I’d been meaning to write something about the beauty of a good villain for a while now. There’s something special about the concept of “evil” in cinema and it’s often a lot more intriguing than any goody-two-shoes the creators might throw at you.
Everyone remembers the first time they were truly intimidated by a film’s antagonist. For me, it was at the age of around four or five. The villain: a caped man in a black suit of armour, wearing some weird breathing apparatus and a samurai helmet. I’m not going to name him, because if you haven’t figured it out, you’ve been living under a rock for the past four decades.
It took me a long time to pinpoint exactly why he was so terrifying, but I realised it was because he was a personification of the fear of the unknown. You had no clue what was hidden behind that mask, why that mask was there to begin with, the character’s plans and motivations. Contrast that with the new trilogies which suffer from what I like to refer to as “disposable villain syndrome”, each of the films presenting an admittedly cool-looking but effectively useless villain as, by the end of each, he is disposed of unceremoniously (more like General Grievously Ill, amirite?).
I recently watched Nolan’s final bat-film, leading me to fall in love with yet another mask-clad nemesis, a Shakespearean gorilla-like man – to paraphrase his actor Tom Hardy – named Bane.
Where to begin in this lauding of baddies? Firstly, they do things against the norm. You might say, well, of course, they’re film characters. But a villain does not only not do something which is the norm in our society, in the world beyond the fourth wall, he also smashes the norms within the medium itself. He is, for lack of a better phrase, a rebel squared. Morality is malleable in films, hence why Tarantino is able to get away with using the word “nigger” in his films, Eli Roth can have people spooning out each other’s testicles with rusty cutlery, and Besson’s Léon can teach a twelve-year-old how to assassinate by the book. Who will ever forget the first time they watched the Joker making a pencil disappear? Who can ever claim the image of Anton Chigurh asking someone to “call it” is easily forgettable? And I doubt there’s anybody who hasn’t had at least one nightmare involving Jack, an axe, a smashed door and a camp catchphrase from a talk show.
We relish them as characters because they’re everything we, unless sociopathic, are not morally permitted to behave like in modern society. Regardless of what people claim, there is a very small percentage of the population which has never had a vicious, petty, or homicidal thought; if not those, just the pure relishing of good ol’ schadenfreude. They are the funnel through which we can sit down for two hours, watch them do horrific stuff we would never do, get all the negativity and inherent unpleasantness out of our system, and we’ve hurt nobody real doing so. As a side-note, this is why video games are so precious, but that issue has a future rant of its own reserved.
So we get off on watching Scar have his Nazi hyena marches, and Keyser Soze convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Is that it? Of course not. Of all the heroes out there, how many are actually fun? A very limited amount, compared to the number of nemeses. Take “Star Wars” again: Luke is pretty fucking dull – he’s almost nobody’s favourite. Everyone loves Han Solo because he’s a rogue, he’s obnoxious, and (FUCK YOU, GEORGE LUCAS) he shoots first, goddamnit. Same with Firefly’s captain Malcolm Reynolds. They’re the closest thing the goodies have to a villain, being anti-heroes.
That being said, the moment a nemesis becomes truly dangerous and scary is when he or she stop taking themselves too seriously, and descend completely into madness. This is with exceptions, of course, but I remember being absolutely petrified of Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” for exactly that reason (I refuse to discuss Ledger’s Joker. He was amazing, but enough already). He’s this beast of a man, packing a punch which can break through concrete, his half-hidden face emanating malevolence, his voice so theatrically camp it veers on the comical. You glance at his eyes, however, and you have unadulterated insanity staring back at you, and suddenly the voice is no longer comical. The fur coat he dons is no longer a joke. This is a man with a purpose so hellish exactly because his moral compass isn’t just broken, it’s been thrown out the window several decades ago. He savours every brutal act he commits, knowing his power, both physical and mental. And, most importantly, he doesn’t fear death. How the fuck would you not be terrified of a hyper-intelligent tank of a man afraid of nothing? “What happens if I take off your mask?” some poor sod asks him. “It would be very painful… for you,” Bane quips, octaves rising alongside his insanity metre.
In the midst of wonderfully created murderers and dictators, sociopaths and evil wizards, homicidal robots and mad scientists, you will of course get several films in which you will not support the antagonists, simply because they are terrible characters, the hero is awesome, or both. However, when they belong in the former category, there is always a small voice in the back of your head as the movie heads towards its close, begging that the villain, just this once, gets away with it. Because, let’s be honest. Alec Trevelyan did get screwed over just a tiny bit. Roy Batty does have a point. Colonel Hans Landa, in his genius, kind of deserves to get away with it. And, for crying out loud, Darth Vader is fucking cool.
Andreas Kirkinis is Not So Reviews’ Film and TV columnist
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