Analysis

Five Disappointing Villains

Boba Fett's showing in the original trilogy is truly disappointing

Creating good villains is difficult. Any character needs personality, motives, flaws, and agency, but villains also have to be threatening or relatable. By analyzing bad examples like these, we can learn what to avoid.

1. Scarecrow – Batman Begins

Scarecrow is a terrifying figure that doesn't live up to his appearance. Scarecrow is a terrifying figure that doesn’t live up to his appearance.

Scarecrow has a strong start as a menace to Batman, but a lackluster finale leaves us a with a forgettable and subpar performance.

More Villains Means Less Focus

Characters take time to develop; spend too little time on them and they’ll be flat, rushed, or both. Villains are no different, and the spotlight needs to shine on them in order to make them threatening and clearly defined. Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow compete for center stage, and this weakens both of their performances. Time that could have been spent developing one is divided and diluted.

Villains Need Motives

What exactly drives the Scarecrow? Ra’s al Ghul wants to destroy stagnant and corrupt governments and then rebuild from the ashes. Joker just wants to watch the world burn. However, it’s never made clear whether the Scarecrow is after money * or if he just wants to spread terror far and wide because reasons. While we know he’s a psychologist with the power to use the fears of his enemies, we see little of his underlying layers, and this lack of development severely limits his impact.

Showdowns Should Be Serious

Every other final showdown is a serious fight for Batman. While I’m all for giving the love interest agency by having her beat the Scarecrow, getting tasered in the face and dragged away by a horse isn’t a dignified end. A villain is only as serious as they’re written, and mixing comedy and drama together is hard. This is even worse when the comedy comes at the expense of your villains, who need to remain threatening. Your audience will only respect your villain as much as you make them respectable.

2. Lex Luthor – Superman

Lex Luthor tries to explain his insane scheme to his slow assistant Otis. Lex Luthor tries to explain his insane scheme to his slow assistant.

While I hate Superman, Lex Luthor is one of my favorite villains. He’s cunning, proud, and truly believes that Superman is a risk to mankind. But sadly, in the Superman move from 1978, he’s a buffoon.

Bad Villains Make Bad Plans

Lex Luthor is supposed to be a criminal mastermind, but that doesn’t stop him from coming up with a plan that’s thoroughly insane. Nuking the western seaboard to create a new coastline, thereby manipulating real estate prices, is a plan riddled with consequences. For one thing, the fallout would make wide swaths of his land uninhabitable, and the economic recession due to the catastrophe would seriously cut his prices. For another, the government loves playing the eminent domain card in times of need, like after a nuclear strike kills millions and sends thousands of square miles into the drink. He also fires a decoy nuke at New Jersey to distract Superman, even though he’s already incapacitating the hero with kryptonite. You’d think he’d at least wait for his poison plan to fail before bombing a city.

The Minions Make the Man

By being mostly competent, the Scarecrow makes his master Ra’s look good by comparison. By employing a moron, Lex makes himself look just as stupid. It’s never explained why Lex employs Otis, who constantly jeopardizes his plans and struggles with basic instructions. I could buy that Lex is employing Otis because an idiot would be less likely to snitch or betray him, but he also works with Eva, who is considerably more intelligent than Otis.* While he is meant to be comedic relief, Otis makes Lex seem much less threatening.

Show – Don’t Tell

Villains need to maintain an aura of menace. It doesn’t matter whether it’s mad science, super powers, magic, or pure intellect, they need to use their teeth on heroes. Everyone assumes that Lex is some kind of mastermind, but all we see him do is make crazy plans, verbally abuse his dim-witted assistant, and almost miraculously figure out Superman’s weakness. Ability and competence can’t be taken for granted, and shouting about something you’ve done only goes so far.

3. Faith – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Faith readily turns on her friend and comrade Buffy for poorly explained reasons Faith readily turns on her friend and comrade Buffy for poorly explained reasons

Betrayal can be a potent moment in stories, but it requires proper setup to pull off well. The emotional impact when Faith, the other vampire slayer, turns on Buffy and the Scooby gang is limited by poor preparation and a lack of clear motives.

