The Art of the Villain Backstory (and Why Dracula Untold Fails)
“Son of the devil” my ass.
Villainous backstories are an… imprecise science. When done well they can imbue a previously simplistic baddie with depth and challenge conventional morality. When done poorly, however, they are frustrating, self-pitying, and utterly off the mark. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), Dracula Untold falls into the latter category. To be fair, as a film it’s not entirely awful. It contains some interesting visuals, great sound editing, and a decent score by Game of Thrones‘ Ramin Djawadi. However, as a villain origin story, which it purports itself to be, Dracula Untold is an absolute failure.
Spoilers for Dracula Untold below.
The fundamental problem with Dracula Untold is that it shies away from ever making its protagonist, Vlad Tepes III, do something truly bad. It even incorporates Vlad’s legacy as “Vlad the Impaler” yet still manages to characterize him as a squeaky clean Marty Stu, which I honestly didn’t think was possible. Vlad never kills or hurts anyone the audience cares about, apart from his sexy lamp wife who begs him to drink her blood just before she dies anyways. For all the movie’s talk of “monsters,” Vlad never becomes one. Even when he declares himself “Dracula, the son of the devil” (an appreciated historical reference), he’s a monster in name only as he still hasn’t compromised any of his morals. Despite the score’s best efforts, there’s no menace at the end when Vlad introduces himself to Mina in the 21st century because Vlad still hasn’t developed into a character the audience fears. If anything, the Stoker reference only draws attention to the disconnect between Vlad and the iconic Victorian vampire he was supposed to have become.
Of course, Dracula Untold is not alone in this failure. The reluctance to challenge the audience is a reoccurring pitfall in villainous origin tales. Writers try to play it safe, an approach that consistently fails because villain backstories are fundamentally paradoxical: they are stories that contextualize and evoke sympathy for characters whom we are supposed to oppose. If it’s not challenging, you’re writing it wrong. Yet so often the pre-villainy protagonist is driven to act against societal or moral norms for some greater good that plays no part in whatever motivates him or her as a fully-fledged baddie. It’s as though once the character crosses the villainous threshold his or her complex and well-intentioned nature is erased and replaced with a brand new personality.
There are many cases of this, but in my mind there is no example more egregious than Morgana from BBC’s Merlin. She started out as a Demona-esque antiheroine, passionate about overturning Uther Pendragon’s unjust laws and protecting those with magic (as did most of the villains, actually). Yet by the finale she had devolved into a power hungry tyrant and Hot Topic patron bent on ruling Camelot and willing to kill all manner of magical folk in order to do so. I imagine, somewhere around season 3, the writers realized that they had made their destined baddie far more compelling than their heroes and panicked. So they threw in a twist that Morgana is Pendragon’s illegitimate daughter, with as much right to rule Camelot as Jon Snow has of being Lord of Winterfell. This drives Morgana to pursue the throne with a ruthlessness and disregard for human life that comes completely out of nowhere.
Similarly, Hannibal Rising purports that Hannibal Lector began eating people during his mission to avenge his murdered (and devoured) sister. We are then left to conclude that, much like the crocodile from Peter Pan, Hannibal has acquired such a taste for human meat by the end that he… just… keeps… eating people?
And then there’s Anakin Skywalker, who turns to the Dark Side in an attempt to save his wife’s life. He betrays the Jedi Order and kills Younglings for an understandable reason based on a moral compass that has completely disintegrated by the beginning of A New Hope a few decades later.
Why does this keep happening?
Well, behind these botched villain arcs I sense a basic underestimation of the audience. “There’s critical acclaim to be earned from giving villains depth, but people can’t sympathize with a character that’s genuinely twisted or oppose a character with remnants of humanity.” So goes the logic. Yet our society is increasingly comfortable with ambiguity.
There’s a reason why a hit television show has been adapted from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a fantasy series written from the perspectives of characters on opposing sides of a war. It’s a story in which it’s difficult to identify a “bad side” and a “good side.” We, as a culture, understand that humans (and humanoids) are complicated: we’re up for the challenge.
And, lest we forget, there are villains with well-crafted, challenging origin stories out there—and surprise, surprise, they tend to be fan favorites. Consider Demona from Gargoyles and Magneto, two superbly crafted villains with similar arcs whose vendettas against humanity drive them to commit acts terrible enough to earn them their baddie badges. Yet their hatred was formed and fueled by the mistreatment gargoyles and mutants, respectively, suffered at the hands of humans. The origin of their villainy makes sense.
Likewise, Sylar from Heroes (or rather Sylar from season 1 of Heroes) was a terrifying serial killer whose obsession with stealing superpowers turned out to spawn from having a mother who pushed him to be “special.” Speaking of inadequacy complexes, the MCU’s Loki deserves mentioning. Though precisely when he turned bad and what he wants is up for interpretation, he blames his own nuttiness on Odin’s sub-par parenting, which sort of makes sense, I guess. And Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time underwent a malevolent transformation to rescue the children of his village but, unlike Vlad Tepes, went on to let the newfound power corrupt him until it cost him his son.
There are many, maaaany other examples, but I’ve limited myself to five. Clearly, though, a precedent for successful villain backstories has been established, which makes Dracula Untold’s incompetence all the more puzzling.
Fortunately (???), Universal will have a few more chances to crack the villain origin story formula. Plans are underway to create a Marvel-styled shared universe with B-movie monsters that Vlad from Dracula Untold will probably be a part of.
I wish I had more hope for it than I do.
Petra Halbur is an undergraduate at Hofstra University pursuing a BA in journalism and presently trapped in the world-building phase of writing her science-fantasy novel. You can read more from her at Ponderings of a Cinephile or follow her on Twitter.
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]