A Dime On: 10 Traits of Highly-Effective Villains

Hey guys! I’m starting a new segment! Some people have commented on how my movie reviews had a lot of theory and somewhat academic film subject matter in it, and how those were some of the better parts. So I’ve decided to try my hand in actually writing a few posts about some of the theoretical stuff. I hope you enjoy it! Also, I am legally bound to tell you that there may be some spoilers in this review, mainly in the examples I’ll be listing below. Most of them are pretty famous movies, so hopefully you’ve seen them. Either case, read at your own risk! :)

I actually didn’t have to think hard about what I was planning to write. Its no secret that, for me, the villain is one of the essential tools to making a movie fantastic, and I’d dare say that a lot of the time, he’s more important (character-wise) than the hero. In fact it is the anti-hero, a heroic characters in traditionally villainous roles, that have made for some of the most interesting and iconic heroes in not just movies, but all of literature. Macbeth goes crazy, killing off his competition in order to gain his royal standing. Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Tony Montana, a.k.a. Scarface, is a drug lord and a killer. Don Vito Corleone, a.k.a. The Godfather, is the leader of one of the strongest families in organized crime. Han Solo starts out as a smuggler. Batman is a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. At the end of the day, everybody loves a good villain.

So lets get to it, in my honest opinion these are the 10 traits that the greatest of the great villains all share.

1. how strong/powerful they are.

A good villain should, initially, be more powerful (in whatever sense of the word) than the hero. He should prove to be a close-to insurmountable challenge for the hero to defeat. Good villains are needed to up the stakes in a movie. You need a good, strong conflict for a great plot, and as villains, they have to deliver that. As cool as Batman is, making a movie on him vs. Calendar Man would pretty much suck unless it starred Adam West.

Villains don’t have to be physically imposing, they could control a small empire, or be extremely intelligent, or be more skilled. The point is, the villain must be better than the hero and force him to reach deeper within himself and work harder to achieve his goal of defeating said villain. Simply put, a weak villain leads to a weak plot.

Good Example: T-1000 from Terminator 2. He’s invincible against any form of modern-day firearms, can shape-shift, and has the ability to harden or liquify his own metal form. The perfect villain for Ah-nuld, who’s also an almost indestructible robot from the future. If I see this guy walking down the street, I’m running.

Bad Example: Dominic Greene of Quantum of Solace. This guy is supposed to be James Bond‘s arch-enemy in this movie? He isn’t imposing, and when he does face off with James, he puts up one of the saddest fights I have ever seen in a movie. I bet you Mark and Daniel from Bridget Jones’ Diary could kick this guy’s butt.

2. how they used said strength and power.

It doesn’t matter how strong a villain may be, if they don’t use their strengths effectively, then that’s just about the same as being weak. If you were, say, an immortal-undead Chinese general with incredible speed and strength and the ability to turn into a  30-foot tall, four legged dragon thing *cough* The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor *cough*, why would you just fight people in human form, where you’re more vulnerable? A villain could never have risen to the top being so unimaginative and ineffective with his skills/powers/talents. The credibility just crashes down, and all that build-up goes nowhere.

I love it when I see a bad guy being creative with his evil plans. The problem with a lot of “brute strength” villains, is that writers turn them into blockheads, making it easy for the hero to out-think them. I mean people could really take a few more pages off of Alien when it comes to physically imposing villains.  But when the villain is manipulative, conniving, deceptive, and has control over people, his battle with the hero becomes a chess match of wit and courage, and honestly, these are the arch-rivalries that go down in history. These guys should know the power they wield, and use it to its full extent.

Good Example: The Joker from The Dark Knight. He’s a psychopath who causes untold chaos all over Gotham, playing incredible mind games and showing an eery understanding in the manipulation of the human psyche. Utterly awesome.


Bad Example: Venom and Sandman from Spiderman 3. These guys are two of the strongest villains Spiderman has ever faced. Throughout the movie, Sandman appears to be unstoppable, while Venom is Spiderman‘s double, matching him in almost every way. These guys could take over the city, but what do they do? They kidnap Mary Jane Watson (which kind of means they know Peter Parker IS Spiderman, otherwise, how would they know to kidnap HER specifically), and put out a giant ad that says: “Spider-Man, Stop Us If You Can.” Weak, bro.

3. how they are defeated.

