Movies · TV

How Movie Villains Got To Be So Terrible

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2016

We love bad guys too much, so much that we ruined them.

Villains used to be the most interesting characters in a movie. And when they were great, whether well-developed in their wickedness or vaguely drawn and mysterious, we embraced them as icons in their own right. We didn’t need to see what they were like as children in a fleshed out backstory prequel nor did we need to see them act the hero in some forced moment of redemption. But at some point we became too interested in villains, to the point that the most appealing ones became a new middle class of character.

The effect of our love for antiheroes, which is what great villains have become in that median, is that the actual antagonists in movies are now bland, forgettable nothings. They’re nondescript monsters made of CGI and afterthought. This has been a huge problem especially for superhero movies, where the good guys and sort-of good guys are darker, or at least more complex, than ever, with even Superman far removed from his basic Boy Scout image these days and Captain America disillusioned with his country.

It’s all culminating most notably with Suicide Squad, a movie where a bunch of extraordinary villains are the protagonists, and not even the Joker gets to play the main stage of this big-badapalooza. Instead, by most review accounts, the ultimate presence of evil in need of defeat this time is another disappointment. How could it not be? In a cinematic universe focused on legendary superheroes battling each other or classic super villains united together to save the world, there’s no final foe that can possibly overshadow those attractions. So they’re obligatory yet insignificant distractions for the sake of closure, all ironically aping the satirical ending of Watchmen.

All Your Heroes Are Also Villains, Too

The demoted villain idea isn’t actually all that new, but it wasn’t as big a deal when Darth Vader was mid-lined to give way to the Emperor as the true villain of the Star Wars trilogy (never mind that Vader is hardly the true menace of the first movie, anyway) or when Lex Luthor was depreciated in Superman II while Zod, Ursa, and Non took over as the greater threat. Of course, the Emperor is an intriguing enough character, and on the other side of the coin, Gene Hackman’s Luthor really isn’t.

There are also those fascinating villains made secondary by a systemic evil or issue, such as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, General Hummel in The Rock, and the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Park franchise. And maybe initially Mr. Smith in The Matrix, though usually dominant powers in the background are not directly faced, as they’re undefeatable concepts. It would actually be preferred to just have some movies’ biggest bads remain invisible in the same way. And I don’t mean like Thanos behind the scenes in the MCU.

Yes, it’s possible. Maybe not with the way most movies are structured currently. The villains as they exist can’t just be eliminated or substituted by a figurative void. But The NeverEnding Story handles a villain that is literally “the Nothing” quite well, with a memorable servile baddie one step below it to physically embody the antagonist side of the narrative. The thing is, mainstream audiences require combat in their climax, not a fantastical device that puts victory in the hands, or mind, of figurative exposition.

There Are Plenty of Great Movies With Multiple Villains

The other way to go is to put more thought into the ultimate villain and maintain some semblance of moral integrity in your antiheroes. Darth Vader may be responsible for the deaths of millions, but at least he won’t kill his own kid. Breaking Bad may have a protagonist who will poison children, but at least he’s not a neo-Nazi. Still, Walter White’s most interesting adversary is more his equal in depravity – just another drug kingpin. Gus Fring’s worst offense, in that context, is that he gets the upper hand.

The same goes for all level playing field foes. Except for maybe Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight, which maintains its status as the greatest superhero movie, villain-wise. The protagonist and antagonist are incredibly balanced, each capable of being sided with ideologically by the viewer, and the scales tip back and forth throughout the movie so neither dominates the other too long. Still, that version of Batman is not a killer, and that Joker is, so they’re not entirely interchangeable as hero and antihero.

And they’ll certainly never be friends. That’s another idea that has caused problems for movie villainy. Even if once or occasionally it’s fun to see pairings like Loki and Thor or Professor X and Magneto, such alliances damage the villain’s reputation as much as weak prequels aimed at humanizing bad guys. Plus it always seems to happen with those well-developed villains who are never topped by whatever antagonist is faced next by the hero, or by both. It’s a mistake comic books have made, as well.

It’s not that movies need to keep to a white hat/black hat dichotomy. There can still be complex relationships between heroes and villains and blurring of lines between good and evil, and in fact that’s preferred to the creatures and aliens and supernatural beings with no identity other than an apparent desire for destruction and maybe some thin plot to rule or destroy the world with a portal in the sky and faceless masses of minions. We just don’t always need escalated threats, especially when that escalator is going down.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.