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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 7 months ago
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  • 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 5 months ago
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  • 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 5 months ago
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  • 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 months ago
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The Cameo: Purpose, Impact and Popularity

Analyze the reason why directors use cameos. What impact does it have on the audience? Why is it gaining popularity?

From Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Stan Lee to Stephen King, highlight examples that will look at why the crossover from reality to media is so popular. Big Bang Theory regularly played with this trope with great effectiveness. Why do we love it?

  • Neat topic! In the case of Stan Lee, I like to think of it as a nice little "wink" to the audience. With other cameos, I usually find them to feature celebrities - were they just in the right place at the right time? Did they love the show that much that they just couldn't help but be on it? Did the producers just love that actor so much? It would be interesting to see what answers one could find. – EJSmall 3 years ago
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  • I believe some actors are fans of a show and ask to be on. Stan Lee’s cameos were pretty funny. There is one where he plays Hugh Hefner that he did because people sometimes mistake them for each other. I would love to see a list of all time great cameos. SPOILER - There is a awesome one in Hobbes and Shaw. – Munjeera 3 years ago
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  • Though there is no direct possible way to verify, I wonder what is the percentage of viewers who do not like cameos or find it distracting. My friend once mentioned that he felt "left out" whenever there was a cameo he did not know about. – kpfong83 3 years ago
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  • Good point. Are cameos a distraction? – Munjeera 3 years ago
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  • Maybe the need is to distinguish when it is done well and done poorly. Bill Gates on "Big Bang Theory" (well) versus Martina Navratilova on "Hart to Hart" (poorly) provide examples as a starting point. – Joseph Cernik 3 years ago
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  • Navratilova on H2H? – Munjeera 3 years ago
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Psychopaths as Protagonists

With this article, I want to explore the role of the psychopath protagonist in Film, TV and Literature, attacking it from a screenwriter’s perspective. Most of the content I’ve watched, the protagonist has always been someone with a moral compass, giving the audience someone to root for. However, what do you do when your protagonist has no moral compass? How do you find a way for your audience to root for them? I refer you to Frank Underwood of House Of Cards or Travis Bickle as examples of the Psychopath Protagonist.

  • I think establishing sympathy between psychopathic protagonists and audiences helps. Sympathy doesn't necessarily mean likability, but understanding between people that can result in pity. It helps if there's something relatable about the protagonist. I've not watched House of Cards but I do know of Nightcrawler, in which the protagonist (albeit more sociopathic) can be relatable due to his struggles to land a job. When he finally finds one, his determination to succeed can invoke sympathy, even as he embraces a morally gray industry... Though in saying that, it might help (from a screenwriter's perspective) to frame psychopathic protagonists, or any immoral character, within the context of the society they live in. – Starfire 5 years ago
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  • There is a difference between Travis Bickle and Frank Underwood. The idea of a psychopathic protagonist can be a little diverse. There is a difference between the anti-hero and the villain protagonist, not to mention the other subcategories. For example, Travis Bickle isn't intentionally an evil character, he is more of an anti-hero struggling with a form of PTSD whereas Frank Underwood actually fits into the psychopath mold as he strives for power. How do stories with unlikeable protagonists garner our attention? It varies from story to story, so I think this needs to be a little more specific. Would this cover literature as well? You specify screenwriters in the topic so I think you have to distinguish between them. Even the writing for television and film differ. It would be interesting to compare/contrast the differences between television villain protagonists and film villain protagonists. – Connor 5 years ago
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  • I believe that the audience can feel any amount of empathy for really any character in television. As far as psychopaths go, it's possible to be able to empathize for them, but the majority of psychopaths I've encountered in media have been inherently evil, but I've still found a way to root for them in some instances. The character that sticks out to me the most would be Ramsay Bolton from HBO's "Game of Thrones". Although he's a sadistic, twisted, cruel, and monotonous heir to the throne in the North, I empathize with Ramsay due to the relationships he has with his father and his step mother. Ramsay is bastardized his entire life which ultimately leads to his aching desire to fulfill his father's prophecy of becoming the King of the North and Westeros as a whole. All Ramsay wants is to satisfy his father's demands, and when he realizes this won't be possible once his new baby brother is born, he decides to take action and murders his father and his new born brother with a ruthless and literal stab in the back. If this moment hadn't occurred, I think it would've been possible to appreciate Ramsay as a psychotic protagonist, but considering the rest of his torture frenzies and the murders of his family members, the defending arguments supporting Ramsay crumble under their own weight. – ralphpolojames 5 years ago
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Extras: The Unsung Heroes of Film and Television

From the unfortunate Stormtrooper who banged his head on a door in ‘Star Wars – A New Hope’ (1977), to the brave souls who survived the ‘Helm’s Deep’, three months of night shoots in ‘Lord of The Rings. The Two Towers’ (2002), the Support Actor or Extra is a vital element of film making, but often overlooked by the cinema going public. These days ‘extras’ are big business, with a myriad of agencies offering almost any size, shape and range of looks that any production may require. Yet it’s not often that these loyal and hard working bodies even receive an end titles credit. The British sitcom ‘Extras’ (2005-2007), attempted the redress the balance, but still focused on the improbable rise to fame of the lead character. Perhaps it’s time that our unsung heroes of film and television were recognised and rewarded for their professional skills and dedication to the art. An Oscar or similar for ‘Best Featured Extra’ perhaps?