Of course, this assumes they are defeated at all (movies when evil wins are rare outside of the horror genre, but I’ll tackle that particular nuance another time). This more often than not comes in at the climax, and generally becomes the defining point of most movies. This is the moment filmmakers build up, and so it should go without saying that they have to do it well. I don’t have to get too much into this, but its suffices to say that part of every great villain’s mythos is the blaze of glory by which they are defeated. Part of every great villain is how iconic their defeat is. Think of every great Disney villain, they have some pretty iconic deaths. The Little Mermaid‘s Ursula, Rattigan the Rat (from The Great Moust Detective), Maleficent (which was a bit stupid if you really think about it, but made sense with the narrative), The Evil Queen in Snow White (who dies by her own hand), and by far my favorite would have to be Chernabog, in all of his magnificent and terrifying form, hiding away from the rising sun in the last segment of Fantasia (1940).

Have you ever seen a movie and thought, “That’s it? That’s how they killed him?” Anti-climactic deaths put a huge hamper on what could have been a pretty awesome villain character.

Good Example: The Shark from Jaws. This incredible beast swallows men left and right, and proves to be nearly impossible to kill. So how does Martin Brody kill him? shooting an oxygen tank that’s lodged in the Shark’s mouth, causing it to explode. Friggin’ awesome.

Bad Example: The Shark from Jaws 4. His death… Sigh… I don’t want to talk about it. Just watch this.

4. Their character and motivations.

We’ve come a long way from having villains who are purely evil. Nowadays, the whole idea of “Taking over the world” as a sole motivation has become one of the flimsiest cliches Hollywood could produce, and thankfully, with the advent of modern psychology, there are several movies that go way beyond that. We’ve come a long way from the one-dimensional villain twiddling his mustache while laying a damsel in distress on train tracks (now that I think of it, that has no other purpose than to say: “I’m evil”). Now we have psychotics with tortured pasts, characters who were once pure but corrupted by greed or some other vice, or people who believe that they are doing good by killing a few people.

Psychology has taught us that evil is all dependent on perspective, and that on many occasions, its a fascinating perspective to show on screen. The evil characters transformed from being purely meant to be hated, to being characters who are not only evil, but intriguingly so. By knowing more about them, it adds much more to the gravity of the crime. A man driven to kill because his own family was murdered and thus he feels divinely inspired to execute anyone even of petty crimes, is much more interesting than a simple: “This guy is a killer!” type of introduction that most movies tend to glance over.

Good Example: Norman Bates from Psycho. This serial killer’s motivations come from the severe psychological trauma his mother gave him as they lived alone together, and when she dies, he develops a multiple personality disorder to cope, and represses memories of her death (at his hands).

Bad Example:  Mr. Freeze from Batman and Robin. Apart from all the extremely awful puns, he’s a guy who was in an accident, while searching for a cure for his wife who is dying from McGregor‘s Syndrome. He starts robbing people in order to… I don’t really know, all the while spewing those puns and making jokes. Really?! Come on! (I know he’s probably fleshed out better in the comic, but movie alone, DAMN!) And how is he smoking a cigar?!

5. Ironic Origins and Relationships with the Hero

A lot of people forget that movies are a visual form of literature, even filmmakers. In literary works dating back to God-knows-when, the most enduring stories had strong underlying relationships between the hero and villain (in fact in most stories, the villain becomes evil because of an interaction with the hero.) In Greek Mythology, King Laius is told that he would die by his son’s hand, so he commands his wife, Jocasta to kill his son. She tasks her servant to do it, and the servant leaves the baby in the mountains to die of exposure. The baby, named Oedipus, was found by a shepherd and raised on the countryside.  When he grows up he unwittingly meets his father on a road, and after arguing over who should have right-of-way, ends up killing him. Okay, so not the best plot in the world, but you get what I’m saying. This notion of the ironic relationship between hero and villain has been around for over two-thousand years, and when done well, its brilliant.

The Joker adds another dimension to Batman‘s own interior struggles because (in every version of the Joker‘s origins) Batman is the reason the Joker exists. So now Batman has to contend that in his own fight to save Gotham City and clean up its streets, he is the one who is partially responsibly for unleashing its most dangerous and deranged criminal. It makes such a huge difference in the characterization for the villain. These ironic relationships and origins use so little to flesh out so much, they serve as an extremely solid foundation to build a villain’s character on. If you start out with the irony in mind, making a good villain after that is much easier.

Good Example: Darth Vader from Star Wars. Everyone know the “I am your Father” scene from The Empire Strikes Back, and the fact that people know it even without watching the movie goes to show how ingenious that plot twist was at the time. If you could imagine yourself watching Star Wars for the first time and not knowing that Vader was Luke‘s father, seeing that scene would have bl0wn your mind. Its stuff like that that makes good villains into great ones.

