Modern Hollywood villains stink. You know I’m right. They’re dull and played out. They’re always the same guy. They’ve all become cartoon villains… psychopathic Snidely Whiplashes. I’m sick of it. And you know what’s to blame? Liberalism.
Here’s the problem: the most important aspect of any film is the motivation of the characters. Motivation is what we use to decide whether a character is right or wrong, good or bad, justified or not. It is what makes us sympathize with some and repulses us from others. It is what defines the conflicts of the film. Change the motivation and you change the whole meaning of the story. No other story element is as important as motivation.
Consider a story about a businessman who kills someone. Suppose he kills for money. Clearly, he’s a villain. But what if he kills because he likes it? What if he kills in self-defense or by accident? Changing his motivation fundamentally changes the nature of the character and thereby the central conflict of the story. All his other traits can be changed with little effect on the story. For example, it doesn’t matter that he’s a businessman or rich or even male. These may seem important at first glance, but they are just details and like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin can be changed without affecting the story. But motivation is different. Motivation is the key factor. It defines the characters and generates the story. Change it and you change everything.
That’s why it’s vital to give a villain a proper motivation. The villain sets everything into motion. If the villain’s motives are pedestrian or nonexistent, then the story is handicapped from the get-go.
But Hollywood has abandoned the idea of giving villains motivations because motivations are complicated and easily confused. Instead, it substitutes blatantly obvious villains who ooze evil from their cardboard pores. They prance around ranting and raving, kicking puppies and shooting uppity henchmen, and they make actual cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash and Wile E. Coyote.appear to be paragons of depth, sanity and wisdom by comparison. And in those rare moments where the writers feel they must offer a motivation, the villains mumble something about power or money like so many beauty queens babbling on about world peace.
But it wasn’t always this way. At one time, villains had genuine, interesting motives. Consider some of the great villains of the past:
• Darth Vader (pre-whiny Hayden Christensen) was defending the Empire against rebels bent on destroying it.
• Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty could stand no disrespect because he was insecure.
• Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven wanted a quiet life.
• The Terminator relentlessly followed its programming.
• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest despised the people under her care.
• HAL 9000 in 2001 couldn’t resolve a conflict in his programming.
Do you notice something about this list? It isn’t what the characters did that made them memorable, it’s why they did it. When you think of HAL or Vader, you don’t think, “oh yeah, he killed that guy,” you think about their mental states and their motivations. And their motives weren’t necessarily evil. Their actions were, but their motives weren’t.
In fact, that’s what’s really interesting: none of these villains actually thought they were evil. That’s the creepy part. It’s also very human. Indeed, few people see themselves or their actions as evil or wrong. To the contrary, we are good at justifying our behavior to ourselves so we can maintain the belief that we are doing the right thing. Even truly evil people rarely think of themselves as evil. Hitler never thought of himself as the bad guy, he viewed himself as the savior of the German people and justified everything he did through his twisted racial theories. The Soviets justified their purges by believing they were only eliminating traitors. East German guards justified killing their own people by believing they were just doing their duty. Some do evil because they feel aggrieved or threatened. Some just think their ends outweigh their means. This list goes on. They’re all wrong, but they all think they’re in the right.
Yet, Hollywood doesn’t get this. It has decided instead that evil characters must revel in being evil, even though that’s cartoon villainy. And why does Hollywood do this? Beginning in the 1960s, liberalism adopted the idea that individuals are not responsible for their actions, i.e. don’t judge someone on their actions, judge them on their intentions. That’s how they could excuse the crimes of terrorists (SDS), cop killers (Black Panthers), rapists (Polanski), and even murderous dictators (Mao): because they looked past their deeds and saw only their intentions.
In other words, whereas conservatives first look at the person’s deeds to decide if they acted in a good or bad manner, and only rarely go into intent as a possible extenuating circumstance (like erroneous self-defense), liberals typically start and stop at intent. And if the person had a “good motive,” then liberals will excuse their acts no matter how heinous. Conservatives don’t buy that and except for a small set of defenses (e.g. justified self-defense) don’t care what the person’s motive was.
That’s also what leads to our present problem. When you can only judge someone on their intent (i.e. motivation), then logically, you can only define someone as evil if they intend to do evil. Thus, if you want an evil character, the liberal mindset tells us they must see themselves as evil and must intend an evil motive. Hence the prancing. Blech.
This is a shame and a crime against storytelling. Come on Hollywood, wake up… this isn’t that hard.
So who are your favorite villains and why?