Finding the Good in the Bad – The Making of Great Movie Villains


They say that a hero is only as good as the challenges he faces, and every challenge in a great adventure usually has some form of antagonist behind it.  In storytelling, the conflict between a character and an adversary is universal for every type of story told.  And sometimes that adversary becomes a compelling character within their own right, maybe even more so than the hero they face.  The villain, while not essential for every story, is the unique character that embodies the struggle that every character must overcome, and depending on the struggle, that villainous character can be representative of many different things.  Sometimes the villain is a brute making trouble for the hero, or sometimes he is a mastermind that the hero must outsmart in order to save the day.  One popular trope in storytelling is to have the villain be the hero’s exact opposite in every way and in turn, makes him or her a competitor challenging the entire purpose of the hero’s existence.  Regardless of how they function in the story, the villain is the character that motivates everything else within the story, so it is a character that must be carefully developed.  And as we’ve seen, some villains have withstood the test of time and have become icons in their own right.  Whether they are monsters, murderers, schemers, or just the average bully, they all stand out and if developed well enough they’ll become the ones we love to hate.  Many great villains stand out in literature, but some of the most popular as of late have been the ones that have emerged out of Hollywood, which has developed it’s own way of popularizing the image of the villain in modern pop culture.

More so than any other form of entertainment, Hollywood is heavily reliant upon the presence of a villainous character in their stories.  Going all the way back to the silent era, Hollywood has developed it’s art-form around the basic conflict of a hero taking on a villain; whether it was cowboys hunting bandits, gangsters battling police, or a knight fighting a dragon, clear-cut good vs. evil storylines were the easiest to translate for a general audience during the medium’s infancy.  But, as the art-form advanced, and the stories became more complex, so did the characters themselves.  In the years since, we’ve seen many villains arrive on the big screen that were not only compelling, but relatable in many ways, allowing the audience to see just how fine a line between good and evil there is.  But, just as well as Hollywood can create a memorable and compelling villain, they are also very much susceptible to creating a boring, forgettable villain.  And usually, the weaker the villain, the weaker the story.  This is often a complaint that I hear leveled at comic book movies, which is an industry built around creating iconic heroes and villains.  The recent slate of Marvel movies in the last few years have seen this complaint in particular, as the complex universe they have created has been growing larger with so many expanded franchises.  And to keep these multiple franchises going, Marvel has had to dig deeper into their catalog to find new adversaries for their heroes, and not all of them are all that great.  Some work better than others, but when you’ve exhausted the cream of the crop, you are eventually having your hero face someone that the audience will remark, “who is that?”  Marvel is not alone when facing this problem and it leads us to wonder what indeed is the formula for creating the most memorable of villains.

The formula of a hero villain dynamic in movies is always dominated by certain factors.  For the most part, villains in movies have a distinction about them that sets them apart from other characters.  Using the visual medium for storytelling effect, a lot of movies are able to identify the villain in a story purely by the way they look, usually through color coding.  That’s why you have the sometimes overused trope of the villain being dressed all in black.  Secondly, the villain must always have a clear cut motive from the very beginning; something that immediately puts them in opposition with the rest of the characters.  A villain with no rhyme or reason for what they are doing will only make the overall story pointless, because the hero’s quest will prove pointless as a result.  It doesn’t matter if the villain’s plan is proven foolish or insane, as long as they drive the conflict, it will motivate the story.  Then there are the other factors that contribute to a villain’s purpose in a story, like how their personality drives their evil ends, and how it clashes with the hero.  Hollywood usually follows these factors, and for most of it’s history, they have developed some notable baddies for the cinema.  The one thing that helps with the formula is that easy distinction between good vs. evil.  For many early films, moral distinctions were very clear; with the hero always a pure individual and the villain a un-redeemable rogue.  The war years in particular gave Hollywood such a distinction, because the world itself was caught up in a conflict with such a definable line between good and evil.  You see it in films like Casablanca (1943), which gave the mantle of villainy not just to an individual but to an entire grouping of characters; namely the Nazi Army.  And because of this distinction, it also defined the quintessential Hollywood hero, like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, who defines the ideal of undeterred resolve in the face of tyranny.

But, with the war years over, Hollywood’s definition of heroism and villainy began to change as well.  Looking inward, Hollywood began to examine more domestic ideas of good and evil in society, and villainy began to take a new face.  Sometime a system itself would be the villainous obstacle for the hero; like Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch standing up to institutional racism in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Also, villains with grand schemes were no longer the only types you would see on the big screen.  Sometimes it would be the average guy next door committing an unfathomable crime that would leave a mark in the audiences’ memory.  A perfect example of this would be Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960).  While seemingly normal on the outside, we learn over the course of the movie that this sweet boy next door is in fact a serial killer by the end.  Moral ambiguity suddenly became the norm in cinema, as gray areas between good and evil in society began to form.  With politicians becoming less trustworthy, and institutions were propping up evil actions rather than taking them down, the old Hollywood formula began to change, with villains becoming the very institutions that would have been seen as heroic in earlier days.  And with establishments and people within the system filling the villainous roles, we began to see the rise of the anti-hero in cinema.  The Anti-hero was someone who usually would commit villainous acts, but towards a greater good.  You see these types of characters in many action films like Dirty Harry (1971), Cool Hand Luke (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Mad Max (1979); characters who in any other story would be the bad guy or a trouble maker, but end up looking heroic because they fight against a far more evil system.  It’s through these anti-heroes and the shift in morality that we see a whole different type of villain today than what was normal many decades earlier.

