaos, and who also manages to mass material capability through the course of the story. But The Dark Knight also goes one better in flipping Joker’s apparent lack of physical capability into a positive character trait, having the Joker acknowledge and be aware of the physical limitations, and be capable of working around them: “Did you really think I would risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?”. As such, the Joker’s lack of physical capability thus leads to an increased respect for his mental and material capability.
The last comic book film I re-watched, Marvel’s Ant-Man, has plenty of problems with Darren “Yellowjacket” Cross. Unlike the Joker, Cross’s lack of one kind of capability is not made up for in another department. Materially and even physically Cross is a threat, but it’s the intellectual side of things wherein the problem lies, as the film struggles to showcase him as having any kind of mental parity with the heroes. A damp squib of a revelation that Cross is onto the heroes’ heist plot all along comes way too late and somewhat out of left-field, and feels forced in comparison to the more subtle and patient attempt with the Joker.
We’ll look to animation for my last two examples. Gaston in Beauty And The Beast is all about the physical, and in contrast to my comic book examples this sort of works, as the whole point is that Gaston has no kind of mental capability beyond ignorant rage, and the character is defined by this. His physical capability, alongside his ability to whip crowds into a frenzy when it counts, is what he is all about in terms of threat. Beauty And The Beast doesn’t try and showcase Gaston as smart, not from the start, and not late-on in an attempt to make him seem like a more capable character. It trusts that physical is the way to go, and its right.
Lastly, the perfect example of a villain whose capability makes him utterly wimpish: South Park’s Professor Chaos, a deliberately incapable character created for comedic purposes. The deranged side-personality of Butters Stotch, Professor Chaos boats about his plans to destroy the world and bring humanity to its knees, but he has neither the physical, material or mental capability of doing it, as demonstrated vividly when his efforts to flood the world amount to turning on his backyard tap and letting it run. Poor Butters, I mean Professor Chaos, lacks the intelligence to recognise his limitations, the physical power to do anything other than talk, and the material advantages needs to be a threat to the world. But, he still works, because the purpose of the character is to make you laugh.
So that’s capability, but as stated, this goes hand-in-hand with the focus of our next entry, namely credibility.
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