And we’re back after a bit of a hiatus. In the last entry, I discussed the importance of an antagonists capability, that they have the means, in whatever format, to turn their goals into reality and to threaten the hero in some capacity. Capability goes hand-in-hand with the focus of today’s entry, because it doesn’t matter if you have all of the capability in the world, if you have no credibility. Capability is having a loaded gun; credibility is the audience believing that you’ll pull the trigger.
How does one best showcase credibility then? We’ve discussed defining statements and “Kick The Dog” already, and these are good moments to start instilling the credibility of the villain in terms of the nefarious actions they will undertake, but it goes beyond that. Consistency, also previously discussed, is important too. But credibility goes beyond that. From start to finish, the audience has to believe that the villain is a threat, and that they are going to do everything that they set out to do, if given the chance.
In my eyes, credibility is a mixture of goal and action. Making a bad guy credible involves clearly showing their goal/motivation and then marrying that to what the villain actually does to reach that target. To focus on a particular section of the narrative, when we reach the culminating point of the plot, the moment when the villain is at his/her closest to victory, we have to fully believe that the antagonist is going to follow through. We do this by comparing the finale action to previous moments in the narrative and evaluating their relative believability. When the con-man gets close to scamming the old lady, we might believe he is credible because we’ve seen every section of the scam up to that point. When the maniacal supervillain gets close to taking over the world, we must have seen their efforts to build their superweapon and moral compromises along the way. When the Galactic overlord moves to blow up a planet, we should have no problem believing in his ability to do so, based on said galactic overlording.
It’s best I think that we look at a few examples of what I mean, so let’s jump right into it.
At the end of A New Hope, Darth Vader has taken the lead in exterminating the Rebel Alliance forces attacking the Death Star, in his own personal TIE fighter. In the climactic moments of the narrative, he’s closing in on Luke as Luke skims towards the exhaust port. At this point, we have to buy into Vader’s credibility in terms of his willingness to pull the trigger on Luke. And, realistically speaking, we have no problem doing that. At every turn, we have seen Vader’s ruthlessness in pursuing his goals and his willingness to expend lives in the process. Only a few moments before, he takes Biggs Darklighter out without a second thought. Vader, through is piloting skill, mastery of the force, and general amoralness, is a very credible threat to Luke at this moment.
Then, take Darth Maul. At the end of The Phantom Menace, he faces off against Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the depths of the Theed Palace. This confrontation’s emotional stakes bank considerably on Maul’s credibility with the audience, in terms of whether he has it in him to slice and dice the two Jedi apart. Generally speaking, Maul passes this test, albeit without the flying colours of Vader. Maul is the designated bad guy by his appearance and demeanour, and as an acknowledged Sith the larger canon is just about enough to mark him a credible threat. More than that, we have seen him take a few swings at Qui-Gon already, and he was also happy to run over a small child in the process. On a purely physical threat level, Maul has plenty of credibility.
Into the realms of the MCU then. Going back to the first Iron Man, we have Obadiah “Ironmonger” Stane, whose erratic behaviour in the last act of that film is something that I have gone over already. In the finale itself, Stane dons a huge suit of power armour and takes on Tony Stark in a fight that goes from Stark Industries, to a freeway and back again. The problem here is that, while Stane has been portrayed as ruthless in a detached “get other people to do the dirty work for me” kind of way, we have had no indications about either his own ability to pilot such a suit of armour, or to actually start firing missiles willy-nilly all over the place. His credibility as a threat takes a hit as a result, not because he isn’t shown as credible in his actions, but because the requisite set-up has not been done before hand. I’ve said before that the finale of Iron Man basically only makes sense if Stane is legitimately crazy, but even that wouldn’t explain why he is able to pilot tis massive mech-suit perfectly.
