by Gabriel Storment (@SeaStorm24)
For every hero, there’s a villain. And for every good villain, there’s a bad villain. Too often in movies, the only reason villains behave badly is because if they didn’t, the hero wouldn’t have anything to do.
Every hero needs a foil, but when that foil is nothing more than a plot device and an excuse for Johnny Chiselchin to flex his pecks and beat up a bunch of bad guys, is a story really necessary? You might as well save your money and watch your buddy play Call of Duty.
3 Things a Great Villain Needs
Stock villains make movies forgettable. They exist for a variety of reasons: Their characters haven’t been thoroughly fleshed out in the script, the audience is ambivalent about or doesn’t believe their motivations, or, most tragically, the actor doesn’t bring enough to the role to make the character what it needs to be. Three things need to come together for an effective villain:
- The writer needs to develop a solid character, not just a stand-in for the hero to conquer…
- The director needs to establish the villain and his or her motivations, and…
- The actor needs to bring more to the performance than just a furtive glance under a furrowed brow.
Establishing Your Villain’s Character
When Neo finally faces off against Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix, it’s a dramatic, powerful scene. There’s added weight to it because, up until that moment, the filmmakers have spent the entire movie telling us that the only thing you should do when you see an agent is run for your life. We see Trinity barely escape from an agent in a thrilling opening sequence, and Morpheus gets captured when he tries to stand and fight (granted, Morpheus’ was a stall tactic so his friends could escape). Because the screenwriter and the directors used the first two acts to build the agents up, it’s incredibly satisfying when Neo chooses to stay and fight instead of run away. It doesn’t hurt that Hugo Weaving plays a great obsessive, rogue computer program.
Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is another example of how filmmakers take the time to establish the villain so that there’s added significance to his actions. It seems the sole purpose of Woody Harrelson’s character is to travel around and tell people how evil Chigurh is. Later, when Chigurh and his ridiculous hair show up at their doors, the writing and the performances are so understated and drawn out that, even though the audience knows what’s coming, there’s still a great amount of tension.
Giving Your Villain Strong, Believable Motivations
Establishing believable motivations for a villain allows for a greater connection to the audience and a more rewarding payoff when the hero and villain finally square off against each other. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the greatest villains in recent memory. His portrayal of the psychotic master criminal was an iconic performance that has been discussed, analyzed and praised a great deal already, so I don’t need to restate any of that with a few hundred more words.
But as for the Joker’s motivation, what he was really trying to accomplish… it kind of made sense, didn’t it? Granted, his methods were a little out there, but he spends a lot of his time going after the same organized crime figures and corrupt officials that Batman is supposed to be fighting. The Houston Press recently went so far as to question whether the Joker was the real hero of the movie. His conversation with Harvey Dent in the hospital points out some of the hypocrisy that we live with every day:
Nobody panics when the expected people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, everybody loses their minds!
We aren’t allowed in on the Joker’s backstory (he tells two different stories to explain the scars on his face, so we probably can’t believe either one), but Christopher Nolan takes the time to establish his motivation: He doesn’t want to take over the world, he wants to inject it with chaos.
Another good example of establishing the villain’s motivations is Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused. Right out of the gate, this guy is marked as the biggest a-hole in high school. Still toting the paddle he used on last year’s class of freshmen, his affinity for hazing is already well known. Since he flunked his senior year and will be around to torture another incoming class, his bad guy credibility is sky high when we meet him. When he and his buddies finally corner Mitch in the parking lot after the baseball game and proceed to paddle the young man’s posterior, O’Bannion’s face is pure joy. He revels in it.
Later on, when Mitch and his friends exact revenge by embarrassing O’Bannion in front of everyone at the Emporium, his insecurities boil over. As he stands there, covered in paint while everyone laughs, he knows he doesn’t belong anymore and he’s ashamed of himself.
I’ve seen Dazed and Confused at least a dozen times and I’m always most sympathetic toward O’Bannion’s character.
Choosing the Right Actor to Do the Job
Of course, any talk of movie villains would be grossly incomplete without devoting at least a few words to one of the all-time best, Gary Oldman. His amazing versatility has allowed him to play an impressive list of villains throughout his career. Even before the Batman and Harry Potter franchises came along, he owned a pretty remarkable bad guy lineup including Dracula (Dracula), Drexl Spivey (True Romance), Stansfield (The Professional), Zorg* (The Fifth Element), and Mason Verger (Hannibal).
Each of these roles is more out of the box than the last, and these are just a few of my favorites. He’s played a host of other memorable bad guys, and I’m positive that none of those films would have been as good if he hadn’t brought his unique take to each character. One of the best things you can say about character actors is that you often forget which movies they were in, and that absolutely applies to Oldman.
It’s often said by actors that it’s more fun to play the bad guy. I think that’s probably true in most cases. Whether it’s greed, wrath, envy, or a combination of sins, villains get to let their vices run wild, either in pursuit of world domination or the humiliation of the new kid in school. When the audience is allowed to connect with that character, understand where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to achieve, the outcome is much more satisfying.
*In a 2014 interview with Playboy, Oldman apparently said he didn’t think much of The Fifth Element, replying to a question about the movie and its $260 million gross, saying, “Oh no. I can’t bear it.” I love the movie, but it makes me glad to know that one of my favorite crotchety character actors will speak his mind if the finished product isn’t as good as he thinks it should be.