When the Villain Isn’t Wrong *UPDATED*

Recently, I posed a question to anybody who would listen:

It was kind of a throwaway question, but it has over 100 likes and received 45 (and counting) replies (that I am aware of), so it’s obvious I’m not the only one who has thought about this before.

Which is great, because the responses have been really interesting.

Tellingly, it’s comic-book movies that are cited most often, whether it’s the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The two villains mentioned the most as being “right” in many people’s eyes are Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos, the ultimate overarching Marvel baddie.

Magneto from the X-Men franchise gets an honorable mention.

The runner up was Star Wars-related, either Senator Palpatine/the Emperor, the Empire as a whole, or the First Order in the atrocious sequel trilogy, aka Mouse Wars.

I totally get the last one. I, too, have never wanted the putative heros of a movie to die as much as I did after suffering through The Last Jedi.

Back to Killmonger and Thanos, before digging deeper into why this question illustrates how good these villains are–whether the writers intended them to be or not!

And I know, “good villain” sounds like an oxymoron. But you know what I mean: a “good” villain is a well-crafted character who not only gives the heroes all they can handle and more, but is the hero in his own eyes and those of his followers.

Let’s talk about Killmonger’s plan first and why it resonated. I never saw Black Panther, but according to synopses I read, he wishes to claim the throne of Wakanda (which he believes he is entitled to) to foment rebellion among those of African descent, wherever they are, to overthrow their governments and attain autonomy.

And then there’s Thanos, who wants to kill half the universe to save it in a fit of Malthusian genocide. See, Thanos is afraid that the universe is going to run out of resources or something. I don’t know. I’ve only seen four or five Marvel movies.

So we have a racial liberationist and a cosmic-powered environmentalist, villains with compelling, even sympathetic goals, whose big problem is their methods.

Likewise Ra’s al Ghul. Unlike the egalitarian Batman, who has faith in progress-as-improvement, Ra’s believes in a cyclical view of history and human nature: Golden ages followed by dark ages followed by golden ages, on and on ad infinitum. He and his League of Shadows are just there to give Gotham a push . . . even though that push involves releasing a plague into the city.

Again, we see a villain whose philosophy isn’t necessarily wrong, but whose methods leave a lot to be desired.

So how did these villains rise above the rest? I’ve written about how one man’s villains is another man’s hero before, and that’s not moral relativism! It’s the truth:

It’s always interesting to think of motivations in our stories and in real life. So few villains ever admit that they’re the bad guys, always thinking it’s the other guy. Dr. Doom thinks he’s doing best for his nation against incursions by the Fantastic Four. And in real life, Vladimir Putin sees himself as Russia’s protector against a globalist, imperialist West. Kim Jong-Un sees himself in the same light. Right or wrong, motivations are all more complex than we like to give credit.

This can be done without making your hero bad. You just have to find out if your villain has the same goal as your hero but bad methods, or a different goal where the path to attaining that conflicts with the hero’s.

Feel free to make your villain a real sadistic baddie if you want. Or a soft-spoken leader with an iron will. Or a complete nutcase. Whatever. The question of aim adds an extra layer of interest to the antagonist.

And not just aim, but motivation. Looking into Killmonger, it seems like there’s a real emotional reason for him doing what he’s doing, and how. This isn’t the hackneyed “childhood trauma” or “victim of society” trope. It’s just a way to add some resonance.

None of this is necessary, of course. Sometimes your villain just wants to kill all of your hero’s people because they’re warlike. Or aliens. Or warlike aliens who eat humans. Whatever. Like flat-arc heroes, sometimes cartoony villains work best, those baddies who are bad just because.

But other times, a philosophically sympathetic villain can really supercharge your story and raise the emotional intensity in ways that your reader might say, “Dang, they have a point.”

Here are some other good answers to my question:

UPDATE: Inspired by this post, author Dean Bradley provided his own thoughts on what can elevate a villain beyond mere “Meh” to “Whoa!”:

I’d like to expand on his theme a bit. First of all, the villain is wrong, or he’s not really a villain. But why he is wrong is important. Usually, the sympathetic villain is right about a problem, but his SOLUTION is wrong. His reason for villainous behavior is entirely understandable. Thanos thinks he’s preventing universal suffering. Magneto thinks he’s saving his people from genocide. Contrast with e.g. John Wick’s villains, who want to run a criminal empire, or who are simply stupid and malicious. Nobody sympathizes with High Table crime bosses, or puppy killers. But the comic book villains kill far more people than the assassin-fantasy gangsters, and in more horrific ways. So why do people like them more?

Read it all here. Well worth your time.


The High Lord’s motivations for wanting the humans in The Last Ancestor make perfect sense from his point of view. Buy it here and find out for yourself!

23 comments

  1. A thoughtful post!

    I rewatched the Dark Knight trilogy last week so it’s fresh in my mind. A subtext I picked up is how similar Gotham’s situation is to Sodom and Gomorrah. The League of Shadows plays the role of God and prepares judgment. Batman/Bruce Wayne plays Abraham, hoping to save what’s worth saving from judgment. But Wayne goes a step further in refusing to bring judgement at all, to the point that he cannot kill the Joker in the midst of a killing spree. He becomes a liberal caricature of Jesus, open-endedly self-sacrificing and forgiving of sins. This metanarrative doesn’t really hold up because Batman is not God and the people he fights to save don’t fundamentally reform.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked the post Joseph. And what fortuitous timing!

      That’s a really interesting parallel you’ve drawn between the movies and the biblical subtext. It’s interesting how the “heroes don’t kill!” mantra that’s all over superheroes, whether they’re in print or on screen, actually can lead to MORE trouble, in addition to not being biblical in and of itself. I mean, I thought Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel was the moral thing to do, but your mileage may vary.

