Villainry 101: Where It All Went Wrong
Some of the most common "traps" of villanry.
Villains. Without a good antagonist, the story doesn’t really go much of anywhere. What’s the Batman without the Joker? Who are the X-Men without Magneto? A rich orphan with a vengeance problem and a bunch of adults who mooch off of a rich guy in a wheelchair and “teach” at his “school.” Seriously—did those kids ever have classes besides, “Try Not to Die 101?”
Where exactly do villains go wrong? Villain tropes are not new—I first started thinking about the most common mistakes made by villains when I found Peter’s Evil Overlord List in the early days of the Internet. It’s pretty funny. It contains such gems as, “I will not interrogate my enemies in the inner sanctum—a small hotel well outside my borders will work just as well.” and “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” It’s basically a list of all of the things this fellow would do if he ever decided to embark upon a career in Evil, and it’s brilliant. Also to be credited is the website TVTropes, where common tropes are explained with examples from various genres.
My categories were indirectly inspired by and distilled from these two places, as well as from every time I watched or read something and thought, “For the love of all that’s cool … stop talking and do them in!” I’ve come up with a few villainous categories that I think are fairly representative of the problems we face in villanry: Sympathetic or Misunderstood Villains, The Monologuer of Extreme Hubris, Affable Bastards, and Cold, Relentless Annihilators. There are many other categories—just look at TVTropes—but these are the ones I’m choosing to explore for the purposes of this article.
Sympathetic and misunderstood villains. These are the red herrings of the villain world. You’re led to believe that they’re the antagonist—after all, weren’t they kidnapping princesses? Didn’t they treat schoolchildren badly for no apparent reason? Didn’t they steal a baby away to the Goblin Kingdom or just kind of walk around knowing that everyone calls them The Evil Queen and simply giving no flips?
The Ice King in Adventure Time is an excellent example. Until season 4, it seems like the Ice King is just an inept villain, bent on kidnapping princesses and not doing a very good job of it. Then, along came the episode I Remember You, in which it is revealed that the Ice King was once a young man named Simon, who was driven to madness by the crown he wears. And that he was once a father figure to Marceline, the Vampire Queen. Later on, they aired the episode Simon and Marcy, which shows just how awesome poor old Simon was at being a father—he was silly, sweet, protective, and caring before the crown stole his wits. Even his princess-kidnapping ways are revealed to be symptomatic of his sanity issues—he is unconsciously searching for Betty, his fiancee who he called his Princess. Rip my heart out again, Adventure Time. Thanks. Simon is thwarted in his kidnapping endeavors over and over again, and as the series continues, most of the characters come to see the Ice King as the tragic figure he is rather than an actual villain.
Jareth the Goblin King does not see himself as the bad guy. He took Toby at the direct request of Sarah. He studied her and the things she valued, and constructed for her a “perfect life” option. In his mind, he did everything right and is frustrated and confused that she rejects his offers and attentions. Ultimately, Jareth is defeated by Sarah’s assertation that he has no power over her. While I think that it is perfectly appropriate to refer to Jareth as the antagonist of the movie, I would not call him an actual villain. His motivations, while selfish and immature, are rooted in a desire to have companionship and make Sarah happy. Unfortunately for him, he has misunderstood her core values and loses her in the end. (Ahem. Except for in the fanfiction, where things can be forever gold …)
Professor Severus Snape. Regardless of whether you’re on Team Always or Team Snapeisabigmeaniepants, Snape’s big reveal as a double agent working for the good guys is a literary gut-punch. Which turns into a pile-driver into the solar plexus (did I get my wrestling metaphor right?) when the depth of his commitment is revealed toward the end of the series. Like, Dumbledore was a cutthroat spirit when it boils down to it. “Snape, my trusted ally—I’m dying, and if you go ahead and finish the job, old Moldypants over there will think you are so evil he’ll throw Bellatrix off a bridge or something. Kill me? Would you?” That’s hardcore. Snape, even when it appeared that he was the worst of the bad guys, was actually one of the best of the good guys, but that simply can’t undo all of the original suspense when the reader/viewer has no idea if this jerktastic bastard is going to end up evil or good. Anyone who can make, “Turn to page 394,” a threat gets to be on the list.
I prefer The Evil Queen in her Once Upon a Time manifestation as opposed to her early Disney animation incarnation. In the old Snow White, she was just so, “She’s prettier than me! That’s it! Heart in a box!” In OUAT, Regina is so much more nuanced. She has had a difficult life and has become powerful at great cost, and she has legitimately tried being nice and found that it did not often result in the desired outcome. The show isn’t perfect, but it is enjoyable, and Regina has been and remains one of the best things about it. Where the older version of the Evil Queen was thwarted by her complete lack of understanding of the concept of love, OUAT Regina understands love all too well. She loves her Henry, her adopted son (for which she just may deserve to be elevated to sainthood), and she was practically enslaved by familial love and broken by romantic love. Regina understands love and knows its destructive power all too well. Regina may be the Evil Queen, but she’s definitely a sympathetic villain.
