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What makes a good villain?

I’ll start this off as I tend to start off all of these blog posts, with an update. I had planned to watch Zoom and Sky High with my daughter Jena, but then we took a trip to the video store and I saw the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle trilogy staring at me. I left it up to her to decide between Sky High and TMNT, and she picked TMNT. So the next three reviews will be the original live action Turtles movies. I will leave the animated reboot for another time for now. Another thing that surprised me a little bit is that when I checked some of my site stats, I saw that these editorial style blogs tend to be more popular than most of my movie reviews. Huh. I’m also considering adding another post per week focusing on just a trailer for a movie, either upcoming or classic. Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that by commenting below. Enough of the update, let’s get to the question in the title, shall we?

A couple weeks ago I took a look at the question of what defines a superhero. The next week I didn’t really have a topic and I can’t believe I didn’t think of doing this topic right afterwards. Now the first thing you may notice is while I first looked at what makes a superhero, I’m not looking at what makes a supervillain. It’s the simple fact that while every movie that I’m looking at has a superhero, not every movie has a supervillain. In fact, that tends to be one of the biggest incredulities of many origin stories: when a person gains superpowers due to some sort of accident and becomes a hero, there is also another person that gains superpowers and becomes a villain. But often, the villain is just a mob boss or a street gang, and that can be just as interesting. The other part that’s missing from this week’s question is the word “define”, I’m not as interested in defining a villain, I’m more interested in what makes a good villain, an interesting villain, a plausible match up for the superhero.

First, I’ll start off with what a good villain doesn’t need. Unlike superheroes, a good villain doesn’t need superpowers. It can certainly help, but a villain can be a formidable opponent without superhuman strength. Instead they can increase their threat with weapons, intellect, or in a few cases sheer numbers. A villain also doesn’t need a costume, some of the best villains are the ones that don’t initially come off as a villain. They can be an outstanding member of society on the outside, in some cases they can even be the superhero’s friend, but they are secretly working against the hero. A villain doesn’t even have to come from the comic books, they can easily take a well known superhero and create a new villain to come into play for the movie.

But then, what does make a good villain? I think motivation is an important part of what makes a good villain and it’s one that can easily be overlooked or glossed over in movies. There’s nothing more boring than just a generic evil villain that’s evil for evil’s sake. It’s easy to come up with a simple motivation: money, power, revenge, but the more interesting the motivation, the more interesting the villain. Of course there’s always the exception to the rule, notably the Joker from Batman and the Evil Clown from Spawn. Though it can be said that their motivation is just plain insanity, which makes them interesting for the simple fact that anything goes. This is different than an evil for evil’s sake villain, like Drake from Blade: Trinity. He was boring because pretty much all there was to him was that he was evil.

A villain of course needs a little bit more than motivation to be a good villain. They also need some sort of power. Notice that I said “power” and not “superpower”. That is an important difference. Power can be many different things, like I noted earlier, intelligence, weapons, and manpower are all forms of power without any of them being “super”. Lex Luthor is the most notable villain that doesn’t have any superpowers, and yet he has plenty of everything else I listed, as well as money and influence. He has practically everything at his fingertips except superpowers. The Kingpin is another great example of an interesting villain that poses a major threat, yet he has no superpowers. He is quite large and imposing, but his greatest strength is his influence and manpower.

Now of course it doesn’t hurt to give a villain superpowers either. Just make sure it’s a good one. Nearly all villains that get into fist fights with their superheroes are at the very least stronger than your average person, even if that strength primarily comes from some sort of fighting training. But there are plenty of mistakes when it comes to villainous powers. Having recently watched Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, one of the main villains has the power of decay. What is that? And what use is it when fighting a spirit with a flaming skull? I don’t think there’s much left to decay there.

There’s also something to be said for a superhero movie that doesn’t have a specific villain to fight. I think Hancock is a great movie, and there’s not really any attempt at creating a named villain, it’s just a group of random thugs in the end. I thought I had another example to pull from, but I’m drawing a blank. Honestly I think it would be brave to create a superhero movie that didn’t have any real villains to stand against them. If there is one out there, I’d love to hear about it, and if it’s one I know about, I’m sure I’ll feel stupid later. Don’t forget to leave a comment if you have something to add, until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.

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About Bubbawheat

I'm a comic book movie enthusiast who has watched and reviewed over 300 superhero and comic book movies in the past four years, my goal is to continue to find and watch and review every superhero movie ever made.

Posted on March 6, 2012, in Blogs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great article! When you first mentioned the incredulity of the villain being created with the hero, I immediately thought of Hancock, with his wandering lifestyle being a sign of what happens when you have a superhero with nobody to fight, so I’m glad he got a mention.

    My favorite villain is probably Magneto, precisely because he is so complex, and at times not even a “full” villain. He’s not really set on “evil” so much as his view of what survival should mean, so there are times when he changes sides or where we find ourselves changing to his side when the political winds shift. I also like him because his powers are so different than Professor X (presuming that’s the hero he most often goes up against). Mind versus matter. Or at least mind versus metal!

    • Magneto is totally a great villain. He has his own agenda that sounds perfectly reasonable to him and to those that follow him, and yet it’s often directly in opposition to the X-Men. Dr. Freeze from the Batman animated series is another example of a really great villain.

  1. Pingback: The Screenwriter's Guide To Movie Villains | The Screenwriting Spark

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