      Sometimes bad guys need killing. And sometimes that killing is just.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “Wayne goes a step further in refusing to bring judgement at all”

      “The Dark Knight” is a great movie but I find Bruce Wayne unlikable for that reason. I mean he conspires with the police commish to hide Harvey Dent’s murder spree and then goes into hiding for years.

      The most “believable” aspect of Nolan’s trilogy isn’t the weapons or fighting (what’s usually credited); nope, it’s Wayne’s worldview. Typical 21st century upper-class American, very Jeb Bush-like.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Damn. Now THERE’S some symbolism for you. Likely unintended, but still, you have a point. Thinking about the films, I don’t think Nolan was criticizing that viewpoint.

        Like

    • Glad you liked it!

      I have not read Starship Troopers, and I haven’t seen the movie since it was in theaters, but if that’s the case, then yes, it’s hard to find too much fault with the bugs’ motivation for fighting. Self-defense is one of the most justifiable rationales around.

      Like

      • Alexander

        I read the tweet thread on twitter and really enjoyed it. I have to admit you make a great point. Bane is the very logical consequence of thwarting Ras al Gul. In summary if you reject the gentle admonition: you get the painful chastisement.
        And a new Batman but has Gotham really reformed?

        I always found batman’s refusal to kill joker an exasperating cop out. Cowardly in fact. An enabler with a vested interest to perpetuate the corruption do he keeps a job.

        Good villains suffer from the vice of excess or exuberance. They correctly diagnose the problem but sin through excess reducing the to a binary requiring one solution. It’s excessive because the double effect is flattened out.
        The hero preserves the complexity the villain wilfully ignored.

        One last thing

        The star ward’s republic was hopelessly broken, the jedis insufferable and the empire was justified. Palpatine’s mistake was not to create a new knighthood upholding the media original charter

        xavier

        Liked by 3 people

      • “I always found batman’s refusal to kill joker an exasperating cop out. Cowardly in fact. An enabler with a vested interest to perpetuate the corruption do he keeps a job.”

        You could say this about so many mainstream superheroes. You could say it’s more the writers’ fault than the characters’. Like Bradford C. Walker often says, this is why the Shadow is the best hero: he kills those bad mofos.

        “Good villains suffer from the vice of excess or exuberance. They correctly diagnose the problem but sin through excess reducing the to a binary requiring one solution. It’s excessive because the double effect is flattened out.
        The hero preserves the complexity the villain wilfully ignored.”

        This is really beautiful Xavier. I’m going to steal—I mean borrow—this.

        “The star ward’s republic was hopelessly broken, the jedis insufferable and the empire was justified. Palpatine’s mistake was not to create a new knighthood upholding the media original charter”

        Lots of Palpatine love from the people. It really makes a fellow think, doesn’t it?

        Like

  2. Those top two ‘villians are right’ people mentioned don’t seem like really good choices.

    I get why some people are pro-Killmonger, but in the ‘Black Panther’ film, Killmonger struck me as a violent psychopath and not someone who could actually be a good king. Yes, he could have helped oppressed people of African descent overthrow governments, but then what?

    Chaos. In the movie, he can tear down the system, but he cannot build anything.

    Regarding Thanos (the greatest disciple of Mathus ever conceived), he is not much better. Other than a story he tells about his home running out of resources, we have NO evidence that the universe is running out of resources. The ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies show spaceships and people everywhere. The ‘Thor’ movies show an Asgard with constant feasting. At no point do we see any on-screen evidence of Thanos’s concern. As far as we can see, the universe has plenty of resources available.

    We can say that in real life, we know resources are limited. However, despite the dire warnings of Mathus, technology has allowed for many more people to have food than he anticipated. I’m not saying resources are infinite, but we can re-purpose and invent new ways of doing things. On a universe-wide scale, who knows what marvels of technology are available.

    Liked by 2 people

    • John

      Great points. Thanos struck me as an ultra gamma with secret king histrionics. So resources are limited , boohoo what did you do to bypass or rethink how they can better utilized? No instead he has to annihilate half the universe to save resources?!
      And what happens after the hard reset? The survivors will cringe and do nothing? Or grow again forcing Thanos to kill again.
      Kinda futile no? In fact the Guardians refute Thanos, people found ways to live with the limited resources.

      xavier

      Liked by 3 people

      • Alexander

        Still away the quotes. Good writers do it 🙂

        The villian’s excess is obviously a form of gluttony but that excess manifests pride: the solution is so obvious why doesn’t God see it? No matter I’m His instrument no matter what!

        Envy: I can do better than Him and sloth: no time! the world’s doomed without my awesome solution but who cares the immense misery I unleash!. Can’t you see I’m his instrument! simpletons!

        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

    • Good points. I am relying on you and others for those nuances, because I haven’t seen either film. I can say, though, that Killmonger’s aims sound laudable from one point of view, but his methods are downright evil.

      And Thanos’s motivation just sounds dumb.

      Like

  3. From memory (I confess, I didn’t pay attention – I’m not a big fan of superhero movies, but the girlfriend was watching it) Killmonger came to power in Wakanda via perfectly legal (in-universe) and legitimate means. I recall spending the rest of the movie stunned that so many Wakandan bureaucrats either refused to work with him or outright assisted the now-rebel former king and friends to kill him.

    Kinda reminded me of a certain election (I’d also love to see the writers’ faces if someone had suggested that allusion to them).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah…although I think most arguments were: “I see their point . . . but the METHODS used to get there are evil. For example, Ra’s al Ghul isn’t wrong about Gotham City, but that doesn’t mean it’s good to slaughter innocents.

      Thanos’s aim seems idiotic to me; maybe it makes more sense in the context of the movies.

      Like

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