The Monologuer/Extreme Hubris
You’ve got some free time, or you’re seriously procrastinating some other task, so you decide to watch a movie or a show or read a book, and it’s down to the last stand. The heroes are captured and restrained, their powers inhibited by … whatever inhibits them (rope, Kryptonite, hanging off of a cliff, etc.) and when the completely badass, omniscient, super-strong villain with the mental acumen of Professor Moriarty and the physical strength of the Hulk takes center stage, instead of just killing them already, they launch into a Monologue about how they are simply superior and born to rule. The trope of the Monologue-ing Villain is well documented, well parodied, and well … still going strong. I mean, dang! I sometimes don’t even tell people where I’m going when I leave to go to the store because that could end in me having to bring something back for them. You can bet that if I ever jump the track into Villain territory, I will NOT explain my plan so some idiot, rejuvenated with anger that I killed Mufasa/am his father/orchestrated the entire quest/etc., can suddenly lunge foward and send me bassackwards over a cliff, while the symphonic orchestra plays me all the way down to the bottom of the chasm with the braying of French horns and a descending scale. No, thank you. I think I’d be more like Yzma, in The Emperor’s New Groove, and just …. smash it with a hammer. But without all of the postage.
Skeletor, in the 1987 Masters of the Universe movie, had the monologuing down to an art. Played by Frank Langella, he’s honestly the best thing about the movie. Check out this clip, as he explains exactly what is going to happen and revels in his public ascension. If he’d just done it kind of quietly, off to the side, and left out the whole, “I feel the Universe within me,” and burned all of his bridges, “These people are nothing to me!” he could have had a chance. But … it’s highly satisfying to listen to him freak out. His extreme hubris lies in his attempt to ascend to godhood. Can’t anyone just be a regular skeleton-faced baddie anymore? Learn to love you for you, Skeletor.
Another notable Monologuer with a side of Hubris is Ultron, in the Avengers: Age of Ultron film who even makes fun of that villainous pitfall himself in this clip, when he says, “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan.” He proceeds to leap into action, but he has other moments throughout the film, where he waxes philosophical. This monologue is probably my favorite. It’s the whole, “I’ve come to save the world … by destroying it,” line. Ultron, you’re surprisingly funny for a villainous robot, but you should have watched your loud mouth around Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. When they flipped sides, your dirty laundry are belong to the Avengers. And also? Saving the world by destroying humanity? So much hubris, bro. Get over yourself.
Loki‘s big “Kneel!” speech in The Avengers is also a good example. His assumption that humanity’s natural state should be to be subjugated and that he should be the one doing the subjugating—uh, says who, guy? You don’t see us going up to Asgard and jacking around with your peeps, so could we lay off of the “Kneel!” a little bit? Maybe? Seriously, shut up, or I’m getting the Hulk!
For an excellent example of the Monologue being turned on its head in the name of humor, check out this clip from Angel: The Series. Spike is watching Angel save a girl from a dangerous situation and talks over the whole thing, mocking Angel from afar. It’s honestly the best ever.
Bavmorda the Sorceress in Willow is so obsessed with finding the baby who is prophesied to usurp her rule that she rounds up all of the pregnant women in the realm and imprisons them. Because she is seriously that evil. Jean Marsh does an amazing job in the role—her evilness is practically palpable—and if you want to see the best fight between two old sorceresses in ever, watch this clip of Fin Raziel and Bavmorda, duking it out. Literally—at one point, they’re punching each other in the face trying to get the wand. Bavmorda is as evil as they come, and her downfall is monologuing and, yes, incredible hubris. She can’t imagine that Willow is a threat and refuses to see him as one. And there is the matter of her, “Is that the extent of your powers, little one? Now you will watch me draw upon the power of the universe to send the child into the Netherworld!” Oh, thanks. Will I? In her rage, she knocks the blood over and gets herself zapped into the Netherworld. Ouch.
This is one of my favorite types of antagonist. The villain who plagues your heroes, causes them endless headaches and annoyance and even tries to do them in, but … they do it so gleefully it’s hard not to kind of love them. I mean, there’s something to be said about pursuing a field of work that interests you. I’m pretty sure some of these affable bastards have found their dream jobs in villainry.
