Why are people still so crazed over Heath Ledger's Joker after a month in theaters? Maybe because he's the first villain we've seen in ages who didn't kind of lick. The problem of villain suckage is endemic in heroic narratives, where villains get redeemed, become sympathetic, or lose their menace too easily. We've got a 7-point diagnosis for villain anemia, plus a "unified theory" of how to make villains awesome, and why they matter. Spoilers for recent movies, and upcoming TV, below.
We already talked about the problems of saggy villains back in February, particularly with reference to the show Heroes, which has only gotten more and more worrying since then. The show's next chapter is called "Villains," but the producers and stars keep saying, over and over, that it's really about "confronting the villain inside our heroes." Dude, the true villain is within. Right there, under your navel. Really. Just stare a bit harder, and you'll see it. Not to mention the persistent reports that we'll be seeing the "softer side of Sylar" this season.
I love Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but it's similarly villain-deprived. There's one bad Terminator chasing our friends, and he's spent hours and hours searching for John Connor and getting easily thrown off the scent. We need less of Cromartie wandering into boys' locker rooms, and more scenes like the one where he trashes 100 FBI agents. I'm hoping the addition of Shirley Manson as a human villain will give T:SCC a nice extra bit of oomph in the villain department, replacing the standard Eastern-European gangsters who have been the show's human baddies so far.
And think about this summer's other big action movies: they almost all had weak villains. Iron Man? Jeff Bridges was great, but he was more like Tony Stark's corrupt older bro for most of the movie, and then he suddenly developed a sense of menace towards the end. Wanted? Morgan Freeman was Obi-Wan for most of the film, until suddenly it turned out he wasn't really doing the magic loom's will. Incredible Hulk? Tim Roth was like the Wile E. Coyote who keeps chasing the Hulk's Road-Runner, until he finally gets eaten by his own Acme Hulk-busting gizmos. None of those villains had a plan, a clue, an idea, a vision. They were just there to provide a big climactic fight for the end of each movie. At least we didn't have any Spider-Man 3-style villain clusterfucks this year.
How villains lose their shit:
1) They get redeemed. Like Sylar, supposedly. Or, I suspect, like Ben on Lost, who's already becoming a much more sympathetic character. (Although he still has the immoral psycho edge, as when he's willing to kill everyone on the freighter to get revenge on Keamy.) The ultimate example of a redeemed villain who loses his mystique is Darth Vader, whose redemption at the end of Return Of The Jedi presaged his whoah-TMI over-explanation in the prequels, which brings us to...
2) Too much information. Even Doctor Who's archetypal nasty, the Master, isn't immune. He went around killing and wreaking havoc for 30 years without any explanation other than "he's a sick fuck." But "he's a sick fuck" wasn't enough for writer Russell T. Davies, who had to give the Master an origin story that explained how he became evil. It was the weakest point of an otherwise great story. Sometimes, knowing why the villain is a psycho isn't the point. The best part of TDK's Joker is the fact that he keeps telling different origin stories, all of them completely fishy.
3) They become analogs of real-life nasties. It's just way too easy to make your villain just like Bill Gates, or Dick Cheney, or Hillary Clinton, or Ahmadinejad or whoever. (I almost wrote "Hillary Klingon," which I would pay to see.) In a few rare cases, it can make villains creepier — as in the plethora of Margaret Thatcher monsters coming out of England in the 1980s — but most of the time, it's just a cheap shortcut.
4) We see too much of their world. James Callis, who plays Gaius Baltar, said recently that he thought bleak space-opera Battlestar Galactica made a mistake by letting us inside the Cylons' Baseships and showing us their internecine bickering and weird internal decor sense. We stopped thinking of them as the implacable masterminds of human genocide, and started thinking of them more as The Real World: Baseship.
5) Too many defeats. This is one of the things that went wrong with the Borg. (The other one being the ridiculous "Borg Queen" which I think comes under the heading of "seeing too much of their world.") When we first meet the Borg, they're so unbeatable, Captain Picard basically has to beg Q to get the Enterprise away from them. And then the good guys defeat the Borg once, against tremendous odds. After that, every victory gets easier and easier, until finally Captain Janeway is reducing the entire Borg collective to rubble with a few well-placed kicks.
6) Too many victories. This is why I'm somewhat startled that the movie version of the Joker has so much power: he's a dillweed in the comics. The comic-book Joker is a victim of his own success. Where do you go after you've killed Robin and destroyed Batgirl in the same year? Away, that's where. The Joker should have been retired in the comics after "A Death In The Family" and "The Killing Joke," and in fact he did disappear for a year or two. But it was too tempting to keep bringing him back, and he's stuck being a has-been villain who can never top his best (worst) year, which was 20 years ago now. I've read hundreds of Joker comics published since 1988, and none has left much of an impression.
7) The villain that's a reflection of the hero. This is really where Iron Man and Incredible Hulk fail. (Someone emailed us about this a few months ago, and I'm afraid I can't remember who now.) You have a guy in super-powered metal armor? Who should he fight, if not another guy in super-powered metal armor that's a knock-off of his own? A big green guy? Let's create another big green guy from his blood and make them fight.
A unified theory of villainy:
We need good villains, for the health of our society.
Good villains make great stories. A truly chilling villain makes the hero seem more important because the stakes are important, and the hero's actions matter.
More than that, a really good escapist narrative deals with our personal and social anxieties at a right angle, letting us fantasize about being able to crush them with big metal ray-blast-shooting fists. In real life, we're making endless compromises with the forces that want to mangle us into bone origami.
But in our science fictional daydreams, those forces are actually too evil to compromise with. And as a result the heroes we identify with have no choice but to fight to their last breaths. You can't dicker with a giant robot that wants to destroy the world, you just can't. We need that outlet in our heroic stories.
Also, one of the biggest factors in debasing our national discourse is the fact that our leaders and pundits persist in trying to turn arguments into good vs. evil, when they're usually more like shades of gray. It actually doesn't help that our escapist fantasies, which should be about good vs. evil, take on that shades-of-gray ambiguity.
If Sylar's really not such a bad guy, then maybe John McCain — who really isn't a bad guy, just someone you may disagree with — is more like Sylar than we thought. See how this works? More nuance in our fictional battles actually facilitates less nuance in our real-life disputes.
The best villains are political, but only at the level of allegory.
See above, about not making Dick Cheney your movie's villain. A good villain has some kind of political message, but it's subtler and woven into the storyline's subtext. It's not so much, A=B, and much more a subversive undercurrent. Look at Terry Gilliam's Brazil: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan don't turn up in that movie at all, but the vision of a repressive, shallow society (which is the film's real villain) is threaded through with critiques of the materialism and militarism of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes.
Kill all the writers. (Except me, please. Kthx.)
Actors are the best friend of villains, and writers are often their worst enemy. I've lost count of how many interviews I've read with actors where they said something about how much fun it is to play a really nasty villain. They love to be monstrous — sometimes a bit too much, in a few cases I can think of.
Writers, meanwhile, are always trying to be clever. Sometimes by committing one of the sins we mentioned above, redeeming or explaining their villains with too much shading and fancy detail work. But sometimes, they fall into the trap of being too post-modern, with the ironic "spin" on villainy that takes away a lot of the menace. Say what you like about Joss Whedon: his villains almost always have real darkness and threat, even when they're being funny or cute. (Possible exception: the nerd trio in Buffy season six.)
Okay, so maybe you need writers. But they need to be fitted with one of those collar thingies that doesn't let them turn their heads, so they can think in a straight line and create villains who are unrelenting and cruel. The kind of ruthless monster who would put writers in a no-head-turning collar in the first place. Just a thought.