Arcs Shouldn’t Be Abrupt

Character changes take time to develop because if it happens too fast, it will seem artificial and jarring. In a handful of episodes, Faith goes from charismatic-yet-hotheaded slayer to a violent psychopath after killing someone by accident. Rapid character changes like these reveal the normally invisible hand of the writer, breaking immersion in the story.

Betrayal Is a Big Decision

Faith unraveling after a traumatic event makes sense, but it was never really explained why she switches sides. The weight of the treachery is completely undermined by the lack of clear motivation and warning. Much later when Buffy and Faith switch bodies, we get a strong sense of envy from Faith, but that is built up way after the treachery. The big reveal is marred by the confusion surrounding her defection.

The Audience Needs to Be Invested

Villains need to have positive qualities in order to remain threatening. Personality flaws make characters realistic and relatable. While I can appreciate giving Faith some actual flaws, she changes too drastically. On the good team, she’s a bit hotheaded, violent, and jealous of Buffy, but she’s also competent, charismatic, and generally has good intentions. When she flips, she rapidly and inexplicably becomes a cruel sadist. These extra negative qualities are heavy handed and inconsistent with her past self, making her unbalanced. It’s hard to care when she turns on Buffy and the Scooby Gang as we have little reason to be invested in her.

4. Joffrey Baratheon – Game of Thrones

Prince Jeoffrey learns it's hard to maintain street cred after getting slapped by his uncle. Prince Joffrey learns it’s hard to maintain street cred after getting slapped by his uncle.

While the young king of Westeros easily inspires an incredible level of hatred, he does nothing else as a villain.

Good Villains Aren’t Outshone by Everyone Else

Every other villain in GoT is capable. Petyr is cunning and manipulative. Tywin is intelligent and driven. Even Ramsey Bolton, another sadist, is competent and clever enough to execute his own plans. Joffrey has nothing but a notable name and few people willing to slap him when he’s being a bratty bastard. Joffrey is enabled and outdone by everyone around him, making him even more unlikable. Better villains are relatable or respected.*

Incompetence Isn’t Taken Seriously

Joffrey’s abilities begin and end with pointless cruelty. He bullies, sucks at fighting, has no appreciable skills, and is uncharismatic enough to earn everyone’s ire. A crown doesn’t make you tough; it just makes everyone less likely to say no when you say jump. Respect is earned with actions and abilities. The fact that he can’t back up his threats makes him a bad joke with a really mean punchline.

Unrelateable Villians Are More Monster Than Man

Joffrey is unlikable to the point of being monstrous. He might be human, but his lack of positive qualities, personality, and compelling motives kills any empathy we’d have for him. The strength of monsters is that they rally and motivate heroes by being credible threats. The Mountain is a vicious and inhumane killer that revels in wanton violence, and his size and skill make him a terrifying foe. Joffrey inspires his opponents through hatred but lacks courage and the mind to maneuver in the great game.

5. Boba Fett – Star Wars

Both Boba as Vader are set up as badass villains, but only Vader pulls it off. Both Boba as Vader are set up as badass villains, but only Vader pulls it off.

Boba Fett has a tough reputation as a bounty hunter, but you wouldn’t know it by just watching the original trilogy. If you want to see him in action, read Enemy of the Empire; he’s vastly underwhelming in the movies.

Villains Shouldn’t Have a Slapstick Demise

Villains can’t be dramatic if they aren’t respectable. Every time Vader fights, there are serious consequences, as he is a capable opponent. But Boba Fett is accidentally hit in the back by a blinded man before careening into a ship and falling into the mouth of an immobile monster *. This type of defeat is typical with Team Rocket villains, which makes him a bit silly.

Skills Are Better Than Gear

Vader’s armor is iconic and awe-inspiring, but he also has strength and skill. Boba has an impressive array of gadgets, some fancy armor, and a unique ship, but none of it saves him from mediocrity. He tails Han and then lets Vader capture them. In the next movie, we see him fight briefly before an untimely and embarrassing defeat at the hands of his own jetpack. It doesn’t matter how many toys you have if your moves are barely competent and followed by laughable failure.

