Ursula, The Joker, Killmonger and Cersei Lannister come from vastly different stories taking place in disparate worlds, and yet they all have something in common. They’re invented as characters fuelled by hate – the bad guys who embody all the things the hero of the story stands against – but somehow we end up loving them all the same. What is it about these characters that makes them so memorable to us? If they’re supposed to be bad, why do we love movie villains almost as much as we do the heroes (and sometimes even more?)
The baddest of the bad
Villains have always permeated our live. Since we were kids, almost every narrative has had one. Every great movie or TV show needs a good antagonist, so we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to picking a favourite.
While the jury’s out on who the greatest movie villain of all time is, they all follow a similar pattern – they need to be threatening. They have to be able to pose a legitimate threat to the hero (or heroes) of any story to even qualify as a villain, and not just some gloomy peripheral character. If they’re not all-round terrifying, they may be cunning, witty, or sassy – all qualities that can be considered virtues if they were possessed by the hero of the story.
One essential quality for a good villain is that he or she be an outcast. For some reason the villain just doesn’t fit in, and often whether it’s because of this that they’re performing evil deeds, or because they’re performing deeds that they’re not generally popular, is never made clear.
Animated villains like Scar and Hades crack jokes that almost certainly went over our heads as kids, but which still make us chuckle well into adulthood. As we got older we encountered increasingly terrifying villains, like Voldemort and his death eaters, who linger in our memory as if they weren’t fictional at all.
Some, like Disney’s Maleficent, have done better than others in becoming multidimensional characters, even developing from being an animated baddie to a relatable, live-action film lead. According to Sophie Hart, writing for Fandom, Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent is far more sympathetic than the 1959 animated portrayal of her, without sacrificing the villain’s confidence and power. Maleficent is a prime example of a villain who, like all of us, has a heart – but can kick your ass if you mess with her.
Another iconic live-action villain, according to Hart, is Glenn Close’s fabulously maniacal version of Cruella De Vil. “Her performance is as exasperated as it is extra, her inner rage barely concealed under her glamorous furs. Chewing the scenery with cartoon-like craziness, her put-downs are unmatched”.
When it comes to TV villains, it gets even harder to choose, as we often has multiple episodes and even multiple seasons to encounter the same nasty characters (and somehow grow to love them – or at least love to hate them). A survey conducted by DigitalSpy found that television viewers considered Ramsey Snow (Game of Thrones), Jim Moriarty (Sherlock), and Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones) the 3 best television villains.
But what is it about these cruel and calculating characters that attracts us to them anyway?
The power of the dark side
In order to figure out what attracts us to villains in general, we need to analyse a few particular examples.
“In the real world, even the worst people usually don’t view themselves as villains,” writes Oisin Curran for How Stuff Works. “Almost all of us like to believe that we’re trying our best to do the right thing. This goes for everybody from the innocent people trying to stay alive in conflict zones right up to the dictators who are stoking those conflicts”.
This may be an important quality in a really good hero, and it’s definitely the reason viewers love villains like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger.
“He carries a very legitimate chip on his shoulder due to the unjust punishment meted out to his father,” writes Curran, “and given his experiences as an African American man in the U.S., his plan to militarily empower black nations around the world makes a certain amount of sense, his motives are comprehensible”.
We may not approve of his methods, but we get where he’s coming from, and that makes him a whole lot more human. The same can be said of Game of Thrones‘s Cersei Lannister. We can identify that her methods are cruel, calculating, and oftentimes just pure evil, but we also have to admit that everything she does is in order to protect her children. We can abhor her actions, while simultaneously feeling sympathy for the fact that essentially, she’s a devoted mother trying to protect her family. Cersei doesn’t seek power for the sake of being powerful, she grasps for it because it will protect her brood from the hordes that would see them dead. Its this three-dimensional quality that makes the Lioness queen what Curran calls “an antagonist for the ages”
But not every character has this relatable human element to them. Darth Vader, one of pop culture’s most iconic villains, isn’t much more than an expressionless asthmatic in a helmet who delivers a couple of one-liners. I personally think it’s just the voice of James Earl Jones that does it for us, but Curran argues that even Vader, whose character is so extraordinarily dull on paper, has something to offer as a villain:
“above all it’s the loud, ominous wheezing of a ventilator, which reminds us that somewhere inside that black exoskeleton is a shrivelled human on eternal life support — embittered, tragic, terrifying. Darth Vader is an iteration of the future we fear most — humanity encased in technology, lost to the light.”
According to Travis Langley writing for Wired, our fascination with the bad guys may be something to do with the way they show us a reflection of ourselves.
Psychologically it can be healthy to confront and acknowledge the darkness that we all carry within ourselves. “Healthy confrontation with our shadow selves can unearth new strengths (e.g., Bruce Wayne creating his Dark Knight persona to fight crime)”, he writes.
He also cites Sigmund Freud’s views on identity as a potential reason the villains may resonate with us: ” Sigmund Freud viewed human nature as inherently antisocial, biologically driven by the undisciplined id’s pleasure principle to get what we want when we want it — born to be bad but held back by society. Even if the psyche fully develops its ego (source of self-control) and superego (conscience), Freudians say the id still dwells underneath, and it wishes for many selfish things — so it would love to be supervillainous”.
Villains may also come to represent concepts such as freedom and power – which we all desire on a very basic and biological level. They are often fuelled by primal emotions like rage, or the desire for revenge, both of which activate us in ways we can’t always explain.
Whether you love your favourite movie villain because of their witty jokes (like Hades), or because they’re a straight up babe ( like Killmonger), it’s clear that no story would be complete without them. They play essential roles not only in fuelling the plot, but in highlighting the goodness in the hero, and sometimes the darkness within ourselves.
Really, there’s nothing wrong with digging a good movie villain, especially if, like Maleficent, they have redeeming qualities and a relatable axe to grind. It’s the real life baddies, the ones off the screens and in governments and large organisations, that we really need to be worried about.