  • I can't wait to see what you do with this topic. :) – Stephanie M. 5 years ago
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  • I'm tempted, Stephanie, but I fear that as an insider my views would be biased. I've had a few minor roles where lines were cut so I didn't get the eagerly anticipated credit, but I continue to slog on regardless. So, I put this topic forward to see if an interested yet unconnected party might like to delve into the fascinating world of the Extra. Ahh, we are such stuff as dreams are made on....and 10 points to anyone who can complete the quote! :) – Amyus 5 years ago
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The Role of the Sacrificial Hero in Cinema

From Jean Reno’s portrayal of Léon (Léon. AKA: The Professional. 1994) to Shin Hyeon-jun’s portrayal of Hyun-jun (Kiss Me, Kill Me. 2009), the Hitman who rediscovers his humanity through self-sacrifice and atonement is a familiar theme. Are these characters merely bad men turned good or do they represent a convenient scapegoat for the ills of Society in general? Perhaps more importantly, do we learn anything from them as anti-heroes or damaged role models?

  • Definitely worth considering whether we are escaping moral dilemmas by having the troubled men die instead of having to deal with them afterward. – IndiLeigh 6 years ago
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  • A very interesting topic. I feel like this is a trope that we as a society have taken for granted. An in-depth look at the moral implications of this kind of narrative would be a fascinating read. – SophieCherry 6 years ago
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What Makes A Found-Footage Film "Convincing"?

The sub-genre of movies known as "found-footage film" carries that unique sense of realism (brought about by shaky handheld cameras and lack of background music) rarely found in other films. With movies such as "The Blair Witch Project," "Chronicle," "The Gallows," and many others falling under this category, what makes some of these movies "better" than others? What sort of techniques have (or have not yet) been used to make these films feel valid/believable by an audience?

  • well, you have to look at the broader context. Consider the fact that The Blair Witch Project basically invented the found-footage subgenre and was an early example of viral marketing. That is probably why it feels so realistic-- no one had really done it before, at least not on the same level, and since then it's been extremely difficult to replicate, and I'd argue the only one that's done it successfully is Cloverfield, because it basically invented viral marketing as we know it today with the websites and social media pages for the characters. Seeing it replicated endlessly makes it less and less convincing. – sadiebritt28 6 years ago
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The Girl on The Train

Given the popularity for thrillers like Gone Girl to be turned into movies, did The Girl On The Train meet expectations? Did it live up the the standard set by the book? What makes a movie adaptations successful. Analyze how and why this female-driven thriller genre is gaining popularity.

  • Great topic! I read the book and saw the film and found a lot could easily be analyzed between the two! You could even ask about the differences in rhetoric in the movie and the book, did if give two different views or was one more convincing than the other! – brittanieclark 6 years ago
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The Downsides of Evolving Films

Films and the production is constantly changing. With new technologies, it is often deemed as a good progression throughout time, but what are the cons? I wonder if film has perhaps lost its level of value in the growing world of technology.

  • Interesting topic. An interesting point to bring up would be the making of Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks had to bring back people who had worked on films from the 30s and 40s because no one at the time knew how to film in black and white. And this was in the 70s. Could tackle film vs digital, the sound design aspect, the effects of relying on CGI... – CoolishMarrow90 6 years ago
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Race and Film

Analysis of films as they relate centrally to race as a primary lens.

  • Examples? – Darcy Griffin 7 years ago
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  • Hmmm...what comes to mind is actually Disney's recent film, Zootopia. Totally hilarious, classic Disney fare. But also a pretty clear race allegory, as many reviewers have noticed. Gets to the heart of racialized discourse: are people of certain races (or in Zootopia's case, bunnies) inherently passive, while others (see wolves in the film) are aggressive and still others (see foxes) sneaky and conniving? Of course not, but these are the assumptions we inherit and perpetuate, even on the subtlest levels. Ruminating on these topics in animated form is, I think, rather ingenious. – alissac 7 years ago
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  • There are a ton of different ways this could go. Some specification is probably needed: films from a certain era? Country or region? About certain race(s)? Different genres? There are a lot of different factors that will affect the role race plays in a movie. – chrischan 7 years ago
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  • Qu'Allah bénisse la France (2014) a French film, shot in black & white that takes a look at the racism, France's well-known unemployment issue as well as heavy drug use and how these factors affect the youngsters in a devastating manner. The film is based on a true story. – oksly 7 years ago
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  • I might be interested in this topic. But, in order to give any step further, I am going to need examples, a project with a thesis, an explanation of the relevance of the undertaking, and proof that this idea is original and hasn't been explored before. – T. Palomino 7 months ago
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Blurring the lines between Hollywood and Bollywood

With the recent wave of Bollywood actors being integrated in Hollywood productions within the last few years, I’m wondering if this poses any risks or if this is a sign of progress in what people say is an overtly white-male establishment. With big actors like Amitabh Bachchan making an appearing in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby and Priyanka Chopra making headlines with not only landing a leading role in the American TV show Quantico but also winning the People’s Choice Award for said role as well as appearing in the upcoming movie Bay Watch and Deepika Padukone who is said to appear alongside Vin Diesel in xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. Does this intertwining of two different movie industries pose any sort of threat? or is this the beginning of inclusivity of POCs within the mostly white film industry?

  • Ooh this sounds really interesting! I'd also look into if there's any blurring besides just the actors, for example directors or producers. – thewyverary 7 years ago
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  • Can East meet West? This is a future question. Yes it is a Zen kind of concept meaning that the answer to this question will come in the future. – Munjeera 7 years ago
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  • I think each industry should remain independent from each other. Mixing both industries would harm whatever it is that makes them unique. However, actors, directors, crews, etc. should be able to work wherever they want to without discrimination. – Andrestrada 7 years ago
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