Mystery Isn’t a Replacement for Personality

We learn next to nothing about Boba, making him enigmatic. Lines like “No disintegrations!” make him seem dangerous while giving us little. Mysterious characters are fine, but we’re not fed anything to keep us interested after his first few appearances. If we’re not going to learn about him through dialogue, then we have to learn about him through actions. As previously covered, this doesn’t say anything good. A whole bunch of smoke and nothing still amounts to mostly nothing.


Villains need to be taken seriously, and if you crack jokes at their expense, it can be difficult to repair the damage. It’s also hard to care about characters that are completely unlikable and incompetent. Bad guys need personality like any other character, only with bigger teeth.

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Comments

  1. disperser

    You don’t like Superman?

    Is it the cape, or the whole outside underwear thing? I mean, either is cause enough, but, for me, it’s mostly that he does so little with the power he has.

    I don’t expect Batman to drive his Batmobile to the Middle East and fix that mess, but Superman? Slacker!

    • David Mesick

      I’m not bothered by flyboy’s indifference to mankind or his silly get-up. I’m bothered by the fact that he’s practically perfect, and his only real weakness is a physical one. The prettyboy ends up boring and uncomplicated. At least Batman is kind of crazy. I’ll take a kooky psychopath over a cardboard cutout any day.

    • d

      Hmm . . . I never saw him as perfect because he mostly acts for his own self-interest. Now, granted, it’s not a flaw in the same sense we see batman, but a flaw it is.

      I should also mention, I’m only referencing TV shows and movies. I’ve not read any of the comics, so I don’t know how he comes off there.

      I always thought the TV and film characterizations were far from perfect and more catering to male fantasies of lots of power with little responsibility. Nowhere is that put up in display more than in the diner fight scene at the end of Superman II.

      But, I understand. No one likes perfect . . . why so many people dislike me, I’d wager. Wait . . . perfect me would not brag like that . . . DAMN!

      . . . I still gotz work to do . . .

      • David Mesick

        The struggle continues on.

        Superman acting in self-interest, huh? I was about to disagree with you, but then I stopped and thought about and you’re not wrong. He does a lot of self-serving and petty things, at least in the movies. Weirdly enough though, the film never addresses those oddly selfish moments, and always pretends that he’s the perfect example of men and citizens. So yea, I’m a bit bothered by that.

        I have no idea what he’s like in comics. I read a lot of comics, the couple Superman examples I’ve looked at were either forgettable, or memorable for reasons that weren’t him. Either way, comics are expensive and there are much better things to read than Supermand and even Batman really.

    • Alverant

      I have to agree with David. Supes is just too perfect to be interesting. He seems to have any power that he needs at the moment. In the movies he makes Lois forget his secret identity with a kiss, something we haven’t seen before or since (except in Robot Chicken). He even returned from the dead just because. They had to reduce his power in the Justice League cartoon because otherwise the solution to every conflict would be “Superman flies in and saves the day.” Then there’s the whole Jesus analogy which I don’t want to get into.

      • David Mesick

        Oh yea, I totally forgot about the creepy mind powers that come up in that movie and thankfully they never come up again. The expansive breadth of his powers is a problem, but then again old-school Batman carries around a canister of shark repellent, so I can’t give him too much crap for that. Even the scale of his power is workable since he’s week to kryptonite. Sure, without kryptonite, almost none of his villains would stand a chance, but at least writers gave themselves an out so at least something could challenge him. Mostly, it’s his complete lack of personality and simplistic motives.

        The whole Jesus thing is weird. It would be interesting to see a Superman story with a creepy cult of the personality around him, but so far every writer seems interested in making him like Jesus, and not in pointing out how bizarre that is or how it’d affect culture.

