Why the world needs movie villains

Feature Ryan Lambie 15 Oct 2012 - 06:50

They’re the evil centre in any blockbuster, and we secretly love them. Here’s why the world needs villains in its movies…

As ever, we’ve seen more than our fair share of great movie villains this year. These have ranged from the hulking and enigmatic (The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane), the erudite and cunning (The Avengers’ Loki) to the downright brutal (Benicio Del Toro’s Lado in Savages).

By the time the year’s over, we’ll have seen James Bond take on Javier Bardem’s blonde bad guy Raoul Silva in Skyfall, Bryan Mills fight a vengeful Albanian gangster in Taken 2, while the cast of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will encounter the gigantic dragon, Smaug.

Although settings and genres are subject to constant change, as tastes and fashions shift along with them, it’s the archetypal movie villain, perhaps, who’s changed the least. Whatever genre you choose as an example – western, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, realist drama – in the best of them, you’ll always find a compelling antagonist. Their goals and methods may change, but ultimately, their function is always the same: to make life hell for the other characters in the story. 

This is probably why the typical villain changes relatively little from story to story; they can be convincing or cartoon-like, human or alien, male or female, but they’re essentially performing the same task every time – they test the mettle of the protagonist, or create a situation which the hero (or heroine) must somehow resolve.

As critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “Each film is only as good as its villain”, and there’s a good reason for this: although the protagonist appears to do all the hard work in any given movie, it’s the antagonist who gives them the work to do in the first place.

Without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker would still be miserable farm hand on the lonely planet Tatooine. Had Hans Gruber stayed at home instead of taking over the Nakatomi Plaza, cynical cop John McClane would never have rebuilt his relationship with estranged wife, Holly. James Bond would probably have a desk job, and possibly even married to Miss Moneypenny.

The evil exploits of villains, then, are the hidden engines of any great movie, testing the resolve of the rest of the cast, and altering the course of their lives, whether it’s for the better (as in Die Hard, mentioned above) or the infinitely worse (see Seven, in which the central character is left in psychological tatters by his nemesis, John Doe). Villains, then, are the hero’s worst enemy, and the screenwriter’s best friend.

Of course, movies offer a distorted reflection of the real world. In reality, people go about their daily lives and rarely come into conflict with each other; the heroes and villains of movies are our myths, as detached from our complicated yet mundane existence as the characters in ancient folklore.

It’s often said that the good-versus-evil battle commonly depicted in movies is a comfort, because it simplifies the more nuanced and complex struggles of reality. This is why, perhaps, superhero films have soared in popularity in recent years; as warnings of terrorism and financial collapse have filled contemporary headlines, we’ve taken refuge in movies, where the boundaries of what is right and wrong are more clearly defined. Just as stories need villains to create compelling action, so audiences have needed entertainment to make sense of the real world, and also divert their attention from it.

There is, however, a more fundamental reason why we need good-versus-evil stories, and stories with compelling villains in particular. Where dramas and more realistic thrillers such as The Godfather or Heat attempt to offer a limited reflection of the real world –with complex, conflicted characters with their own agendas, as opposed to clearly defined heroes or villains – movies such as The Avengers or the Dark Knight trilogy are a reflection of a very different struggle: the one going on inside our heads.

In every person, there’s a desire to fit in with the structure of society: to go to work, go to school, make friends, be successful, and generally do our bit as a good citizen. But then, there’s also that part of the brain that is full of childlike mischief, that wants to kick over sandcastles, drive a bit faster than the speed limit, or maybe run through a crowded shopping centre in a bear suit.

Learned Freudian psychologist types might refer to this internal conflict as the struggle between the super-ego, the ego and the id. But this is Den Of Geek, so we’ll illustrate the point with a film quote from Apocalypse Now instead:

“Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”

This is why we quietly enjoy watching Tom Hiddleston’s Loki swagger around and grin with his cape and horns in The Avengers; sure, he’s the bad guy, but wouldn’t it be fun to be him just for a little while, to zap a few people with a magic spear and sneer at Robert Downey Jr? We might cower at the Joker’s capacity for evil in The Dark Knight, but don’t we also wonder what it would be like to be as joyfully, insanely uninhibited as he is? Doesn’t he treat Gotham City in precisely the same way players of, say, Grand Theft Auto IV do?

Just as the heroes embody all the traits we might like for ourselves (bravery, strength, courage under fire, good hair), so the villains get to revel in the negative traits we all carry, but are required to suppress.

Movies like Avengers allow both parts of our nature to play out; the bit of us that wants to see chaos and destruction, and the other part, the sensible piece that holds the darker side of our being in check. This is why, eventually, the bad guy usually has to lose. We’ve been entertained by their evil antics, but we also know that society couldn’t function if everyone ran around behaving like a maniac. We’ve had a little look in Pandora’s box, and we’ve been engrossed and perhaps a little disturbed by how much we’ve enjoyed what we’ve seen, but ultimately, the lid has to close. The irrational part of our brain enjoyed the chaos, but the rational part understands that logic and order must be restored.

This is why the world needs movie villains. We may want to see light triumph over dark, but not before we’ve enjoyed the thrill of seeing evil throw off its shackles, run riot, and maybe smash up a few cars for an hour or two. In a strictly ordered world, villains are everyone’s favourite guilty pleasure.

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