All good things must come to an end, and so must all bad things, and bad guys. Having gone through a wide variety of the things that make a villain, we must now turn to the end of the story, and go over how things finish out for the antagonist. Maybe they are killed, maybe they are just sent packing. Either way, they are finished. But it isn’t enough that the villain fall. There has to be more to it than that. And so:
Defeat – The manner of the adversary’s eventual defeat should be meaningful or ironic in some way.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule of story-telling I suppose, but it is something that I feels should always be present when we come to the end of the line for the villain. Having the antagonists’ final fate have some kind of deeper meaning beyond their defeat, or to have a certain amount of irony to it, is important when it comes to giving the story being told more weight, and to increase engagement with the audience.
The hero can always just turn around and shoot the villain dead, or arrange for the authorities to arrest them. But that doesn’t resonate with us. There should be more to it than that: an exploitation of a hitherto hidden weakness, a call back to an earlier conversation or line, or the hero finding something within themselves they didn’t have before, just when it seems that the villain is triumphant.
The meaning or irony can be found in the moment of final resolution, or it can be something that comes from the larger story as a whole. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with the villain really, it can be all about the hero, but there needs to be something spicy, weighty or otherwise memorable, about the villains final end.
The con-artist out to scam the old lady? Maybe the old lady turns the tables and ends up scamming the con-artist in some fashion. Or maybe the usually ice-cold detail focused con-artist is undone by a rare error in judgement. The supervillain out to take over the world? Maybe their superweapon backfires and kills them. Or maybe they pause just a little too long in gloating over the hero that they leave themselves vulnerable. The galactic emperor? Maybe his hitherto intensely loyal underling moves against him. Or maybe, at the height of his power, he is destroyed by the smallest of peons.
Let’s look at some examples.
Within the confines of A New Hope, Darth Vader’s final comeuppance is less to do with him in terms of meaning, than it is for Luke. Luke starts out the story as a somewhat isolated young men stuck on the moisture farm with his aunt and uncle. Over the course of the adventure he gains allies, and this process is completed with Han Solo and Chewbacca show up at the conclusion to clear the way for his final devastating shot to the Death Star. Vader is undone in the process, and Obi-Wan Kenobi slightly avenged. Irony is also just in the way that Vader, with his two wingmen, appears to be in complete control of the situation, and about to destroy Luke, but is then so intent on his prey that the usually prepared Dark Lord of the Sith is blindsided by the Millennium Falcon.
On the other hand, we have Maul in The Phantom Menace. Maul, being a fairly empty character, is hard to build meaning for. Obi-Wan cutting him in half avenges the recently slain Qui-Gon certainly, but as plenty of pointed out, the manner of his doing so is rather too violent, flying in the face of Jinn’s previous calm during the battle. It might have been more meaningful if the saga had made something of this going forward, but it doesn’t. There’s nothing ironic about Maul’s death either, unless we simply say that it’s a bit ironic that he let Obi-Wan kill him from the position the Jedi was in.
In Skyfall, Silva dies when Bond throws a knife into his back, just as Silva was seemingly about to shoot both himself and M. Meaning can be found in the fact that Bond and Silva are figurative brothers fighting over a figurative mothers love: here, at the end, the good son triumphs just as Mom was about to buy it. Bond also calls back suitably to the first conversation between himself and Silva, declaring himself to be the “last rat standing”. Irony might be found in how Silva’s incredible quest to wreck vengeance on M comes down to a joint suicide bid, and how this demented aim is undone by someone Silva wasn’t even aware of when he was trying to end things.
Compare then to Green in Quantum of Solace. Bond leaves him to die of dehydration in the Bolivian desert. There is irony aplenty in the specifics: Bond leaves Green with a bottle of motor oil as his only substance, when Green was attempting to previously buy the majority of Bolivia’s water supply. There is less serious meaning to it all, beyond another link in Bond’s vengeance chain. Green is just a nothing billionaire whose characterization veered alarmingly fast throughout the film. Killing him is like swatting a fly for Bond, and doing it in this manner is unusually torturous for 007.
Redemption is also a potent avenue for meaning in a villain’s finale. Take Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, wherein Alfred Molina’s Otto Octavius tries to create some kind of advanced fusion reactor, that spirals out of control and threatens to destroy New York City. In the finale Spider-Man is able to get through to a not all-that-well “Doc Ock” and break him from the influence of the nefarious contraption grafted to his spine, after which he sacrifices himself to drown his fiery creation. The meaning here is in Octavius reverting back to the good man he was before earlier events, and paying the ultimate price in doing so. He also ends up living up to his own stated creed from earlier in the film, where he expounded his belief that the intelligent and the gifted have a responsibility to improve the world.
Even otherwise not all that well-regarded superhero movies can still get this right. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever isn’t all that well remembered really, but both of its villains – Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face – both go out in meaningful or ironic circumstances. The Riddler’s brain is fried by his own diabolical mind-controlling creation, as he is in the process of answering one of Batman’s own riddles, a moment of both irony and meaning in how Batman takes back control of the situation, and uses the Riddler’s own characteristic against him. And in terms of irony, Two-Face is undone by his own psychological need to constantly flip a particular coin to make decisions, stumbling into an abyss when Batman flings a number of other coins towards him in the process.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the last two films that I have seen. A re-watch of The Force Awakens in preparation for The Last Jedi brings me to Kylo Ren. At the conclusion of the film, Kylo is decisively defeated by Rey, left scarred and beaten down in a lightsaber duel even as the planet they are standing on begins to crumble. Kylo, who I firmly believe is a Star Warsian manifestation of a certain kind of creeping attitude to be found in a large percentage of the online community, is a man all about projecting power and strength when he is really weak and easily led. He likes to showcase his skill in the force and his ability to threaten with Rey, but is then mortified and humiliated when she not only resists his insidious attempts to get inside her mind, but then escapes his clutches, and then defeats him at his own game. A mass chasm prevents their combat having a true finality, but the victor is undeniable. The meaning is in how it showcases the transfer of power from Kylo to Rey: the irony is that Ren isn’t anywhere near the force of nature he thought he was.
Then there is my viewing of James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. The film has no actual antagonist, save the main character himself, the infamous director/producer/writer of The Room Tommy Wiseau, played by Franco himself, who veers back and forth between being an almost charming man chasing an impossible dream, to being the worst kind of talentless auteur, dragging down everyone else around him. Insofar as part of Wiseau’s personality is the villain, the ending can be said to come at the premiere of The Room, when Tommy’s artistic vision is laid bare for everyone to see, and the result is a theatre of people laughing uproariously at the films incompetence. Tommy’s ogreish director side is vanquished when best friend Greg convinces him that the enjoyment people are getting out of the film is enough to have made the venture worthwhile: Tommy appears to relinquish any pretensions he has of being the next Hitchcock or Kubrick in this moment, and decides to just act as if The Room was always meant to be a comedy. The meaning is a clear moment of catharsis for the Tommy character, achieving his dream in a way that is of great satisfaction to more people than just himself: we can also find irony in how the creation of Tommy the ogre becoming a thing of good natured ridicule.
We’re almost at the end of this analysis. Next time, and lastly, we’ll look at the lasting consequences of antagonists’ actions.