Dancing with the Devil: Villains and Anti-Heroes
Tom Bosher takes us through a selection of iconic screen villains to understand their enduring importance in stories.
Alfred Hitchcock famously argued “the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture”.
But what makes a great villain? Why do some terrify and enthrall us, whilst others make us cringe in agony? We’ll begin with one of the greatest villains, Professor James Moriarty.
“He is the Napoleon of Crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows every quiver of each of them.” – The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Moriarty exemplifies several popular villainous qualities. Through Holmes’ intellect, we are shown just how dangerous Moriarty is – as a great hero inevitably needs an even greater villain. For without them, the hero becomes an unnecessary and overpowered force confronted only with petulant cats in trees. In this sense, heroes are clearly defined by their villains. Ying and Yang. Robert McKee – in his influential text Story – posits how “a protagonist and his/her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.”
Parallels between nemeses are another classic tool to form a villain and their adversary. Such similarities allow the antagonist to better understand and predict their counterpart, and thus undermine them. Additionally, narrowing the dramatic focus in their rivalry to only a handful of differences allows for greater emotional investment from the audience. However, they shouldn’t be too similar. The ‘we’re not so different you and I’ trope is everywhere and can easily be overdone. Harry Potter and Voldemort share several similarities, but ultimately it’s Harry’s love and friendship that eludes Voldemort. In the television series Sherlock, this trope is wonderfully subverted as Sherlock disarms Moriarty with “I am you” – and the age-old dynamic is flipped.
Yet what the Joker lacks in orthodox power and wealth, he makes up for in cunning.
Here we arrive at arguably the most notorious, convention-defying villain of the lot. The Joker. To begin with, the Joker defies the idea that the villain must have more conventional power than the protagonist. He has no power in the traditional sense. A boring villain will have vast amounts of conventional power, a giant army or a super-weapon. Yet what the Joker lacks in orthodox power and wealth, he makes up for in cunning. In attacking specifically one character (Batman), he manipulates with precision, rather than dominating the whole world. Screenwriter John Truby states how “creating an opponent who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness” is key. The Joker renders the protagonist’s strengths obsolete with scenarios where Batman’s brute strength is useless as demonstrated in The Dark Knight‘s iconic interrogation scene. Here, the Joker responds to ferocious physical pain with laughter; removing Batman’s primary tool. Not only are Batman’s strengths rendered useless, but the Joker also toys with Batman’s moral code, corrupted into weakness. Killing the Joker is the easiest and most logical solution, and yet it’s something Batman can’t do. It is the Joker’s testing of Batman that pushes him into becoming the titular Dark Knight.
The Joker wins, over and over in The Dark Knight. The Joker and Batman are destined to battle forever, as the Joker reminds us that “this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”. The typical villain seeks power and domination whereas some are a little more distinctive such as Loki who instead sought the approval of his father. The Joker’s past is defiantly obfuscated. As Alfred (here portrayed by Michael Caine) wonderfully puts, “some men aren’t looking for anything logical like money, they can’t be bought, bullied or negotiated with, some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Walter White of Breaking Bad is a perfect example of an anti-hero – someone we can understand as a villain yet contradictorily root for nonetheless. These characters aren’t the white knights of Camelot, or mustache-twirling villains (although Walter’s beard is something to behold). These are complex characters with families, lives and issues that we can relate to.
Patrick Bateman of American Psycho embodies our obsession with good-looks and celebrity made real; we want his money, sexual prowess and wardrobe. Whilst Bateman’s psychopathic tendencies alienates him from society, his charm and external character is definitively favoured. Additionally, his anxieties can be sympathised with to an extent – perhaps not to the point of brutal murder – but maybe breaking a heavy sweat over a business card.
To be enthralled by the vice of power and domination removes any chance of sympathy most people could potentially afford.
Voldemort’s line – “There is no good and evil” – reflects the potential for ambiguity in morality. Yet we see Voldemort falling victim to the typical villainous obsessions (proclaiming “there is only power and those too weak to seek it”). To be enthralled by the vice of power and domination removes any chance of sympathy most people could potentially afford. How many people in today’s world are able to seek and abuse power? The cashier at a Sainsbury’s probably isn’t able to, nor the Uber-driver or part-time Homebase accountant.
This tradition of seven-deadly-sin-like vices, combined with a Pavlovian condition of a deformed figure such as Scar with his titular mark, or a problematic upbringing such as Voldemort who ticks both boxes, just indicates that these vices are what the other ‘bad‘ people succumb to. These fables of the bad-to-the-core villain stunt our ability to recognise the bad in ourselves, as we’re encouraged to completely dissociate ourselves with the ugly villain, and instead invited to seek ourselves within the hero. This isn’t exactly viable, as although having role models is great, they’re not realistic. We’re not perfect and we’re certainly not heroes.
To sympathise with villainous tropes is to challenge yourself, which is vital to develop a resolve for self-improvement (in the same way the best villains force our favourite heroes to grow and develop). Avoiding such an exploration facilitates stagnation in our ability to recognise opposing ideologies. Booing the simple pantomime villain arguably equates to existing in an echo-chamber of self-reassurance. It’s when all sides feel as though they are the heroes of their own thought and policy, that constructive dialogue becomes impossible, that we are left with the residue of a villain leading us, who is positive they are absolutely right.
The notion of sympathising with villainy as a troubling one is false. It won’t diminish your quality of judgement. Carl Jung asserted that villains help us face our “shadow” selves, and by doing so, we become stronger, better people. Those that are completely unsympathetic; they are the cartoonish villains. To avoid becoming one, we must understand the motivation of a villain and ourselves, we should point with one finger and be wary of the three more pointing back at us.