Thursday, April 28, 2011

Villians: The "necessary evil" for the Hero archetype?

In all honestly I’ve wanted to come back to these movie archetypes discussions for a bit of a while, just to balance out the discussions with the hero genres. It seemed only fair to do a focus towards the antagonists as well, since they are an equal and necessary part of storytelling, especially in movies.

Think about it, just how far and how good a film would be without the right type of villain or foe to show the endurance of the characters, the characterization of the antagonist, in comparison to the protagonist, and the storyline itself? In my opinion, probably not that far or that great.

Now I know I mentioned this before, but just to set the record straight once again this is not me glamorizing evil or its ideology, etc. This is just a discussion on the role of the antagonist in storytelling, and more specifically why we have them.

Now with all that aside, let’s look as the role of the villain. One definition of the villain I found (via Random House Unabridged Dictionary), “The villain usually is the antagonist, the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters…a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.” So, in a nutshell this would be the general bare-bones description of the villain, yet when you really think about it, the villain is much more than just this.

I’ll explain, consider some the more well known villainous characters in films and literature. Antagonists such as, Darth Vader, Sauron, Randall Flagg, Megatron, The White Witch, the MCP, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Hannibal Lector, or even Skynet. Now imagine how the stories these villains come from would be like if they did not exist. How would Luke overcome his fear and anger? (Or his own existence since he’s the son, but that’s beside the point lol). What about John Connor? Would be end up being another Joe Blow if it wasn’t for the future and present threat of Skynet? Or in some novels, Mother Abigail or Roland Deschain with no Flagg or Crimson King? No triumph over evil, or showing of some human endurance, or valor over those that would prefer harm over good. No doubt it would be a rather short and uninteresting read to say the least.

I think Roger Ebert said it best when he was asked this question about the role of the villain. He states: “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” I’m not sure if I would go as far as stating that villains are a necessary evil per say, but when you really think about it, just how good can a film, story, or the hero be without one?

One film I think that not only really portrays this formula nearly to a ‘T’, but directly addresses this within the film would be the movie “Unbreakable” by M. Night Shyamalan (which by the way, is one of the FEW good movies he did). The film “explores the analogies between the real world and the mythology of superheroes.” Rather than giving up the plot of the film in detail, I would instead highly recommend this film to those that would like to explore this genre of hero and villain. One thing I noticed about this film was how it seems that some of the better known villains were at some point known to each other or even friends of the hero. Yet due to differences of opinions, a horrific tragedy, or even polar opposites (figuratively and literally) they become the antagonist of the story. It’s interesting that this formula seems to create the most villainous or best known villains of all time. In relation to this, I think I know why that is.

Think about that formula a bit. An individual starting out as good, but due to some difference of opinion, or POV, or some unforeseen circumstance (like a tragedy) the person eventually and willingly becomes evil. From a historical perspective, where do we see this formula begin from? If you guessed Lucifer, becoming Satan, indeed you’re correct!

Remember, Satan himself wasn’t "the devil" all the time. At one point he was an archangel, called Lucifer meaning “Morning Star”. And as many of you already know, Lucifer rebelled against God. He wanted to succeed God, and emphasized this with a rather boastful (and foolhardy) statements (Isaiah 14:12-15). He convinced a third of the heavenly host to join his rebellion, and attempted to “be the most high” but was defeated and cast out of heaven (Jude 1:6 & Rev. 12:3-4), thus becoming Satan. And thanks to him and his interference in that little suggestion to Eve in the Garden of Eden, he also becomes the most well known antagonist in written history, the antagonist to God, and all of mankind. Yet he was not like that in the beginning but became evil itself.


Notice that one other thing that this formula also suggests. All these antagonists that were either associates or even friends with the hero(s) even with the change of events that might have turned then to the villain, was all done by free choice, even the devil himself. They all chose to become bad or do bad things, even if it was from their perspective ‘for the best intentions’ they still chose to go down that ‘road to ruin’, which is sad, but a lesson well learned. Why? Remember that same formula, with all villains that do harm, typically lose in the end to the hero. Yes its clichéd but when you think of the alternatives, well…what else is there?

Oh and on one side note, I was told from two friends of mine, another good movie that would fit this entry would be the film “Office Space”. Never saw it but may need to check this one out. Apparently the antogonist in this one is one for the books.

Oh well, what say you all on this one?


  1. Great post, my friend.

    I recall being told once that "story" requires "conflict," and I've always been fascinated by any attempt to tell a story that has no bad guy.

    However, part of the sub-conscious acceptance of the notion that conflict is required for a story to be compelling is, in my humble estimation, a result of the fact that "the greatest story ever told" is one of the age old conflict of good vs evil in the embodiments of God and Lucifer.

    And, so often, a modern story is but a retelling of an older story; modern characters refresh age-old legends, and new movies are just contemporary installments illuminating timeless themes (look at how many modern movies touch on "redemption" as we've discussed here at DRD's Movie Musings!)

    So, yes, there is a fascination with the bad guy. Part of our obsession with the interesting nature of bad guys is, as you've mentioned, understanding how a good person went bad, and getting introspective - could that happen to us?

    Then there's the reality that, most of the time, we go into a movie knowing the good guy is supposed to win, so we're kind of sympathetic to the bad guy who is inevitably doomed from jump. We Christians believe that "faith is the victory" and that "Satan is already defeated."

    The idea that the good guy in some way lit the fuse that made the bad guy explode into his badness is not too far removed from the line of reasoning that, since God created everything and knows everything, then God created the devil knowing he'd be what he was going to be and do what he was going to do. No need to explore that idea here, just mentioning it in response to your article.

  2. Thanks for the reply!

    You're correct about how most modern stories are typicly the re-telling of older stories...and the concept of the good person going bad, is no exception.

    Oh theres was something I forgot to mention in regards to this article and the Fallen Heros one. In my opinion, the Fallen hero is a character that (in some form or another) is an already established hero, that for various reasons, becomes the villian. In case anyone is wondering the diffrence between them, be sure the check out the Fallen hero blog entry.


What do you think?!