Bad Example: Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. He does practically nothing for a plot, save the ending, and he’s really not doing anything there except to show that he can wield a dual lightsaber. No connection to the heroes, no speaking lines, not much impact.

6. Composure

A great villain needs to be smug. There’s just something more fitting about a villain who is powerful and treats everything like a chess game he’s winning. Its this composure, this aura of “everything is going according to plan” that makes these villains so intriguing, and makes it more interesting during those times that they do lose control. There’s not much else I can add to that, yup, its pretty straightforward.

Good Example: Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. The first time we meet him, he’s standing erect right up near the glass enclosure, smiling at the Clarice Sterling as she enters the jail hall. Its positively creepy when the villain knows more and subtly manipulates the hero to his or her own devices.

Bad Example: Terl from Battlefield Earth.

7. The Distinctive Look

This is pretty essential of a great villain. He has to have a certain look about it. The villains may have very different looks, but the best ones always have a special something that makes them stand out from the rest of the crowd. The villains cannot look like everyone else. Some movies have that problem when you can’t really differentiate the lead villain from his henchmen. This is where either great costumes and great acting come into play. Its not always possible for the villain in the movie to where a black helmet, suit and cape and swing a red lightsaber around. Sometimes they have to exude the aura of a great villain. Either way, the first time you see them, they have to stand out.

Good Example: Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He’s an all-knowing master computer of the Spaceship Discovery, and is often depicted as a single glowing red light on a panel board. Its so simple, yet we’ve seen this emulated over and over again, Wall-E‘s own AUTO is an homage to this very villain.

Bad Example: The Fallen from Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. Do any of these robots aside from Bumblebee and Optimus Prime stand out? Because I really don’t notice. They all look alike to me, and so when I see Megatron and The Fallen side by side, I just would not know who would be following who in that situation until Megatron starts calling The Fallen his “master”. But really, he has nothing defining him from the other villains, and in the end, I barely remember him at all.

8. Ruthless Conviction

Villains may sometimes be portrayed as having redeeming factors, but at the end of the day, part of being a truly great and heinous villain is doing something that most people would never think of doing. Killing members of your own family, committing genocide (geez, that’s a lot of villains right there), and the typical maniacal stuff is always good, especially when you make the audience sympathize with the hero, like when Scar kills Mufasa in the Lion King and Simba watches it all happen, or when you spend so much time getting to know the Na’vi in Avatar and you see them getting wiped out by the droves.

Even the intent is enough. Cruella De Vil, wanting to skin puppies for a fur coat, or The Queen trying to kill her own daughter, Snow White. The interesting thing is that heroes and villains are not too far apart, the usual and only big difference is that the villains cross a line somewhere down the road that the heroes are either too scared of or too valiant to cross for themselves. This line of going too far is important in the characters of many villains, even the sympathetic ones, and is a turning point in their development. There’s just something not as interesting about a villain who’s flip-floppy. The villain’s crossed the line, it makes them way more pathetic if they try and tip-toe back into the good side. I’d save those guys for the episode villains in CSI, but no way they’d make it among the greats of the movies.

Good Example: Max Cady from Cape Fear (1962). Max Cady is an ex-convict is released after 8 years in prison for rape. Upon his release, he goes on a relentless vendetta against Sam Bowden, the man whose testimony sends him to jail, and so he begins to stalk the family, including killing their dog, in the hopes of not simply killing Bowden but terrorizing him and the people he loves. (The 1991 remake is also pretty good.)

Bad Example: King John from Robin Hood (2010). For a guy who’s shown to have manipulated his way to becoming a prince, and consequently a king, he does get manipulated a lot. He doesn’t seem to have any clear idea of what he wants, nor does he seem to be in control of any of the deceptions around him. I absolutely understand that the myth of Robin Hood is that he constantly outsmarts the immature Prince John, but at least in most depictions, John has the goal of enriching himself and making his life as luxurious as possible. This incarnation looks like he wants to help, then he throws a hissy-fit and decides to go back on his promise.

9. Mystery

I learned from my theology professor, speaking of the Divine Mystery, that “a mystery isn’t something unknowable, rather it is something wherein there is always something more to know.” In other terms, that means that we can know a lot of things about something that is mysterious, but there will always be more things we can uncover. Some of us know what the term “love” is, but does that mean that we understand “love” completely? Same goes for people, there are people that are enigmatic, and even if you know a lot about them, there’s always something more that you could learn.

