The importance of the superhero in today’s cinema is undeniable. Marvel’s movies in particular have been praised for the way they’ve taken comic book characters most cinemagoers hadn’t heard of just ten years ago and built them up into hugely loved, well developed characters.
These films’ supervillains, however, have not been so well received.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the only antagonist to have featured across several Marvel films, and it’s no coincidence that he’s the most well-written of them – like his heroic opponents, the grandiose Asgardian has been granted a degree of character progression, whereas many villains in recent superhero movies have been treated as disposable, ultimately being part of the backdrop to the antics of the protagonists.
This criticism applies to many other films coming out of Hollywood franchises – Star Trek Beyond focused on the chemistry between the returning Enterprise crew, leaving Idris Elba’s Krall utterly generic and vacuous, and the same can be said for Neil Casey’s Rowan in Ghostbusters.
Potentially good films are being let down more than ever by weakly-scripted villains, which is a shame, because a strong antagonist can really make a movie special – just look at the critical praise showered on The Dark Knight because of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the only superhero film performance ever to bag an Oscar.
Outside of the comic book genre, films like Die Hard, The Silence of the Lambs and Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t have their timeless popularity if not for their iconic villains.
Whether your script fits into the superhero genre or not, when it comes to writing your villain, it would be wise to take some pointers both from what some blockbusters are doing wrong and from what these much-loved scripts got right.
Villains Should: Have Clear Motivation
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark creates the eponymous AI as a global defence program to replace superheroes. But Ultron decides that the biggest danger to the world is the Avengers themselves, who must thus be killed. A reasonable deduction based on the chaos previously left in our heroes’ wake, and not a bad first act set-up.
But then, at some point not even seen on screen, Ultron arbitrarily decides that actually, the best way to defend the world is to eliminate all of humanity; this flimsiness of motivation is a shallow excuse for the film’s spectacle-over-sense finale involving a city being ripped from the ground.
The best screen villains are those whose heads the script gets into and pokes around in, in order to explore what makes them do what they do. And these don’t have to be motivations we agree with, as long as we understand them; as Steven King said, “even the bad guys … see themselves as good – they are the heroes of their own lives”.
Jumping medium briefly, this is particularly evident in Daredevil season one’s villain, Wilson Fisk. The season is as much Fisk’s story as it is Matt Murdock’s. Not only do we see the mob boss building up his empire, but we also explore why he does it.
He believes this empire-building is the best way to make Hell’s Kitchen into a better neighbourhood, having suffered a tough upbringing here himself. His conflict between “be a man” values and wanting not to “be cruel for the sake of cruelty” is traced back to his abusive father.
Granted, the series has the luxury of time to flesh out its characters, but feature film writers can nonetheless take cues from the way Daredevil presents its villain as a layered character with reason and meaning behind his actions.
All that being said, villains’ motivations don’t necessarily need to be complex. There are perhaps two distinct types of antagonist – the ‘elemental force’ and the ‘flawed individual’.
The elemental force – Sauron or Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave, for example – is an irredeemable evil, akin to an asteroid heading towards the Earth. Their motives are clear and simple – often to destroy or to torment – and whether human or superhuman, they exist as a source of conflict for the hero to set themselves against.
The flawed individual, however, is not essentially evil, but cast as the villain through circumstance or weakness of character. They can have their own journey through the film, developing alongside the hero. This character type requires the writer to put more thought into fleshing out backstory and motivation.
It’s also worth pointing out two films that subvert our perceptions of their antagonist’s motivations, to great effect. In Die Hard, Hans Gruber sets himself up as a politically-motivated terrorist, lecturing his hostages on the Nakatomi Corporation’s greed, before it’s revealed he’s “nothing but a common thief”, faking these principles in order to misdirect the police while his cronies get on with the real business of stealing the money – an inventive twist which makes him simultaneously more clever and more dislikeable.
And The Dark Knight makes the murkiness of the Joker’s motives into a key thematic point. A representation of chaos, Ledger’s clown-faced criminal recounts several contradictory backstories and stays one step ahead of Batman by being so unreadable. As Alfred says, “some men just want to watch the world burn”.
However, this kind of subversion is hard to get right – if you’re going to play with your villain’s motivations, at least understand your own motivation for doing so!
Villains Should: Have a Strong Dynamic with the Hero
“You and I are not so different”, says the Green Goblin to his costumed nemesis in Spider-Man. Doctor Evil recites the same line to Austin Powers. It’s become quite the cliché, for sure, but there’s something to be said for antagonists acting as a reflection of a protagonist. Even when that’s not strictly the case, a strong dynamic between the two is essential.
