Rogue’s Gallery: Top 10 Villains From Film and Literature
I guess there isn’t a whole lot of shame in making a list and calling it writing. It isn’t like I graduated with a degree in English or am in any way qualified or obligated to edify or entertain anyone. In fact, I think it’s high time I pointed out the fact that our readers come to Non-stop Karate with quite a lot of baggage. They come here looking for a little insight or cleverness, or even just the odd tit or giggle. But really, having expectations of quality of any kind is really just going to disappoint all parties involved.
So, readers, I say with no small amount of amiable scorn, cool it.
I studied philosophy and political science for my undergrad, and history in graduate school. This leaves me questionably adept at thinking deeply about nothing particularly practical. I’m not captaining industry, performing open heart surgery, or leaning my hedge funds against the actuarial risk of the next big bust- rather, I’m thinking and talking about these things, not when they actually happen (that would be journalism) but when they “happen” on TV.
So really, spending all my time thinking about iconic villains from literature and screen is very much a vocational move for me. I’ve always been supremely interested in the psychological makeup of the villain, from the implacable and screaming Furies of Greek Drama to the implacable and sexy skin jobs of Battlestar. In many ways, villains strike me as being more vital, more real, than heroes. A good villain typically knows exactly what he wants and is more often than not conflicted about pursuing ambition- whereas a hero’s motivational structure is less clear and often less interesting. This is particularly true in modern fiction, in which our piety-blunted value set treasures self-sacrifice over the kind of hubris and drive to greatness that defined most classical heroes.
So without any (more) ado, here begins my top 10 list of villains from film and literature.
10.) Lady MacBeth
Quote: “Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty!”
Lady MacBeth is the be all end all triflin’ bitch.
I don’t mean that in a sexist way, in a way that makes Lady MacBeth a symbol of all women, just, you know, the ones who suck.
And I understand how she gets a pretty bad rap as the sort of characterized reinforcement of original sin in the guise of the frumpy wife who starts some such that there will, inevitably, be some. A big part of why she is a villain at all is because she exhibits what were traditionally male traits like ambition and ruthlessness instead of being a feudal baby machine.
And this exactly what I like so much about Lady MacBeth, so much so that I picked her over Richard III. Even though she is vilified for it, she is an extremely strong female character who wants stuff and does stuff to get the stuff she wants, using the soft power of the marriage bed over force of arms. And even though a lot of the character was left underdeveloped by the Bard, I feel that Lady MacBeth is kind of the bedrock for female villains that developed later. Every powerful female character in modern literature is obliged to pour one out for Lady Mac-B, who was in many ways the original femme fatale.
9.) Captain Ahab
Powers: Gumption, Disability Social Security Payments
Weaknesses: -5 to Saving Throws vs. Whales
Quote: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale. ”
First of all, what a damn badass.
I mean, really, how many modern day shark attack survivors dedicate their life to murdering the shark that attacked them? We humans have gotten soft in our views of exterminating the things that eat us- really, we’re only a couple Dr. Phil episodes away from turning into canapés on legs for when sharks evolve legs or tigers evolve opposable thumbs.
What puts Ahab on the list though is obsession. No figure better characterizes the man who lives only for revenge. There is no honor, no morals, no rest and no pleasure. All there is to Ahab is to murder that fucking white whale. And interestingly the villain is not directly opposed by a protagonist- only Starbuck offers token resistance but eventually joins Ahab’s hunt. Really, the story is just how an obsessed man destroys himself and pulls everyone else with him.
And this is why Ahab makes the list. Typically, the downfall of a villain extends out of the flaws in his character that serve as the weakness the hero exploits to win the day. In Moby-Dick there are no heroes, and the villain Ahab is alone with his flaws. The story is all villain.
8.) The Alien
Powers: It grows to full size in about a day, incubates in other life forms, and oh yeah, bleeds acid.
Weaknesses: Lt. Ripley, The Predator
Ridley Scott’s Alien represents unknowable menace. The Alien is, very simply, Alien- which is to say there is nothing within the creature recognizable as human. And yet, the Alien is not an animal. It seems to think and plan, though the extent to which it reasons is left open-ended. Touching on elements of Lovecraftian horror, artist and designer HR Gieger created a villain that is disturbingly inhuman but still plausibly has enough agency to count as a villain, allowing an audience to map just enough humanity onto to the creature to terrify the living shit out of themselves.
Oh, and there is also the undertone of rape in the design and life-cycle of the Alien. The full-grown creature is phallic in appearance, particularly with the awful little extending mouth. But perhaps more immediately, the Alien reproduces by forcibly injecting eggs into a host that incubate, hatch, and burst forth in a bloody “birth” that kills the host. This mechanism works to rob victims of part of their humanity. Turning people into prey and/or a host for young reduces human beings to a biological level, trivializing the consciousness and self-awareness that characterize sentience and by extension, humanity.
