Monday, 1 October 2012

The Basics: The Villain

Most stories need a villain, someone to be the counterpoint to the hero, whose plots, plans, schemes, and stratagems keep the plot moving.  Sometimes the villain, if done well, is more interesting than the hero because of the audience's fascination with understanding his motivations.

Of course not all villains are well done, in fact, far too many villains are really badly done. The writers are just too lazy to do the work and instead just dip into a chum-bucket of hackneyed cliches, creating villains that are uninteresting and un-entertaining.

So it's time for a little refresher course on the basics of movie villainy. What to avoid, and what to use.

First, what to avoid:

Here are the 3 most common cliches that lazy Hollywood hacks love to use, either alone, or in combination, when it comes to whipping up instant, and boring, villains:

THE GREEDY BUSINESSMAN: This type goes back to the silent era. In those days he wore a top hat and twirled his waxed mustaches as he hatched his evil scheme to drive the widows and orphans from his homes so he could build a railroad/drill for oil/or cut down a forest.

Over the years he evolved into the oppress "mega-corporation" who do evil for profit, though the writers never seem to have figured out exactly HOW this corporation will profit from their evil.

A classic example can be found in the Resident Evil movie series. The main premise of the series is that the evil Umbrella Corporation has created a virus that turns people into flesh eating zombies. Now the people running the Umbrella Corporation insist that they will somehow profit from the zombie plague, even though their virus has destroyed civilization, and forced the heads of the company to hide in bunkers from their undead creations protected by armies of expensively equipped and fanatically loyal guards.

It doesn't make an ounce of sense from a profit/loss perspective, because it's almost entirely loss. What's the point of being king when you're king of the shit-heap and the shit will eat your skin if you step outside a bunker with stale air and dwindling supplies.

What keeps the franchise going is the fact that teenage boys don't watch those movies for the quality of the villains, but to see Milla Jovovich in painted on outfits blasting gory zombies and monsters 3D. So the people behind it feel they can afford to be lazy hacks.

THE MAD MILITARIST: This the guy with the buzz-cut, the southern accent, who talks entirely in cliches about patriotism, America, and how those who disagree with him are all stinky commies, and that everything they do, no matter how destructive to the country is for the best. Now this person doesn't have to be in the military, but it helps. 

The best example is General "Thunderbolt" Ross in the Hulk movies. He's convinced that he can capture the Hulk and use the science behind it to create a great and glorious army of Hulks.

No real military-man wants to create an army of Hulks, because the essence of the Hulk is that it has little or no self-control. A weapon without control isn't a weapon, it's a problem.

Ross' motivations would have been a lot more believable if he sought to destroy the Hulk because the Hulk itself is a threat to national security.

THE CRAZY CHRISTIAN: This is the person who uses their religious beliefs, almost always Christian if it's a Hollywood movie, to justify their villainy. This ranges from party poopers denying high school kids their right to have a dance, to psycho serial killers slaughtering innocent people because they think god somehow demands blood sacrifices.

This is borne from Hollywood's isolation from the rest of the world, and that the only Christians they hear of are the screaming nut-sacs of the Westborough Baptist Church, or some League of Righteous Letter Writers, who bombard broadcast regulators with photo-copied demands for vengeance over the unplanned appearance of a nipple on their boob tube.

They think that the other 99% of America's Christians are like the vocal minority they see presented in their narrowly constructed news-sources. They also know that it's a lazy cheat that makes them look "brave" to their peers for speaking "truth to power" without taking any real risks.

So now that you know the cliches to avoid, how do you do a decent villain?

Well, do a wrongdoer right, you need work out the three "Ms" of fictional villainy, and they are:

MOTIVES: PD James wrote a scene where her detective Adam Dalgliesh reminisces about his first boss in the detective business said that all motives for murder can be boiled down to Love, Lust, Lucre, and Loathing.

That's a pretty good summation of the fundamental motives for villainy.  Who or what do they love, or just desire sexually, or is it based in greed, or simple hatred against an individual person, or against society in general.

METHOD: To work this out you need to ask some basic questions:

How will they get what they want, if it romantic/sexual conquest, money, or revenge?

Does that plan actually make any sense as a means of obtaining what they want?

MENTALITY: Is your villain sane? Is your villain insane? Are they cold and mechanical, carefully planning every possible move or counter-move, or are they emotional and impulsive?

A good example of combining all three is The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. His motives are founded on a loathing of mankind's "mask" of civilization, and he seeks to tear it off to reveal a mad beast within.

His motives are insane, yet his methods and mentality are more complex. He works hard to appear to be impulsive and out of control, yet his plans are meticulously conceived and constructed to achieve his goal of "watching the world burn" by bringing people down to their basest instincts and cleansed of morality.

Once all the questions of motive, method and mentality have been answered you must include one fundamental truth behind all well done villains:

Villains consider themselves to be the hero of their story.

No one does evil for the sake of doing evil. They do evil for obtaining a goal.  A good villain is positive that they are in the right in doing what they do to obtain that goal, especially when they're doing wrong.

Those are the basics of good movie villainy.


  1. What's your idea of "evil for the sake of doing evil"?

  2. Very nice and concise. One reason The Walking Dead makes my teeth itch is the hilarious basic ignorance of American culture. It begins with the one hand redneck as a KKK cutout. He could be a villain in 'Blackbelt Jones'. The other ridiculous plot point is the lack of guns and ammo. For fucks sake it's set in the south. You could probably arm a small paramilitary unit from one house's coat closet. I am willing to bet you might have that problem in Manchester or NYC but no where in the rural or suburban south.

    That ignorance makes screenwriters very poor judges of plausible. Zombie hunters making off-hand shots with unfamiliar pistols at thirty yards, scopes are magical devices that make everyone Carlos Hathcock. America is much more decent and resourceful than given credit for but that's boring.

    Rainforest Giant

  3. ILDC - "Evil for the sake of evil" is where the villain does destructive things without any motive that makes sense to the audience or even to the character.

    It's fake, it's artificial, it's Resident Evil's Umbrella Corporation who destroy civilization for no reason beyond giving lazy writers a cliched excuse for having zombies.

    Rainforest Giant - The lack of guns in Walking Dead also confuses me. One suburban sporting goods store in the USA could outfit a battalion.

    As for mistakes in gun handling, the whole movie biz has been doing gun-play wrong since the dawn of cinema.

  4. Is that because of lack of knowledge, or does proper gun handling not have the right "look" on cinema?

  5. bluto- It's a little of both. Filmmakers hire weapons experts to consult and fill in the gaps of their knowledge but if the expert advice doesn't look particularly cool, then it's ignored in favor of the firearms myths Hollywood's been using for decades.

  6. Furious,

    You're right about the producers ignoring the experts. When I was a cop we had to remind the new guys not to put the gun near your face. Never hold it near your face.

    Hollywood made that the default position to carry a gun.

    'Men of Valor' had pretty good gun handling. I don't think I would recommend sliding into position to fire your gun but it worked for them.

    Rainforest Giant

  7. I respond to every dangerous situation by diving sideways, with a blazing gun in each hand.

    Some say not having exact change for the paperboy isn't a dangerous situation, but several people were wounded. So it was pretty dangerous after all.

    --Just kidding for those who can't understand humor.