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    What makes a compelling villain?

    Some movie villains have sympathetic motivations, whether its devotion to saving the planet ala Poison Ivy, drive to right a systemic wrong ala Black Panther’s Killmonger or Magneto, or desire for personal vengeance ala the Wicked Witch of the West or Clytemnestra. Some villains "just want to watch the world burn." Some are just hellbent on causing murder, destruction, and pain. Sometimes it seems the motivation doesn’t matter nearly as much as the character’s screen presence. Many movies try to add depth to their villains, only to leave lasting questions and plot holes over their villain’s arc. Are there any essential elements necessary for a great movie villain? Do we see any mistakes in creating villains that could be avoided by following certain rules of thumb? Sometimes it seems that the only difference between the hero and villain are a)who the narrative viewpoint sympathizes with and b) who’s destined to cross unforgivable lines. Is it okay that this is commonplace, or does it indicate a flaw in modern storytelling?

    • Thanks for the very helpful feedback T Palomino, I think there are two different directions I could take the question in, and I'm not sure which makes for a better prompt. The first is comparing various types of villains and the way they fundamentally shape the story and the hero, and how important the depth of their motivation affects the story. For instance, The Dark Knight has Joker, a villain with no deep motivation, but it also has Harvey Dent, and his arc is fundamental to creating a compelling finale. Other movies seem actually hamstrung by having a complicated and somewhat sympathetic villain, as they try to tell a good vs evil story. Perhaps the question could be comparing villains with complex vs simple motivations, how compelling they still can be, and how they shape the hero. Although perhaps this still too broad? The second direction I was considering was pointing out that many heroes have the same motivations as I listed, saving the world, righting systemic wrongs, and even obtaining vengeance. What does a narrative require to distinguish between its heroes and villains, and how often does an audience's viewpoint play more of a role in making the distinction, than the actual story and character choices? Infamously we have seen authors revamp stories to center the villains, such as Wicked recreating Elphaba, or the recent Joker film. Is the difference between a hero an a villain the amount of time the narrative spends focused on the aspects of the character that are sympathetic? Is it simply the lines each character crosses and refuses to cross? How important is the idea of morality in telling stories of heroes and villains? – ronannar 2 years ago
    • It might be helpful to take note of the context of the characters presentation, not only their story line, but how other features signal other, less seen, potential character links, I think Joachim Phoenix's Joker character walking down the stairs to convicted pedophile, Gary Glitter's song. Interesting that! – cwekerle 2 years ago
    • I think that while sympathy can make for good background of a villain, I always think that moral ambiguity is what can make a good villain, great. For an ambiguous “villain” I would like to turn us towards Frank Herbert’s Dune. Spoilers ahead for books one and two. Paul, our protagonist of Dune and son of a Duke to a great house, seemingly does it all by the end of the first book of Herbert’s series. He becomes a hero, not only does he achieve standards that were practically undefinable (becoming the Kwisatz Haderach) but he also frees the native people of Arrakis, and seeks vengeance of his father and the great house he belonged to prior. Paul beats the bad guys, he becomes (quite literally) emperor of the universe, and he even gets the girl! He seems great, until book two comes into play. Dune Messiah details the lasting effects of Paul’s work. Paul has not only used the native people of Arrakis to become a great and powerful religious figure, but he has incited a Jihad lasting years, killing billions of people, even quoting that he has killed more than the ancient historical figure of Adolf Hitler (that is also real, I was absolutely surprised to read it). What I am trying to get at is this, that while Paul really ends up becoming a villain in his own way, he’s an intriguing villain because of his moral enigma. Sure, Paul did some helpful things through the books, but Paul really could be seen (and mostly is, in a way) as a villain, not only to Arrakis and it’s people, but to the universe and the endless number of people he has killed just for them to follow his religious and political empire. Like I have said, sure sympathy can make a good villain. Even crossing the line like you’ve stated can be a good way too, but to make the actions of this villain questionable, make them morally ambiguous, spark a debate, that is what can make them really interesting and really great. – eaonhurley 2 years ago
    • I think it makes them compelling when they don't want to destroy the world. As you said. I wanna watch the world burn is outdated. Villians with dedication are the most popular ones. Joker, Ozymandias, Killmonger, etc. These characters had a dedication for a specific reason. And this reason mostly comes from experience. Back then, villains were just destroyers. But now, screenwriters create them with meaning and with character. They have their own thoughts, ideas, and body language. To create a compelling villain, the writer should work on them precisely as same as a protagonist. Namor is a good example. He is stuck in between. He wants to protect his nation from humanity. It is acceptable. Makes him a solid character. Some call him a villain, but I don't think he is. Yet his desire to wage war against all humans makes him a weak character, either. And this is the screenwriter's problem. A simple sentence can destroy the whole character and its path. – valeriiege 2 years ago

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    Latest Comments

    It’s interesting that even though we’re now deep into Phase 4, the superhero lineup in the next big team-up film still isn’t yet all that clear. I’d be curious about what an update to this article might think!

    Who Will Be The Next Face of The Marvel Cinematic Universe?

    I have to agree with some of the criticisms of this article unfortunately, and to pushback on your phrasing here. I don’t think the fact that anyone “blames male audiences” is “even worse” than the fact that they blame the movie being woman-centered for the failure. The fact that every female-led film is judged as a representative of womanhood, instead of as a film, is an immense problem with misogyny. The fact that women-led films are treated as niche instead of normal, and that one out of a dozen films having a woman protagonist is treated as political (even as you point out such movies have been around since the dawn of movies) is a huge problem. Moreover, I think this article immensely underestimates modern misogyny, and buys far too much into the excuses people give for their misogyny. I absolutely agree that these big movie studios use a pretense of progressivism to create lazy movies, and that it does nothing for entertainment or for feminism. But if you compare a movie like Captain Marvel to the first two Thor movies, to the first Ant-Man movie, or the first Doctor Strange, it isn’t weaker than any of them. And yet it had “immense backlash.” Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between it and any of Marvel’s other weaker movies. And this level of credence this article gives to a backlash which was undeniably affected by misogyny, calling Captain Marvel “hated by the audience,” buys into a demonstrably false narrative pushed by misogynists. Captain Marvel had an immense box office and received an A CinemaScore. What voices are being treated here as credible and representative, and what criticisms are being dismissed as motivated by politics?

    The Paradox of the Strong Female Character

    I can’t believe I never heard of this show before! Some shows got reruns so frequently you couldn’t miss them if you tried, and then there’s others completely off the rerun radar! This absolutely had me intrigued, and I checked out the first episode on Youtube. There were also some really solid ideas for new and current episodes listed here, I could absolutely see a revival as relevant as the original felt in its time.

    Celebrating, Analyzing, and Resurrecting Fillmore!