The other really neat thing that’s achieved by the face-hugger in the Alien mythos is to lay the groundwork for dramatic irony that leaves the audience guessing who has been implanted and at what inopportune time it might be revealed. It also creates room for the dramatic situation where characters who have had their faces hugged to develop in light of what amounts to an inevitable death sentence.
So what really earns the Alien its place on the list is that it represents the human nested in the inhuman. And really, when was the last time you were genuinely creeped out by an alien in a movie?
Weaknesses: Is drunk
Quote: “Balls. We want the finest wines available to humanity. We want them here, and we want them now.”
Whitnail, from the film Whitnail & I, represents a very specific and often less examined type of antagonist- specifically that of the Wretch.
While the character of Whitnail isn’t a Shakespearean schemer or cackling megalomaniac, he remains a tangible threat to the film’s unnamed protagonist. The open question as the story unfolds is whether the ‘I’ will be destroyed with Whitnail while Whitnail destroys himself. What makes Whitnail, and other villains of the Wretch archetype, so dangerous is the sympathy they evoke. Looking after these awful humans is, by most accounts, the right thing to do. And the hero must often be less than virtuous to overcome the destructive relationship.
I really, really enjoy grey stories of this type featuring a sympathetic villain. When done well, a villain who earns and keeps the sympathy of the audience can turn standard hero/villain conventions and plot structure on its head and remind the audience that the story doesn’t involve characters so much as it involves human beings.
6.) Agent Stansfield
Powers: Loves Beethoven
Weaknesses: It is completely implausible that he could pass for not being high long enough to work as a cop
First, it’s Gary Oldman. Just let that sink in for a minute.
Further on that point, on paper the character of Agent Stansfield is what amounts to a completely flat, generic, and generally uninteresting archetype used as the antagonist in a lot of films contemporary to The Professional. In execution, Gary Oldman’s Agent Stansfield is perhaps one of the most memorable and viscerally provocative villains I’ve ever seen on screen.
A large part of successfully portraying villainy is in getting the audience to hate the villain. The more the audience loathes the black hat, the more satisfying it is in the end to see him get his comeuppance, or alternately the more terrible the twist on convention should the villain triumph. And really, few characters from film or literature are as utterly loathsome as Oldman’s Agent Stansfield.
I mean, just repeat the part where he says the word insects.
Powers: What a son of a bitch.
Weaknesses: Seriously. What a son of a bitch.
Quotes: “The native act and figure of my heart in complement extern, ’tis not long after
but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.”
Iago is the figurative Judas, though his betrayal seems more born of malice than mere human weakness. Iago, who has been the trusted banner man for Othello the Moor for years, decides out of what appears to be pure spite to trick his friend and liege into killing his wife by convincing them that she was having an affair with his captain. Iago then rats Othello out, and the Moor gets tortured to death for killing an innocent woman and the man he thought to be her lover.
For starters, that is some conniving and twisted shit. But what is most compelling about Iago is not what he does, but rather why he does it. Iago’s motivation is that he has no discernible motivation- he sows chaos and ruins lives because it appeals to him to sow chaos and ruin lives. Sometimes, the most interesting aspect about villainy is the mystery behind what drives some men to do wrong. Not showing the origin story and motivation behind a villain is like not showing the monster on camera- the picture is never worse then what the audience imagines it to be. Further, Iago does justice to a darker, self-destructive side of man that is completely inscrutable to anyone interpreting from a perspective of rationale self-interest. To quote an Alfred, “Some people just want to see the world burn.”
4.) The Joker
Powers: There’s a method to his madness.
Weaknesses: There’s a madness to his method.
Quote: “See, there were these two guys in an insane asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!”
There are lots of reasons to love the Joker. The fact that he gives Batman, one of the most compelling anti-heroes of film and literature, as good as he gets. The fact the danger he represents is as much philosophical as it is physical. The fact that he’s often playing a way different game from most conventional villains, and for way different stakes.
There is, of course, the phenomenal performance of the role of the Joker given by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, though as much as I loved it, Ledger’s Joker isn’t what I necessarily had in mind when I was trying to figure out where Joker fit on the list.
Instead, I feel that the character of the Joker is more noteworthy for its contribution to conceptions of postmodern villainy, and by extension fiction as a whole. What interests me the most about the character is the concept of The Killing Joke. The idea of pairing humor, whether a bad situational pun or a well-timed gag line, with an act of grisly violence.
The idea of the Killing Joke spread from the Joker and has since spawned an entire class of similar villains. Freddy Krueger, James Bond villains, Disney Nemeses, The Bad Guy From Timecop; all of these villains and more engage in their own versions of the Killing Joke. And what’s interesting is that eventually, an audience who grows up bombarded by this style of pun-cracking villain is put into a similar position to where the Joker’s manipulations leave Batman. As the Nightmare On Elm Street’s shift at some nebulous point from horror to comedy, we as an audience find ourselves compelled to laugh at the world, recognizing that it is, in fact, one terrible joke.
