Over our last few entries we have explored the nature of the villains relationship with the hero, but now, as we enter the final stretch of our analysis, we must turn back to the villain’s path specifically. To be even more exact, we must look at the later stages of a villain’s journey and their existence, and how their impact on the story being told grows. Thusly:
Escalation – The bad guy should, at some point in the story, escalate their efforts and activities to a higher and more dangerous point than they were before.
We should all know what I mean by this, but I’ll go into a bit more detail regardless. You can’t have a central antagonist who just does the same thing at the same level the entire narrative long. It’s boring and would get stale fast. If the villain doesn’t evolve their methods, expand their capability to make themselves a more credible threat, then what exactly is the point of having a central antagonist at all?
The escalated activity of the villain is always relative to what they were doing in the first place. To get to the point of escalation, there has to be a baseline of villainy. To take our three stock examples, the con-man, the supervillain and the galactic overlord, they all have things they would do at the start of the story to demonstrate that they are the antagonists, as discussed in our “Kick The Dog” entry. But, at some point in their respective stories, they need to up the ante, go beyond what they were doing before, and establish not only that they are a threat, but that they are a growing threat.
The con-man might start out cheating the sweet old lady out of her life savings, but later he might try and kill her as part of a twisted insurance scam. The supervillain might kill an underling or two, but later he might try and take over the entire west coast. The galactic overlord might blow up a rebel spaceship to start things off, but it won’t be all that long before he’s blowing up planets. Regardless of the villain and regardless of their individual elements, there should always be a point when they are operating above and beyond where they were operating previously.
All that being said, it is important that there is still a line between point A and point B, a logical chain wherein we can understand why the villain is suddenly upping the stakes in the manner that they are. Random acts of greater violence or aimless grabs at power for no good reason tend to leave an audience feeling flat: going back to my thoughts on consistency, the escalation has to make sense for the character undertaking it.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Rather than start out with Star Wars like I usually do, I thought instead we might look at a very direct example of escalation in practice, through the Joker of The Dark Knight. One of the underlying themes of that whole trilogy is escalation, as discussed by Gordon at the concluding of Batman Begins: criminals react to everything the police do in terms of the war on crime, now what’s going to happen once the crimefighters are wearing masks and leaping off rooftops? The Joker encapsulates the answer to that question, a deranged man wearing his own kind of mask, and no longer playing by the rules of society like others. Even within the confines of The Dark Knight itself, there is a sense of escalation in the Joker’s activities, as he moves from robbing mafia owned banks to assassinations to bombings to holding an entire city hostage as part of his insane parlour games. One of the points of that film is how dismissive the authorities are of the Joker initially, so obsessed as they are with dealing with organized crime; but once the escalation occurs, the mob are secondary problems. And there is a consistency to the escalation, indeed, part of the genius of the Joker is that every act, from A to B, is part of his larger, demented, goal of vying for the “soul of Gotham”.
To take a look at a negative example, albeit one where the problem is more to do with editing and pacing, let’s consider Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, and its version of Victor von Doom. Following the inciting incident of the plot – the main characters’ exposure to the elements of “Planet Zero” – von Doom vanishes from the screen for the majority of the second act, only really coming back into play as an important narrative tentpole late-on, as he returns from the other dimension, wreaks havoc in the medical base, and then decides he’s going to destroy the world to save his adopted one. Or something. There is an escalation there – of sorts – but it’s done so quickly and with such little regard for how such a story is traditionally structured, that it’s impossible for von Doom’s megalomania to really resonate with the audience. Which is a shame, as the sequence wherein von Doom flexes his powers and runs amok is probably the films best in terms of visuals and tone, but it doesn’t have sufficient set-up to act as either an effective act of antagonism or escalation.