So, how do we get a great villain in film’s today.  For the most part it all comes down to personality.  A great villain needs to be either charismatic and hypnotic in their appeal, or loathsome beyond any redemption in order to stand out.  And, for the most part, the best villains come of the strength of the talents of the people that create them.  In recent years, I think that the filmmaker who has churned out consistently the most memorable screen villains is Quentin Tarantino.  Not only do his villainous characters stand out in easily definable ways, but they are always the most alluring characters in his movies as well.  Whether it is Death Proof‘s Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), Django Unchained‘s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), or The Hateful Eight’s Dorothy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he always manages to create that villain that we all love to hate.  But, I think his masterpiece would be Colonel Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds (Christoph Waltz), just because of how well the villain adheres to the formula, and subverts it at the same time.  Being a Nazi is bad enough, but what makes Landa so scary is that his personality is so genial and pleasant, making his villainous acts all the more vile.  Finding the right actor for these roles is also a major factor in making the villain memorable in a movie.  Other great examples of memorable villains defined by their actors would be Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), or Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1989).  It’s hard to imagine anyone else portraying these select villains more vividly than them.  And it all comes down to giving a villain an amazing personality, one on which the audience will instantly latch on to.

But, not every villain leaves a mark, and it is sometimes the fault of Hollywood sticking too close to formula.  We know the villains that we love to hate, but who are the ones that are just hateable, and nothing else. One thing that I’ve noticed about the least successful villains is that they fall into certain types; namely authority figures, and it’s a trope that is often overused in movies.  How many movies do you know of where the villain is just a stubborn general who won’t stray from his battle plan, or a religious figure entrenched in his or her ways, or a corporate hot shot that keeps our hero down.  These characters are very overused in movies and often signify to me lazy writing.  A villain shouldn’t be an afterthought, but instead the greatest obstacle that the hero must have to face.  Even if your story is centered around these types of adversaries, try to find a new spin to make the villain more than just an archetype.  This is why some of the superhero movie villains tend to be a little weak, because more and more of them are mostly formulaic, or are never given a clear motivation the same way that the hero is.  This is primarily what made the movie Iron Man 3 (2013) a failure for me.  The movie pulled a bait and switch on us by making us think that this larger than life adversary called The Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley) was after our hero, but instead we learn that it was a shady corporate scientist overlord named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) that was really pulling the strings.  It was a lame trick because we were denied an iconic villain in favor of a generic one.  What I saw with this was Marvel trying to play it safe because they might of thought a villain called the Mandarin would be politically incorrect.  But, casting an actor like Kingsley would’ve remedied that, so I have no idea why they changed it.  Being politically incorrect with your villain may be risky, but not always unrewarding.  It all depends on how well the execution is.  A perfect example would be Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (2014), played vividly by Rosamund Pike.  A vindictive woman taking extreme measures to punish her sometimes abusive husband may not be a portrayal that would make feminists happy, but the extreme lengths she takes in the movie, including outright murder, turns her into one of the most memorable villains in recent memory.

I think that this is what usually defines a memorable villain in films today; their extreme natures.  Because the lines between good and evil are blurred, with perspective from the audience coming into play, the villain is much more defined not by just committing an evil act, but by how extreme they take their villainy to the next level.  This is true in stories where moral relativism comes into play.  Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the villain of the Godfather movies, but he lives in a world completely full or gangsters, crooks, and corrupt politicians.  It’s because he takes such extremes in securing his power that his actions make him more of a villain than the others.   Going to great extremes is also why larger than life villains leave such a mark.  No one has better defined the larger than life villain than Disney has.  For most of us, we are introduced to the concept of good vs. evil from Disney movies, and their villains are so ingrained in our childhood psyche, that they become the archetypes of evil that we see in everything else.  How many times have you heard the names of Cruella DeVil, Jafar, Ursula, Captain Hook, or Judge Frollo brought up when discussing a villain from another movie or even some real world figures in the news.  That’s the power of having a compelling villain at the forefront of your story.  In some cases, Disney villains become more popular than the movies they originated from, like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959) or Hades from Hercules (1997).  This is something that you should see more often from comic book movies, because like Disney films, they have a strong rogues gallery to pull from.  Surprisingly, only Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) has seemed to generate a following outside of the films he’s in within the Marvel universe.  What Disney and other iconic films have shown is that audiences will embrace the more extreme villains out there, so Marvel has no other excuse to indulge the dark side just a little more.

A great hero is always defined by a great villain, so if cinema wants to have heroes worth rooting for, they must not be afraid of making their villains compelling as well.  Sometimes playing by formula gives you the adversary you need, but as we’ve seen, the greater the threat, the grander the adventure.  Strangely enough, I see the perfect formula for finding great villains in a story through video games of all places.  What drives us to play a game and battle through the same kinds of obstacles over and over again?  It’s because of the allure of what waits for us at the end, when we come face to face with the “Final Boss.”  The greater the final showdown is, the more rewarding the experience.  Of course, not every movie needs to play out like a video game, but it gives us a good idea about how do we build up the threat of each villain in the hero’s story.  You don’t want to face the same obstacle as you have before; you want to face the worst of them all so that you can find out if your journey was worth it and that you’ve learned something through it all.  And of course, it helps if the villain is a compelling character in their own right.  The best thing to hope for is that the actors and filmmakers share the same kind of love and care for portraying their most loathsome creations as they would for the heroes.  The best villains in movie history are always carefully constructed and in many cases, are examples of where the filmmakers took chances and were unafraid of going to extremes.  Going outside of one’s comfort zone, whether it’s within the performance or in the writing, is the best way to make a memorable villain.  Tarantino has often said the best thing he’s ever written is the vile introduction speech by Hans Landa, where he discusses the method of hunting down Jews.  Sometimes a writer may hate every word they give to their villain, but done with enough panache, and you’ve got a villain that you can be proud of creating.  Evil is a powerful concept in the world, and the more compelling and vivid the villain who embodies it, the more eager we are to see it vanquished.  That’s the key role a villain must always fill.