Feature: Script problems – villains
This article is inspired by something I have seen come up on a couple of reviews and concerns something that may be an issue or may not. Are we getting worse villains at the expense of more interesting heroes and side characters? If so what can be done about it?
Arguably Batman and Disney have been the strongest examples of villains on screen. Judge Claude Frollo, Maleficent, Cruella de Ville and Hades would be a strong matchup against Joker (Nicholson, Ledger and Hamill), Bane (Hardy), Catwoman (Pfieffer and Hathaway) and Scarecrow.
Of course we have compelling characters like Magneto, Doctor Octopus and Loki in the various Marvel incarnations (yes I know they are with other studios as well but this is for the sake of simplicity). Also there are some actors that excel as villains. The sadly missed Dennis Hopper and Alan Rickman plus Gary Oldman and Miranda Richardson. But in recent times it seems there have been a few trends that have hindered the quality of villains. I will discuss this a bit below (note there will be some spoilers for films so be warned!)
The “secret” villain
Stop me if you heard this one; the person you thought was the villain in actual fact wasn’t! This twist has come up a few times and while it can be effective (such as Batman Begins) there is also the danger that it dilutes the effectiveness of other characters (Iron Man 3).
Disney and Pixar seem to have been using this trope quite a bit. At present it’s not quite on the level of “bad guy deliberately tries to get captured” but it’s something writers should be wary of.
“He wanted to get captured!”
It was effective in The Dark Knight. But like parkour action sequences the “they planned to get captured!” trope is getting very tired. Find a new angle writers!
Another cliché is the “corrupt businessman” type villain. While it did already exist going back to the ’40s Superman comics the strongest example was Robocop as they wanted to satirise the yuppie culture of the time (and did so magnificently I might add).
Unfortunately this has led to a number of films where we see corrupt business people as the “real” power in a situation and often these smug characters lack the theatrical quality of a more old fashioned style of villain.
The evil opposite
Done right the evil opposite is a great trope. The idea of a hero matching their darker opposite is potentially very powerful. Unfortunately it can also be a bit lazy or in the case of Spider-Man 3 a bizarre mixture of odd choices and jazz strutting.
As with the evil opposite this is another plot device that when done well can be very powerful. The idea of offering the hero a chance to join the dark side can add much needed tension. However if this is done badly it can seem very clumsy, especially if the reveal of the villain’s darker side is a bit too blunt.
Can we make villains great again?
It’s fair to ask the question; will we see a villain performance on the level of Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or classic Disney villains like Cruella De Ville? I think so because there are still plenty of great villain performances out there.
For example look at the much maligned Suicide Squad. Whether you like it or hate it one thing is for sure that Amanda Waller definitely has presence and authority, an impressive achievement given she is in a film that is literally full of villains!
Likewise Kurt Russell proved very charming as Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 and I have high hopes for Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnorak and Michael Keaton as the Vulture in Spider-Man Homecoming.
While I love the charm of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, the physicality of Ben Affleck’s Batman, the grace of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and the energetic charm of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man I hope they get something to match their performances.
For me a great villain performance needs the following:
- Presence – You can be sympathetic, charming, aggressive, playful or unpredictable. But you need to be memorable. It helps if the villain is played by someone you know has that presence but sometimes an unknown can make their name with a great performance.
- Screen time – Make sure the villain is properly developed.
- Motivation – Does the villain’s motivation make sense?
- Tone – Does the performance match the tone of the film?
In short if writers pay attention to the issues raised here and find ways to subvert the tropes and conventions of the genre then we will get the bad guys we love to hate once again!