In comparison, consider Loki in The Avengers, specifically a moment in the final battle when he squares off with his foster-brother Thor on the top of Stark Tower. The moment is yet another opportunity for Thor to try and talk Loki down from the path of warfare and destruction that he is engaged on, and Loki, at first, appears to be convincable. But then, when Thor lets his guard down, Loki strikes to kill. This moment tests our belief in Loki’s credibility, but he still passes, as The Avengers has already shown him as extremely duplicitous, uncaring about his sibling’s fate (he dropped him out of a flying aircraft carrier) and completely obsessed with his grand future as a warlord of Earth. Stabbing Thor in the back is small potatoes really, and we should have no problem buying that Loki would be credibly capable of doing so.
Going back to James Bond villains, let’s look at Silva in Skyfall. His final action is to threaten to kill Judi Dench’s M while shooting himself in the process, a rather insane action. The tension in the scene lies in both the audiences expectation that James Bond will come in and save the day, and in whether or not we truly believe that Silva is going to pull the trigger, ending his life as he ends M. That means, in a weird sense, his insanity has to be credible, and I think that Skyfall does a good job of showing that it is. From the moment we first meet him, we are shown that Silva has a penchant for power plays and demented parlour games, of being in control all the way to the end of his perfect plans. What better example of this then ending his own life while taking that of the subject of his rage? When Silva outs his head to M’s and the gun to his temple, we fully believe that he is going to do what he is threatening to do.
Then there is Greene from Quantum of Solace, my favourite EON Productions punching bag. At the conclusion of the film, we find Greene engaging Bond hand-to-hand for some godforsaken reason, all while a burning hotel collapses around him. The issue here is not so much “Is Greene a credible threat to Bond physically?” because we know he isn’t, laughably so. The issue is whether his behaviour is credible. Now, we know from the course of the film that Greene is a little crazy, maybe even psychopathic. But at no point have we been given any indication that he is capable of this kind of attempted violence. There’s no credibility here: it just seems like the writers suddenly decided “Wait, Bond has to fight someone at the end”, and rather than set that character up as being both physically capable and narratively credible, they did neither.
Let’s finish by looking at a couple of examples from films I’ve watched recently. In Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, the primary villain is eventually, in a long-winded way, revealed to be, SPOILERS, Commander Arun Filitt (what a name), played by Clive Owens. Unfortunately, Filitt is a bit of a lame-duck. His involvement in proceedings is limited, his villainy is almost entirely through flashbacks, etc. At the climax of the film, his robotic guards are engaged in a firefight with the good guys, and in terms of his credibility in sicking them on the heroes, his “Greater Good” shtick that he espouses earlier in the film sort of covers it. What it doesn’t is his own personal role in the finale, which is getting punched repeatedly by Laureline while he lays prone in a space ship. While an indirect physical threat, Filitt has little credibility in himself, and in combination with other problems with his role in the narrative, this makes him a weak antagonist.
Lastly, let’s talk about my inevitable film of the year, maybe decade, maybe ever: Dunkirk. Dunkirk, of course, doesn’t have a singular villain. The Germans, or rather, the “enemy” are seen only in the form of airplanes, artillery strikes and torpedoes. This kind of intangible threat is easily credible as a villain, as they are killing British soldiers from almost the first minute of the film to the last. But, in truth, the “enemy” isn’t the real antagonist of Dunkirk. In my view, the real villain is a different intangible concept, that is, humanity’s capacity for moral compromise in the face of imminent destruction. There are a lot of choices: letting a boat full of wounded sink so it doesn’t block up a dock, having to decide whether to defend helpless sailors or fly home due to your decreasing fuel, making a judgement call on an erratic and violent shipwreck or just deciding whether the life of a non-British ally is worth the same as your fellow soldiers. It’s hard to apply the concept of credibility to such an idea, at least in some ways. But Dunkirk is very careful to showcase mankind’s capacity for inhumanity early on, so by the end the idea of soldiers turning on fellow soldiers just to survive is no longer the kind of thing that we might struggle to believe.
So, that’s credibility. Next, we must turn to something that may, at first, seem strange, even counter-productive, when it comes to the idea of a villain. We must discuss sympathy for the devil: the idea that a bad guy can garner our own sympathy in the course of their actions.