        • Tyson Adams

          The more interesting takes on Superman have been done in the indie comics. I’m a big fan of Irredeemable by Mark Waid. The idea is “what if Superman decided to become a super villain”. Irredeemable has a linked series called Incorruptible that explores how one super villain reacts to this change.

          Another comic that recast superman was The Boys by Garth Ennis. Ennis turns the entire idea of superheroes on its head in that series.

          All worth a read, especially if you are sick of Superman.

          • David Mesick

            Apparently Tyson and I read some of the same comics, because I was thinking of Irredeemable and the Boys. Irredeemable is completely terrifying, because honestly, Superman could totally wipe out entire continents and we’d be able to do absolutely nothing but watch. I had not heard of Incorruptible, that does also sound like an interesting read.

            While the boys is often sophomoric and kind of silly (also, VERY graphic), it is a biting commentary on the way we look at superheroes and is probably a much more realistic vision of what would happen if gods walked among men. Spoilers: very few of them turn out nice or well-adjusted. I never did like it as much as Preacher though.

            I’ve also heard good things about Miracleman, Alan Moore’s take on Superman. Haven’t read it yet, but I heard it deals a lot with Miracleman coming to grips with being a demigod among mortals. Way more interesting stuff.

          • Tyson Adams

            Haven’t heard about Miracleman, David, but I’ll have to look it up.

            Incorruptible has Max Damage as the main character, you’d have seen him in a few of the crossover editions. Well worth the read.

            And I agree completely that The Boys does feel more like how most superheroes would behave. As a huge Ennis fan I find this series to be one of his better ones, and probably his best exploration of superhero hate – he did a couple of other series, like Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, along this line.

        • Alverant

          The thing with kryptonite is that it’s supposedly rare but people just keep finding it whenever it becomes convenient. It’s like cars on an episode of Oprah.
          “You get some kryptonite! You get some kryptonite! And YOU get some kryptonite!”

          The Justice League cartoon said his powers were less effective against magic (which also kinda fits into the whole Jesus thing from a certain POV) which is good but I think an overall reduction of power would help the character. There should always be someone else who is stronger, tougher, or faster, or in some way superior to Superman. Make him great at a bunch of stuff, just not the greatest in anyone thing.

          Also give him survivor’s guilt or some kind of psychological issue. He’s one of the last of his kind, even if he hardly remembers them, that’s gotta affect him. He got lucky and he should be aware of it and be an aspect of his personality.

          • David Mesick

            Kryptonite is the crutch with which they prop up Supes’ villains, plain and simple. The change made sense for JLA, but another weakness is not the same as scaling back the power. I would have preferred the latter, but they probably didn’t do that to maintain continuity or something.

            Now, Supes with some survivors guilt would be interesting. Likely terrifying (imagine a god with PTSD), but still interesting.

  2. Tyson Adams

    I thought the point of Joffrey was not to be a villain but to be loathed. I always took him to be an analogue for the spoilt rich kids in society who get away with everything. We weren’t meant to be thinking of him as the villain, we were meant to be thinking of how unfair the world is.

    • David Mesick

      If that’s his point, I suppose he succeeds. Honestly though, I mostly find him a big disappointment when you compare him to some of the other stellar villains that show up in the series. The Boltins are equally hated and do a great job of teaching everyone the lesson that the world sucks and life isn’t fair, but they’re terrifying and at least Ramsey garners some respect. I suppose none of them are really spoiled though.

      • Tyson Adams

        I thought this scene summed up him being the spoilt rich kid that was meant to be loathed:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRZmVvMyaog

        In all fairness, I’m not actually a fan of GoT. I found that while it is well written (books and TV) there aren’t many characters with redeeming qualities to get behind…. Well, none that last. Kinda feels like just one long stream of bad things happening with no end in sight. Which is why I stated the above as a question to see if others with more GoT experience had gotten that impression.

