What Makes a Great Villain?

hannibal-lecterAt Comic Con in Chicago last weekend, I attended an intriguing workshop on the psychology of supervillains, conducted by a panel of writers and psychologists.

One of the discussions in the room was about who our favorite villains are and why.

It occurred to me that there are two general flavors of villains that seem to really stand out:

1) The Admirable Villain.  These are the ones that you either root for, feel sorry for, or admire in some way for their strength or cleverness. Memorable examples are:

  • Kahn in the new Star Trek Into Darkness movie (justified, clever, and formidable)
  • Hannibal Lector (clever, wittty, formidable, with a soft spot for Clarice and a desire for a room with a view)
  • Magneto, especially as portrayed by Michael Fassbender in X-Men First Class (justified and powerful)
  • Loki in The Avengers (witty and formidable)
  • Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (deliciously evil, clever, formidable, and witty)
  • Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones (clever, witty, justified, though he’s more of an anti-hero – one of the most well rounded characters I’ve ever seen)
  • Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (clever, formidable)
  • Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films (witty – and quite formidable)
  • General Zod in Man of Steel (justified in his own mind, passionate)
  • Norman Bates in Psycho (warm, vulnerable)

Why do these particular villains stand out? They have a justifiable cause (at least in their own minds). They have a passion about something. They’re charming in their own distorted way. They’re extremely clever. They’re formidable. And they’re often witty, sometimes dryly so. They often have the best lines.

Then there’s the second kind of villain, the kind you absolutely hate and can’t wait to see die. This takes us to:

2) The Despicable Villain. As the panel pointed out, these types of villains are selfish, lack empathy, are narcissistic, often sadistic, and frequently are psychopaths. They also tend to be an unpredictable force of chaos that disrupts everyone around them. Examples might be:

  • Goffrey in Game of Thrones
  • Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon’s character in X-Men First Class)
  • Commodus in Gladiator (played by Joaquin Phoenix)
  • Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption
  • The Joker in Batman
  • Voldemort in Harry Potter
  • Caligula in The Robe (or any other film Caligula is portrayed in)
  • Eleanor Iselin (Raymond Shaw’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate, played by Angela Lansbury)

Why do we hate these villains so much?  I’d venture to say that it’s because of the things they do to people we like. They are memorable to the extent of the damage they cause to people we like and the degree of selfishness they portray. That’s important, because otherwise they could come across as a flat, “mustache-twirler” who’s more a caricature than a memorable villain. It’s very hard to pull off a memorable, hate-worthy villain who’s pure evil, without the character being flat. The above are notable exceptions.

The bottom line is that, for either type of villain — the Admirable Villain or the Despicable Villain, they’ll be more memorable if they are extremely clever (or devious) and formidable, either due to a special skill or the chaos they inflict,

What are your thoughts? Who are your favorite villains and why? Which ones do you admire? Which ones do you hate?



2 comments on “What Makes a Great Villain?

  1. “Uncle Charlie” in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt’…Slowly this visit from him greatly impresses and fills his family with delight. until his niece finds out his secret, that Uncle Charlie is in fact ‘The Merry Widow Murderer” killling widowed woman after woman after woman. It is Hitchcock’s own personal favorite film that he ever made. I tend to agree. The complete terror with the niece knowing…and Charile knowing that she knows, tries to decide to keep her quiet or kill her.

  2. A great one! I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, and that one is set up perfectly. I agree.

    In general, HItchcock liked to make sure his villains were either charming, attractive, suave, or warm in some way (Uncle Charlie, Norman Bates, Vandamm in North by Northwest,etc., and even Mrs Danvers had a passion driving her in Rebecca). ,You mentioned another great trick he had; letting the audience in on the secret before the end, which raises the tension as to whether the protagonist or antagonist would find out. He did this to great effect in Vertigo, where it showed Kim Novak recalling what really happened, and then the audience was left wondering how and when James Stewart would find out her secret. Brilliant stuff!

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