And yet many recent superhero films seem uninterested in this. In Guardians of the Galaxy, our hero Star-Lord doesn’t meet Ronan the Accuser until the final battle. While the interplay between the four heroes is what rightly made the movie a success, this central conflict is massively under-developed, to the detriment of the story as a whole.
Similarly, in Thor: The Dark World, the main antagonist, Dark Elf Malekith, barely shares any screen time with Thor, let alone any traits in common, once again resulting in a climax that, while visually grand, fails to engage on an emotional level.
It’s perhaps strange that a Thor film would make such a misfire, given that the aforementioned popularity of Loki stems from its predecessor. His appearance in Thor strongly focuses on the sibling rivalry between him and his eponymous brother. Loki’s goal is to prove himself worthy to his father Odin and thus secure the throne of Asgard – a goal very similar to that of Thor, who is Odin’s favourite.
Loki may be full of what Hiddleston would later describe as “high operatic villainy” with “a taste for the grand gesture, the big speech, the spectacle”, but it’s this very personal dynamic with his brother which makes the story spark, and the writers astutely give them several strong scenes together, throwing Loki’s jealousy against Thor’s arrogance.
After a repeat appearance in team-up movie The Avengers, Loki ended up fighting alongside Thor in The Dark World – perhaps reflective of Marvel’s difficulty in writing recurring villains, as his popularity saw him ‘promoted’ to co-protagonist. While this developed the brothers’ relationship, it unfortunately resulted in Christopher Eccleston’s less interesting character being the main antagonist instead.
However, making the villain literally be related to the hero isn’t always the right way to go. Look, for example, at Spectre, which went to great lengths to tie James Bond and Blofeld’s history together, awkwardly contorting both its own plot and the events of previous films. Blofeld’s entire scheme in the third act is based around tormenting Bond, which seems both difficult to believe and very reductive in stakes.
An example of this done more effectively in the same franchise is GoldenEye, in which Bond’s history with former MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan informs their conflict rather than overwhelms it, acting as an emotional backdrop to Bond’s taking down of Trevelyan’s scheme.
In fact, a villain can have an interesting dynamic with the hero without any shared history at all – Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock haven’t heard of each other before the events of Daredevil begin, and the same applies for Hans Gruber and John McClane in Die Hard. Yet in each case, the writing builds up the two characters into rivals by playing on both their similarities and differences and by giving them memorable scenes together.
Whether your antagonist has personal history with your protagonist or the conflict is birthed over the course of the story, building up that dynamic and allowing them to share those memorable scenes is a surefire way to improve both characters.
Villains Should: Have Competencies and Flaws
The most recent adversary of the X-Men had a name fitting of his grandiosity: Apocalypse, Oscar Isaac’s character in the film of the same name. His superpower is to accumulate superpowers, leading to a 45-minute finale in which the X-Men throw lots of powers at him and he throws them all back, ad infinitum.
Compare his destruction of several cities across the world with the Joker sticking a pencil through someone’s nose or Norman Bates’ murder of Marion Crane, and tell me which makes the villain in question seem more threatening – scale does not equal stakes, and more powerful does not equal more interesting.
What’s needed is for a villain to show specific competencies rather than overwhelming power – for them to terrify us with something they’re convincingly good at.
Look, for example, at Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa, a Nazi officer known as ‘The Jew Hunter’. Manipulative and methodical, Landa employs a Sherlock Holmes-like intelligence, most memorably in the opening scene in which he interrogates a farmer who may be sheltering fugitive Jews. Over this tense exchange, we build up both a respect for Landa’s abilities and a fear he may use them to locate the innocent family we see hidden under the floorboards.
It’s also worth remembering that villains, just like heroes, can be more interesting when they have flaws. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is an engaging antagonist because, though he looks up to his grandfather Darth Vader, he’s not yet as competent a military commander. Rather, he’s a petulant child, prone to misdirected fits of anger and egotism.
Just like the film’s young heroes, Ren has not yet reached his full potential, and goes on a journey of his own. Giving the villain their own arc of development is not strictly necessary – that Basterds opening sees Landa presented to us fully developed – but it’s one way of adding depth to the dark side.
Villains Should: Entertain Us!
So an effective antagonist has clear motivation, has a strong dynamic with the protagonist, and has both competencies and flaws; but what this all adds up to is one major point – they are a character we can enjoy spending time with as much as the hero.
Because he fulfills all these qualities, Vincent D’Onofrio’s scenes in Daredevil stick in the mind as strongly as Charlie Cox’s, as do Alan Rickman’s in Die Hard and Adam Driver’s in The Force Awakens. When developing villains for your screenplays, you can learn a lot from these characters, and so increase the tension and depth of your script, as well as preventing Oscar Isaac or Christopher Eccleston from having to go through six hours of make-up yet again just to throw some CGI across a city.
Featured image: Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. © TM &DC Comics. 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.