That’s the power of the Joker and the impact he’s had on villainy. He doesn’t just put Batman in danger. He puts us in danger.
3.) Hannibal Lecter
Powers: Superlative intelligence unfettered by moral constraints
Weaknesses: Somewhat justified narcissism.
Quotes: “Hello, Clarice.”
Just as Ridley Scott’s Alien is a portrait of the human mapped onto the monster, Hannibal Lecter is the portrait of the monster mapped onto the human. It is this juxtaposition that makes Lecter such a fascinating villain.
He appears to be an characteristically intelligent, educated, and cultured individual, and yet for all that he operates at a step further removed from humanity than your garden variety sociopath. This violates an implicit assumption of the audience, that education and sophistication in people somehow necessarily sharpens their moral faculties and results in their humanity being more fully realized and refined. The assumption – that education and culture make people “better” – extends out certain ideas regarding human intelligence dating back to the Enlightenment.
If you consider how central the premise that people are fundamentally bettered by knowledge and education to pretty much all of modern western society, it becomes clear why Hannibal Lecter is such a haunting character, the brilliant performance of Sir Anthony Hopkins notwithstanding. The mere fact that Hannibal Lecter exists, or even might conceivably exist, poses an existential threat, undermining an idea that goes some distance towards keeping people from wondering for themselves what liver might taste like with fava beans and a nice chianti.
2.) Darth Vader
Powers: The motherfucking Force.
Weaknesses: Momma’s boy
Quote: “Just for once, let me look at your face with my own eyes.”
Darth Vader is perhaps the most recognizable villain of film in the 20th Century. The Star Wars saga, with its canny harnessing of myth and ability to blur the line between the genres of fantasy and science fiction, is so well known in American culture that it is now all but inseparable from the experience of Americans growing up with the series.
Much of Darth Vader’s mystique derives from the infamous blank-faced visage of the helmet, the ominous tell-tale breathing, and the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones. Ruthless, implacable, and seemingly devoid of human emotion or expression, Darth Vader is a capable and unsettling antagonist. But where Darth Vader truly stands out is in the fact that, despite his role as the central villain of the Star Wars saga, his character arc is one of redemption.
I look at episodes 4-6 as Darth Vader slowly taking off his mask, both literally and figuratively. When we first see him storming the diplomatic ship Tantive IV, he is an unknown. Then, as the story continues through Empire Strikes Back, we begin to learn more about the sad story of Annakin Skywalker. Darth Vader transitions into tragic figure and reluctant villain. We learn about his motivations, his connection to Luke, and as we learn more about Emperor Palpatine we come to understand that Darth Vader didn’t fall so much as he was pushed. Finally, after Vader betrays his master in order to save Luke from the fate that he himself suffered, the dying Dark Lord of the Sith asks that Luke remove his helmet- and for the first time we see Darth Vader’s human face in plain view.
Darth Vader earns his place on this list by being the most widely recognizable rendition of of the villain redeemed.
1.) Keyser Söze
Powers: He’s Keyser Söze.
Quote: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Keyser Söze is my favorite movie villain of all time. I have to admit to myself that a lot of it is Kevin Spacey, but there’s more to it than that.
First of all, the entire film is framed in by a conversation. Even with generous use of cut scenes, this can be fairly difficult to pull off- mostly because it requires the script and the performers to be able to carry the interest of the audience by talking instead of doing. Sort of like a violent, crime caper version of My Dinner with Andre.
But what I really love about Keyser Söze is the fact that he is, in fact, a man of will. During the entire course of the interrogation, even though he is locked up under the assumed identity of Verbal Kint, Keyser is the one in control- of himself and of the interrogating customs agent Kujan. He pulls a story from the bottom of Kujan’s coffee cup and gives Kujan exactly what he wants- with the final reveal showing that everything that transpired at every point of the story was exactly as Keyser had planned.
This kind of villain appeals to me because, despite how implausible the premise may seem, this is how an intelligent villain would and should operate. Fear, misdirection, lies, and an unshakable will to power make Keyser Söze more dangerous than other apparently more capable but dramatically flawed villains. Keyser isn’ the kind of villain who triumphs over the hero- he’s the kind of villain who is so good that the hero never even comes close.
As I said previously, the monster we don’t see on camera is always scarier than the monster we do see. And in those terms, who is scarier than Keyser Söze, the man who wasn’t there?
PS: I bit off more than I could really chew here. For each villain I included, there were about ten I thought of that could have made the list. Like, so many good villains that I either thought of too late or missed altogether. I also realize that there’s only one lady here, and her main claim to fame is that she acts like a dude. Anyway, I mostly wanted to hit all the bases in terms of what I look for in a blackhearted scoundrel.
Posted on May 14, 2011, in Adam Kornya, Lists, Movies and tagged agent stansfield, alan moore, alien, aliens, Batman, darth vader, keyser soze, shakespeare, star wars, the joker, the professional, Villains, villainy. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.