Mayor Richard Wilkins III of Sunnydale, California from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a sleeper villain who wasn’t revealed as the Big Bad for an entire season. Even after he was outed, he remained a strangely friendly fellow. He discusses great evil while golfing in his office, doesn’t swear, and formed a loving, fatherly relationship with troubled Slayer Faith. So what if he pretended to be his own son for generations to hide his immortality? So what if he had a demon pact to let the Hellmouth denizens prey on Sunnydale humans from time to time? So what that he planned to ascend to full demonhood himself? None of that was a good reason to not do his gosh-darned best to instill Faith with some self-esteem and unconditional love. Despite his evil-ness, The Mayor truly loved Faith and wanted her to inherit his evil legacy. He was looking out for her well-being and encouraging her interests—even if those interests might be killing. Mayor Wilkins, you were a bad, bad man, and a very good father figure. Rest in peace … or, wherever …. you affable, evil bastard.
Captain Hector Barbossa from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a man who loves his work. The work of piracy. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t appreciate the finer things in life—apple-loving Barbossa takes care with his appearance, in his own way, and he kept his ship stocked with food and comforts enough to present Elizabeth with a fairly comfortable captivity, if such a thing could be said to exist. And, when he is brought back to life at the end of the second film, audiences are genuinely glad to see his charismatic, bastardly face. I have to admit … it is pretty hilarious that he named the monkey Jack.
Two of my other favorite Affable Bastards are Bill from the Kill Bill series, and Valentine from the recently released movie Kingsman. Bill is an ass. He has done unforgivable things. And … he’s a remarkably good father. As much as I wanted Beatrix to kick his ass, I was kind of sad to see him go. Especially after that Superman monologue! Valentine is a strange bird as well—his evil plan involves using a SIM card in people’s phones to become violent and kill each other, causing a culling of the world’s population. This is what he believes must happen in order to save the environment from the ravages of humanity. He also hates the sight of blood and has a meltdown when he kills a man for the first time. Both Bill and Valentine fall into the same category of, “Too bad he’s evil. That guy was a pretty interesting dude.”
Cold, Relentless Annihilators
This category is often best suited to groups or collectives of evil like The Borg from Star Trek, the Reavers from Firefly, and the Daleks from Doctor Who. The Borg seeks to assimilate others into the Collective—with or without the consent of the assimilate-ee. The cold efficiency of The Borg makes them an exciting villainous presence throughout Star Trek movies, TV shows, and video games. The Reavers are humans gone very, very wrong, and will attack and destroy anything/anyone they come in contact with. In the ‘Verse, surviving a Reaver attack is worse than being killed by one. The Daleks seek to exterminate all life until only they are left. A Cold, Relentless Annihilator is often useful in terms of plot and character development of the heroes. When a writer/creator of an entertainment medium wants to focus on the heroes and their strengths and weaknesses without having to fully develop an antagonist, A Cold, Relentless Annihilator comes in handy. Nothing draws dissenting characters together faster than a shared threat. Heroes are united in fear of the collective, whether it is fear of being assimilated by the Borg, ravaged by the Reavers, or exterminated by the Daleks. Groups of Annihilators are best thwarted with a combination of teamwork, smarts, and oftentimes by staying quiet enough to survive another day.
Sometimes, an Annihilator is an individual, as evidenced by The Lich in Adventure Time. Where Simon is a red herring as a villain, The Lich is the official big bad (and may yet be … raise that kid right, Mr. Pig and Tree Trunks!) The Lich, played by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman, is some kind of being of true evil born out of a comet, and possibly the atomic weaponry that heralded the Great Mushroom War, the event that turned our world into what would become the World of Ooo. His goal is to destroy all life. All of it. And, he’s terrifying. Even when he’s in Sweet P. Oh, dang. The Lich may have been turned into an overgrown “baby man,” as the mean kids call him on the playground, but it’s obvious that inside the adorable Sweet P., the Lich lives on. Dammit, Adventure Time! Why are you so good?
Honorable mention in the Annihilator category goes to Kefka from Final Fantasy 6. My opinions on his greatness have been expounded upon at great length in a previous article, so I’ll keep this one brief—Kefka just wanted to watch the world burn. And he got to. He ascended to godhood and found nothing worth saving in the Universe. He was done. He gazed into the Void for too long, and it looked right back at him. Like the collective annihilators, it takes your entire party fighting their hardest to defeat him, and you kind of get the impression that he’s not even trying that hard.
So many villains are defeated by their bloated plans, raging egos, and endless monologuing, and others are too single-minded in their nihilistic pursuits. Too many villains and too little time, so I’m going to leave you with a sort of Hall of Shame. Here are some memes I made to express my feelings about some of my favorite villains. Sometimes, when you boil it all down, it gets kind of silly.
Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.
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