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.