In the wake of David Bowie’s untimely departure, I retold a story about how I first encountered his acting when I was small and was left unattended in front of Labyrinth. After sitting through a spellbinding few hours, I struggled to get thoughts of Bowie’s Goblin King out of my head. As a young boy, I quickly assumed that I was scared of him and, let’s be fair, he does exude quite a lot of menace in the role. However, as I matured and I returned to films from my past, I quickly began to realise that it wasn’t that I was afraid of the Goblin King but in fact that I wanted to be the Goblin King.
It’s hard to write a good villain or, more to the point, it’s far too easy to write a bad one. Give them too much material and the audience becomes sympathetic to them, give them too little and they become a snarling, cardboard cut-out of a character. Many films suffer from poorly written bad guys and I’ll be the first to admit that even my beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe struggles to give us characters we want to see defeated. Outside of my namesake, few have really gained much love within fan circles. But what happens when they do? When the person you love to hate becomes the person you hate to love?
Another piece of personal history. I was at the Download festival last year when word passed around that one of my all-time heroes had passed away. Sir Christopher Lee, a man so multi-talented that his autobiography is almost hard to believe (although I have no doubt is true), had finally departed this mortal plane. By a sheer stroke of luck, the campsite was showing The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers on a big screen that evening and it was with much sadness that I raised my glass and cheered with the crowd each time the master appeared on screen. When I was a teenager, I spent a long time staying up way too late to watch older movies on TV, many of which starred Christopher Lee in some nefarious role. Far from being a lacklustre, easily defeated villain, Lee conferred much of his stature and power into the roles, so much so that I found him eerily magnetic and a must watch, regardless of the role he played. Like any actor, he certainly took part in some stinkers too but regardless, his presence could elevate any film to a tolerable level.
Part of this is no doubt to do with the quality of the actor but it also has to come from the writer as well. Tom Hiddleston heaped praise upon Joss Whedon for his take on Loki in 2012’s Avengers and there have been many tales of actors choosing to take the villain role simply because they were better written. Bruce Campbell tells a tale of how he was pitched the hero’s role in a sci-fi action movie only to choose to play the villain because of how better written the character was. Some villain tropes play into this, such as epic monologues, high intelligence and the chance to be a completely psychopathic bastard. In order for a villain to be competent enough to beat the hero (or at least appear to be) they either have to be incredibly powerful or very, very intelligent. For a truly imposing foe, preferably both so it’s no surprise that actors favour these parts when they can, even if too much can pigeonhole them into a role.
On the flipside, it seems obvious why a well-played villain should be so seductive. Power, money and intelligence are almost always universally attractive, even if they come with a morality free conscience. It seems almost assumed that we’re hard-wired to root for the hero, to want good to overcome evil but where a villain proves their intellectual and even occasionally, moral superiority over others, it’s only natural for them to take our attention away from those that we’re ‘supposed’ to like. A common stance to take in writing a villain is to portray them as someone who could almost have been a hero had the circumstances been different and it is this that can then blur the line of the righteous villain right into the path of the slightly darker hero, often known as the anti-hero. But that is a subject for another time…
Another tragic loss occurred not long into 2016. Alan Rickman, an accomplished and brilliant actor died shortly after the new year, leaving us bereft of his outstanding talent. As a child of the 80s, I first came to know him as Hans Gruber, the laconic and easily irritated antagonist of Die Hard. Despite Bruce Willis’ excellent performance, Rickman was able to imbue his bad guy with intelligence, wit and amazing fortitude against the rogue cop that was mucking up his plans. This in turn made the film even better and when John McClain did finally defeat the bad guys, it felt like a victory that was hard earned and satisfying. This is one of the greatest reasons for writing a good bad guy: that any victory scored against them feels better than it would against some generic, poorly written thug.
Only a few years later, Rickman would return as another memorable bad guy in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. This time he wouldn’t just give us another outstanding portrayal of a clever and intelligent bad guy as the Sheriff of Nottingham, he would completely dominate the film, overshadowing Kevin Costner as the hero with seemingly little effort. Could another actor have rattled off lines about cancelling Christmas and threatening to cut out a person’s heart with a spoon as easily? I doubt it.
These early roles models started a lifelong love of mine for bad guys and I don’t feel bad about it. A good bad guy is essential for a decent film, book or anything really. To get a real sense of victory, you need a real sense of danger and that comes from a sense that maybe this time, good won’t win out, that maybe the villain is far more clever than we anticipated. But they also give us a sense of catharsis, of emotional release, a chance to tap into our inherent darkness. Who hasn’t wanted to Force choke an annoying customer or kneecap a dodgy businessman? This is the appeal of a great villain: that just as we admire the hero and their relentless quest, the villain represents a character that tramples over life’s sensibilities and other people’s morals. They get to do whatever they want, whenever they want and feel no remorse about it.
So let’s celebrate the bad guys. They give us someone to fear, someone to let our rage out on and an example to draw on when life gives us a handful of bitter lemons. The next time someone tries to short change you or cuts you up at a junction, just ask yourself, what would Lord Vader do?
Labyrinth via Lucasfilm
The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers via IMDB / New Line Cinema
Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves via Warner Bros.