OK, how about Star Wars then? Darth Vader escalates things a bit in the course of A New Hope, insofar as he is involved in the decision to blow-up Alderaan (though it’s really Grand Moff Tarkin that’s responsible for that), but apart from this, you can say that Vader’s actions in the course of the film generally become a bit more cruel and devious as things progress. When we first see him he is uncaring about the fates of his men and chokes a rebel to death out of anger; later, he tortures Leia for information, kills Obi-Wan without much care and then tracks the Millennium Falcon back to the rebel base on Yavin IV, a rebel base he has no problem with wiping out. So, insofar as Vader becomes a more intelligent seeming and capable villain as the film progresses, we can say there is an escalation in his actions.
On the opposite side of the coin is Maul of course, a character who doesn’t really escalate anything in the course of his film. The first time he interacts with the protagonist characters he tries to kill them: the next, and last, time he interacts with the protagonist characters he tries to kill them, only he’s taking on two at a time the second time. In terms of his general plan of action, nothing really changes: his initial goal is to find and capture Princess Amidala, and his methods of going about this don’t really change. He’s just an obstacle whose idea of escalating his threat is to turn on the other side of his lightsaber.
Let’s look at contrasting examples from the MCU. In Thor, our villain Loki starts out just trying to destabilise things in Asgard and ruining his brothers big coronation day, but then later escalates things by actively trying to murder his brother. In Thor: The Dark World, Malekith, an otherwise rather rubbish villain, has an initial goal of dicking over Asgard and wrecking the place in a surprise attack in order to get the Aether, but then later, in the final act, he’s essentially trying to destroy the universe. Then there’s Hela from the recent Thor: Ragnarok. Hela comes back from wherever she was imprisoned with the goal of taking over Asgard, which she subsequently does with relative ease. And then she wants control of the Bifrost in order to launch a campaign to take over the universe, and stopping her from achieving this control is the crux of the remaining Asgard-based plot. Nothing flashy or overly-detailed, but it all works well enough (other aspects of these characters do not however).
Since I’m replaying it recently, how about we once again talk about Dr Wallace Breen from Half-Life 2? Breen is only met in person at the conclusion of the story, and up to then the players only interactions with him are the so-called “Breencasts”. Therefore, any narrative path for the character, up to and including escalation, can only be judged through these, and a few other elements. Throughout the beginning and middle sections of the story, Breen and the Combine pursue Freeman, and any messages Breen has on the topic are addressed to society at large, and not to Gordon himself, or to the Combine forces. But, in the chapter “Nova Prospekt”, which forms part of the second-to-third act shift, there is a noticeable change in Breen’s demeanour when he gets on the mic, now to upbraid his soldiers for failing to capture Gordon, and to start using increasingly desperate rhetoric warning that continued failure may well result in humanity’s extinction. While it may be a stretch to call this escalation – the larger escalation of the rebellion against the Combine may suffice – it is still a moment when the villain starts acting differently, threatening more, and generally can be perceived as losing control of the larger situation, a state of affairs caused by the players actions.
How about something a little more child-friendly? Well, sort of. The Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella – and we’re talking the Kenneth Branagh version here – starts out as someone just trying to take over the household of Ella after her father’s death, treating Ella like garbage and letting her own daughters run amok. Once the possibility of getting her family into royal circles pops up, she changes her modus operandi when it comes to Ella, going so far as to lock her up in the attic so that she can’t escape the house. In a sense, this doesn’t really amount to much, but relatively speaking it’s a big step-up from the casual cruelty of earlier in the film.
Lastly, the villain in the last film I watched, the excellent Paddington 2, featuring a great turn from Hugh Grant as ego-driven actor Phoenix Buchanan. Buchanan’s goal is to follow a pop-up book treasure map by breaking into a slew of London landmarks, in the process of which he gets the title character falsely accused and sent to prison. I wouldn’t say that there is a great deal of escalation in terms of the Buchanan’s character – his goals and method stay consistently at a similar level throughout – but I suppose we can say there should be an exception for comedy villains, required more to make us laugh harder as the story goes, rather than make themselves seem more threatening.
We’ve covered a lot of territory in this series, but in our final two entries, we have to start moving towards finality. Next time, we’ll look at the villain’s end.