Well, it is Halloween, and even though I already did honour two characters this months, I would be amiss not to acknowledge the occasion when it happens to fall on a Saturday (Even though I myself refuse to celebrate it). As the title suggests, this post will not be about The Evil Queen…if you want to know what I think about her, you can read last year’s post of mine about my favourite female Disney Villains. I just felt that she, being the very first of the Disney Villains, deserved to be featured her.
This time around I don’t want to talk about Disney villains alone, or only female villains, not even specific villains (though I will use some famous examples), but about the question what makes a great villain. Mostly because there is currently this trend to complain about villains not being layered enough or not getting enough screen-time. Well, excuse me for getting loud here, but
VILLAINS AREN’T HEROES!
What I mean is that the rules for writing a good villains are different from the rules for writing a good hero. A good hero needs some layers. He doesn’t necessarily need character development, but you have to connect to him on a certain level. A villain on the other hand can have layers, but he doesn’t need them. There are only two things a villain needs: a motivation the audience understands and the power to threaten the hero.
Note that the villain in question doesn’t have to be powerful in general, just a danger to the hero in particular. The best example for this is Lady Tremaine. She has the power over exactly one person and that is Cinderella. And yet, she is one of the most memorable Disney Villains.
But those are just the basics for working villain, which serves the plot of a movie. For a memorable villain, you need more. Otherwise the Coachman, being one of the most terrifying Disney Villains, would be on all favourite lists. But he is usually forgotten. A villain also needs one element, which makes him or her stand out.
Disney usually manages it with the overall design. Their villains prance around, they are dramatic, they are just a lot of fun to watch. This kind of charisma is hard to achieve. Pixar for example has despite the high number of critical acclaimed movies, only one villain which is at least somewhat memorable, and that is Syndrome, the most Disneyesque of them all. But then, not even villains by Disney are nowadays proper Disney Villains. Oh no, nowadays they have to be hidden villains, with some sort of backstory to explain why they act the way they do. It sometimes works – for example in Big Hero 6 the villain mirrors the struggle of the hero and serves as a dark example of what could have been if Hero hadn’t let off his desire for revenge – but those kind of villains are not the ones we tend to remember.
I said that a good backstory is something which can make a villain stand out. Case to point, Loki. Oh, he is also a very charismatic, magnificent bastard, but what actually makes him interesting is the backstory which ties directly into his motivation. Both are stand-out elements, because when it comes down to it, Loki hates himself. He spend his whole time believing that ice giants are monsters and once he realized that he was born as one, he tries to destroy the whole race in order to get praised by his adoptive father. How backwards is that? But that’s what makes him so unpredictable as a villain, because he is not only a trickster, you never know in which direction his messed up brain will sway his loyalties. One day he might try to kill Thor, the next he will help him, because deep down, Loki loves his family.
Usually though a Villain is more interesting the less we know about him. Cease to point, Darth Vader. Darth Vader in his breathing mask was terrifying to the audience long before even one detail of his backstory was revealed. And with every bit which was revealed about him, he became a little bit less terrifying and a little bit more pathetic instead. The good thing is that at least a little bit of this process is connected to one of the biggest twist in movie history, replacing the threatening aspect of him with something equally compelling (at least until the prequels came along, but that is something for a star wars fan to gripe over).
The Joker is another example of this. There are various renditions of him, but the ones in which his origin is kept in the dark are always the best ones. Because the interesting part about Joker are always his crazy plans and his relationship to Batman. The more you try to explain him, the more attention is drawn to the fact that as a character, he is kind of goofy.
Personally, I like those villains the best, which are particularly smart. Nothing gets me faster on board than a well-played Xanathos Gambit. So, yes, Xanathos is one of my favourite villains, simply because you can never really defeat him. Even if you do, he will always considered the possibility and ensured that he will get something out of the situation. But even better than a villain who is smart is one who is also vindictive.
That’s why I like Maleficent and Mother Gothel so much. For Maleficent it is not enough to curse or kill her targets, oh no. She tries to use even love against them. And Mother Gothel, well, she tearing down Rapunzel so expertly, it is a wonder that Rapunzel manages to develop any self-esteem at all. As I said before, she is the kind of villain which hits close to home. There are quite a few of this kind which have become famous. Hannibal Lector, Nurse Ratchet, Annie Wilkes, those are characters which are particularly fascinating because they feel so real. We might encounter this type of person, perhaps even on a daily basis, and never realize it.
In the end, there are many kind of villains, and if they work or not is not connected to a sense of how a villain should be like and certainly not connected to how much we know about him, as long as the particular type of villain is well executed. It doesn’t matter what kind of villain a movie has, if he is flashy or hidden, funny or terrifying, the important thing is always if he or she works in the context of the movie itself. Take Clayton and Gaston for example. Those two are really not that different characters. But with Clayton I am supposed to believe than anyone would trust him when he is so obviously untrustworthy that he is easily the weakest aspect of “Tarzan”. With Gaston, I only have to believe that the villagers would give into their fears and follow him. And we all know, no one talks like Gaston. (Sorry, couldn’t resist).
Well, those are my thoughts about villains. Who are your personal favourites? There are certainly a lot of great ones I didn’t even mention (the lack of slasher movie villains is intentional, though). Next time I will celebrate a special occasion: The two year anniversary of my blog and maybe 100 subscribers (officially I already have that many, but since wordpress counts my own subscription, I feel that I technically need one more). So I decided to do a little Q and A. I won’t answer anything too private, but otherwise, no matter what the topic, feel free to drop your question in the comment section here, I will answer in my next post.
Until then, Happy Halloween.