No hero is complete without a good villain. They’re the one who challenges and transforms them. The villain is that uncontrollable element that stands in the way of a “happy ending” – an unpredictable force between point A and point B.
Personally, I have a soft side for villains. I guess you could say it’s more of a soft side for anti-heroes since I lean toward the ones who aren’t all that bad. I think some of us like to watch villains because they can do something incredibly bad-ass which gives the audience that wow factor. More often than not they get to do the kind of stunts that the hero can’t. For example – the Joker blowing up a hospital in the Dark Knight. Was it a good thing? No, but it still rendered a “whoa” moment. The villain can get away with that sort of thing because they’re not supposed to be the good guy. It makes for good entertainment and the ultimate success of the hero all the better.
I like villains for a little more than just the “whoa” factor though. Usually I find them more interesting and layered (not to say the hero can’t be both of those). The way I see it, most characters start out inherently good. They have a blank slate at the beginning and more often than not they have to be part of the light side before heading over to the dark side. The hero is still good when the story begins and the audience knows that the hero will remain good until the end, give or take a few slips to warrant suspense. On the other hand, the villain has already fallen and it’s the audience’s job to determine what triggered that fall.
They know the villain was good at one point, but there is an evident story behind their behavior. A side story that most the time the viewers are only given hints of and left to piece together themselves. I love that stuff. I love seeing a fall from grace because the aftermath can be heart wrenching, horrifying, and even understandable. It’s compelling to see why a character turned down the wrong path. Although a hero struggling to accept responsibility and stay on that right path is in no way dull. I just find myself more invested into the secret origins of one who detoured away from the light.
It’s scenes like this that give the villain an immense amount of depth. The scene is from Once Upon a Time in the West and shows the antagonist’s back story. All of a sudden the “bad guy” is understandable and, well, human. In case the link doesn’t work, you first see a close up of the villain’s face and when the camera zooms back out he’s a child again. A harmonica (one he carries with him throughout the film) is shoved in his mouth. The camera continues to zoom out and you begin to see that there’s another person standing on his shoulders. The person is hanging by his neck and is also the villain’s older brother. He’s finally forced to move and his brother dies from the lack of support. It’s heartbreaking and stunning when you’re seeing it for the first time. It’s a scene like this that makes the villain entrancing. They stay with you, possibly even become a favorite character.
Think of Loki’s pivotal scene in Thor, Prince Zuko in Avatar the Last Airbender, Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Ben Linus in Lost, Magneto in the X-Men films, heck even Shadow from Sonic Adventure 2. Sometimes these back stories stay with the viewers longer than the hero’s. They’re something to chew on and they also give room for redemption. As cliche as it might be, there is nothing I fall for more than seeing a villain become the hero. In Dragon Ball Z there were two villains who turned over gradually and ended up becoming two incredibly heroic characters. Vegeta would end up sacrificing himself for his son and wife – something he wouldn’t dream of doing back in season 1. Then Piccolo would become a second father to his former enemy’s son and act as a guide for him. We also get villains like Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb who’s wildly sympathetic and actually quite likeable. He’s not that bad of a guy and has demonstrated countless that times that he’ll always put the people he loves above himself.
There are also movies like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-ALong Blog where the protagonist is a comic book villain, but he’s a good person. Meanwhile the classic hero is the antagonist and also a bit of a jerk. It toys with the idea that the villain sees themselves as a hero and might not always be as evil as they’re made out to be. Billy, our lead, even states at one point that “the world is a mess” and that’s why he wants to rule over it. He wants to put it into order and when it comes down to having to murder someone to get what he’s always wanted, he struggles with it. Even Wreck-It Ralph dealt with the notion that being a bad guy doesn’t make you a bad guy.
Can villains still commit unforgivable acts? Definitely and you don’t always have to love them or even like them. Just like a hero, villains come in all forms. It’s those antagonists who tug at the heart strings, earn redemption, honestly believe their doing the right thing, or are simply not that all that evil that make a presence. There can be a great deal of depth to them and it’s not a rare occurrence for them to make the story. They’re fun, play outside the rules, and can be more human than we think.
“In the old days villains had mustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be throw n at them with green limelight on his face. They want an ordinary human being with failings.” – Alfred Hitchcock