This same thing applies to a good villain. A good villain is a complex character who may have a lot of motivations shown on screen, but always leaves you with the feeling that there could be more to him than what you see on screen. The mystery is what hooks you in, and as the saying goes: “We fear what we do not understand.” In order for a villain to scare and alarm you, he must be enigmatic. Movies sometimes cheat this by hiding the villain, using shadows to mask the face, or not showing the person pulling the strings. That’s one way to go about it, but its been done so many times that often, it feels like a tired, old, cliche. Some of the best villains were fleshed out into characters larger than what is shown on screen. They feel like real people and they get you wondering, how did they become this way, and what other stories does this person have to offer. The mystery should come from the right mix of what’s shown on screen and what’s left out, and goes in conjunction with #4.

Good Example: Annie Wilkes from Misery. Misery has got to be one of the creepiest movies based on a Stephen King novel. Annie Wilkes is a crazed fan of the writer Paul Sheldon, whom she ends up saving from a car accident. He realizes that he may not be in such safe hands when she refuses to bring him to the hospital and goes crazy when she finds out that Paul killed off her favorite character, Misery Chastain, in his latest novel. Her character is ripe with psychological trauma, and the thought of being trapped under her care is blood-curdling.

Bad Example: Dracula from Blade Trinity. Okay just to recap, Count Dracula is one of the most iconic literary characters of all-time. What made him so popular was that in Easter-European folk lore, vampires were monstrous savage creatures. The Bram Stoker novel presented a vampire who appeared of noble birth and very civilized. This mysterious and ironic image lead to the massive following and changes in vampire lore forever. Fast-forward to 2005, Blade Trinity. Dracula is nothing more than some dude who wants to take over the world. His motivations are as bright as day, and as we only see Dracula as a one-dimensional world conqueror, lacking all of the charades of class. This doesn’t make us wonder about anything, doesn’t make him mysterious and makes the plot a really generic one.

10. Being “Relatable”

So, my wordpress spell-check and a quick google search has proven that this word doesn’t really exist, but I couldn’t find anything that meant the same thing, so I’m sticking with the quotations here. Basically, what I mean is that the audience should be able to relate to the villain. I know this might seem to contradict #9 but hear me out on this one. No matter how good (or bad) a villain is, they won’t hit you unless you’ve experienced something along those lines. If, for example, you don’t come from a culture with a weaker sense of mysticism, how can spirits and demons be that scary for you? (This is one reason, in my opinion, why most Asian horror films end up having very weak Hollywood remakes) Paranormal activity works, for example, because it uses a medium that most Americans are familiar with, security footage, something that feels less mystical and more scientific.

There should be something in the back of your mind telling you that, this villain could exist, and though they may be exaggerated through film, these characters are steeped in reality. I know its a creepy thought to think of while watching the movie, and in all honesty, most of us probably don’t even make that connection. But I do believe that on a subconscious level, that’s where the fear comes from, thats where the desire to see this man brought to justice or receive his comeuppance comes from. We’ve had our bad bosses, so the evil boss makes a great stock villain. Whether its from a crazy dog, or an irritable cat, I bet that most, if not all, of us have had scary encounters with animals. Its the collection of those fears that make villains like The Shark from Jaws so scary, because of the emotional attachment that’s connected to us.

Through a mixture of music, mood, and our own experiences, a villain on film comes to represent so much more of our own experience, and that’s when they become really great villains.

Good Example: Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nurse Ratched is the head nurse of a mental institution which she runs with an iron fist, having complete control over their medications, treatments, privileges and basic necessities. She keeps order by using her power to make everyone conform, by giving them drugs or giving them humiliating punishments if they displease her. This type of person, who abuses her power, is no stranger to any of us. And the scary thing is, given that kind of power and authority, we would know some people who would actually do something like that, hell we might be able to do that if tempted. Its that scary notion and its possibility of happening, that makes us root even more strongly for the hero of the film, and hope that in the end, evil will fall.

Bad Example: Terl from Battlefield Earth.

And there you have it, my own little checklist of what makes an absolutely AWESOME movie villain. I hope you had a blast reading it, I sure did in writing it. Till next time!


Posted on June 16, 2011, in Feature, List and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. There’s a reason I’ve heard of (or seen) every single good example, but only one or two of the bad examples. Great post!

  2. Reading this, I’m curious about your take on the villains from the two National Treasure movies: Ian Howe and Mitch Wilkinson, respectively. (If, of course, you’ve even seen those movies.)

  1. Pingback: My Ten Cents On: Captain America: The First Avenger « Some Loose Change

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