This is a crosspost from my curated week at Ology's Film Riot, entitled Best Of The Worst.
We had an interesting chat about the iconic movie bad guy at Film Riot, and I wanted to bring the argument home. So here's my list: what would yours be and why? Answers in the comments, please…
Let's talk about The Best Of The Worst. The top 5 movie villains. A tricky task. It would be easier to put together a top 50. So to do this right, I need to set up some ground rules.
A hero needs a villain. Storytelling 101 states that your main character needs someone in direct opposition, standing in the way in their goal. There are an awful lot of movie bad guys and girls who are just that – cookie-cutter villains with no real motivation other than to stop the hero or heroine from getting the girl or the treasure or the love of their parents or the Ark Of The Covenant. We deserve better.
So, my Best Of The Worst tries to expand the remit. My Top 5 are characters with their own needs and goals. With a fresh point of view, they could be the heroes of the tales in which they find themselves. It's all a matter of viewpoint, really. There are plenty more out there like them. And that's where you come in, Film Rioteers. Let's talk interesting villains.
A classic example of the fallen prodigal son. The great hope of the Jedi and the Republic, corrupted and turned to the Dark Side. You could argue that Anakin Skywalker is a little too gullible, a little too easily led by Emperor Palpatine. But that's just another echo of the vast Greek tragedy of Vader's life. He tries and fails to do the right thing, only finding redemption at the very end of the story. Yeah, sure, he tortures his daughter and chops off his son's hand. But he's no planet-killer, like Grand Moff Tarkin. He atones for his crimes with a sacrifice that saves the entire galaxy from tyranny.
(let me slip in a jaw-dropper I discovered only recently. Vader is the Dutch word for “father”. How unsurprised must viewers in the Netherlands have been at the revelations of The Empire Strikes Back?)
The anti-McClane. Gruber is the opposite of the hero of Die Hard in just about every way. He's European, which for American audiences is one step away from alien. In fact, he's German and played by an Englishman, which is standard Hollywood shorthand for bad guy.
But what we actually have is an urbane, literate gentleman thief, with impeccable clothes sense and a sharp, uncompromising intelligence. He's like Danny Ocean with better facial hair. Hans has vision, and a sense of scale and spectacle. Why knock over a bank when you can take out an entire corporation? I'd love to see a film about a Gruber heist that goes right, where he leaves the lumpen forces of the law for dust. The one point where he and John McClane intersect: they are both equally ruthless at removing obstacles. Check the body count for Hans, and compare it to that of his ostensibly law-abiding nemesis, and then tell me who the real villain of the piece is.
Khan Noonien Singh
The system of monarchy is based on the concept that the ruling classes have the right to be at the top of the tree; they have been ordained by a higher power. They have been born to superiority.
Consider, then, Khan Noonien Singh, memorable villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. He has a lot invested in the monarchistic model; he and his retinue have been genetically modified to rule. They are physically and mentally superior. No churchy flummery here. The Khans really are provably better than the rest of us.
So what happens? A benign and wise presence who at one point rules almost a quarter of the globe, Khan is deposed, kicked off Earth and fired into space in suspended animation. He is found by the crew of the Enterprise in the original series episode “Space Seed”. That encounter goes south, and he is then stranded on a planet that quickly turns into a hellhole, one that kills his wife and the majority of his followers.
Frankly, I'd say he has every right to be hacked off at humanity in general, and that smug asshole James Tiberius Kirk in particular as a prime example of the inferior species that just can't seem to get it into their heads that their time is over. I'm no believer in the concept of the Devine Right Of Kings, but Khan is nothing like the usual bunch of gangsters and extortionist who use religious mumbo-jumbo to strengthen their landgrabs. Khan was born with the physical and intellectual tools to put him ahead of the pack. It was our petty jealousies that forced him into exile. In Khan we have a tragic figure, constantly betrayed by those over whom he was created to rule.
Like Khan, Roy Batty's tragedy is hardwired into his very nature. Born as a warrior, given the needs and desires of a man with none of the rights, treated as property and chattel by inferior beings who, when he tries to build a life for himself outside the restrictions they have put in place, sentence him to death. A death, I might add, that is all the crueller given the five-year lifespan encoded into the replicant make-up.
Worse still, he has been given the capacity to feel fear, pain and sorrow, but not the ability to properly deal with it. Roy, Pris, Zhora and Leon are emotional cripples, prisoners of false memories, trapped by past lives that don't even belong to them. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see that the true villain of Blade Runner is the loathsome Dr. Tyrell, who sees no moral problem in creating a slave class of children in adult bodies. Roy Batty's noble death gives us the true meaning of Blade Runner; humanity is a fluid and ever-changing definition, a state of mind as much as a legal or scientific principle.
I've long been uncomfortable with the rank misogyny at the heart of James Dearden's script for Fatal Attraction. As such, I have nothing but sympathy for Alex Forrest, the wronged woman who defends her right to love with such naked ferocity.
The bad guy here, in my opinion, is Dan Gallagher, the unrepentant horn-dog played by Michael Douglas. He learns no lessons about his wrong-doing, apart from the one that states it's OK to sleep around and then kill any woman who calls him out on his unacceptable behaviour.
It bothers me that the term “bunny-boiler” has become lazy shorthand for a woman that doesn't act in a way that fits outmoded gender stereotypes. It bothers me that Alex should be regarded as a villain for simply pointing out that the Gallagher's cosy home life is broken beyond repair. It bothers me that she continues to pursue him after he's broken her heart, frankly. But then love is a tricky thing to quantify or explain. The heart wants what it wants, and the heart is unreliable and cruel.