        • David Mesick

          Oh sure, you’re not wrong. As someone who mostly enjoys the books, I can confirm, he is totally a spoiled child with a crown. Also, it never seems like Martin ever intended him to be anything but loathed. All the same, plenty of other characters in that series are equally loathsome, yet are way more compelling and interesting. I find him disappointing compared to everything else Martin has come up with.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            We spend a lot of time on him if he’s really just supposed to inspire hatred.

  3. Jake Giese (http://onenerdydad.com/)

    For the ones I saw, totally agree. Boba Fett looked cool, but his awesomeness is almost soley to the EU.

    Captain Phasma/Zam Wessel could easily be seen on a list like this too. So over-hyped in the run up to the movie release.

    I was very pleased with Kylo Ren though.

    http://onenerdydad.com/2016/01/22/kylo-ren-is-the-best-dark-jedi-since-darth-vader-heres-why/

    • David Mesick

      Captain Phasma was another big letdown- so much build up for nothing. Hopefully she’ll get another shot in one of the sequels, but we’ll see.

      Liked the article. Fan of Ren, mostly because he is kind of flawed personally, but also because of the emotion. Good stuff.

  4. Krssven

    I like that you called Faith out here. In Season Three, BtVS did not have as strong a central arc as it did in the previous season. Faith was introduced very early but often sat out entire episodes, diluting the chance for character development. While I didn’t have problems with her joining the Mayor and becoming his replacement Dragon, the season by that time had very little room to manoeuvre. Worse, the writers ploughed on with several more standalone stories, leaving a total of two episodes to a) establish Faith’s villain credentials (they largely failed) and b) establish the Mayor’s Ascension arc in the minds of both the audience and the protagonists. You see, the Mayor had been seen and used very sparingly in the first two thirds of the season, and by the time Faith joined him, the Scooby Gang still had absolutely no idea that he even HAD an ‘Ascension’ scheme. The horrible episode ‘Enemies’ does two things at once – it has Buffy & Angel ‘tricking Faith all along’ so they can learn about the Mayor’s schemes, but also so they can expose Faith as batting for his team. We’re informed that the scoobies somehow knew about both already, but how they came to this realisation is never revealed.

    • David Mesick

      Oh yea, that whole season was a bit of a letdown for me. She could have been great as a traitor, but instead we don’t see her much for the season, and the bits we do see are weird.

  5. Ripley Nox (ripleynox.com)

    My inner nerd is compelled to tell you that Boba Fett did NOT die in the Sarlacc pit. His escape is chronicled in the anthology The Tales from Jabba’s Palace, in the short story “A Barve Like That: The Tale of Boba Fett” by J.D. Montgomery. You better believe a skilled hunter like the Mandalorian King wouldn’t be brought down that easily.

    Hopefully Disney won’t retconn that part of the Extended Universe as it’s a really great story.

    • Adam Reynolds

      They already have retconned it. The old EU in its entirety is gone. Given some of the truly awful stories in it, I can’t say that is a bad thing. Though Clone Wars made many of the same mistakes regardless, so a new brand of lousy has replaced the old.

      This is one of those examples of how hard it is to be a hard core Star Wars fan. The continuity is such a convoluted mess regardless of which version you use that the only good canon is the one that you make up in your head.

      In any case, the fact that the EU had to invent a new story is the problem, it shows that the films themselves were flawed in this respect. It’s just like trying to justify the plot of The Phantom Menace by pointing out that one of the EU books filled in the plot holes. Moving the problem to a tie in book doesn’t eliminate it from the film. You can’t expect an audience to do homework to enjoy a movie.

      What’s funny is that Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens had a similar problem in the film of not really doing anything other than showing up in armor that looked cool. The random stormtrooper with a staff that Finn fought was far more effective in every possible way.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Why wasn’t that random Storm Trooper Phasma? WHYYYY?

        • David Mesick

          Would have been super easy and awesome to do that. They missed a big opportunity there just so they could throw her down a garbage chute.

    • David Mesick

      Oh yea, I never read that story, but I had heard about it. Really sad since the best Fett stories are not in the trilogy. I doubt they’ll retconn it, mostly coz Disney likely realizes that people love Fett, and they love money.

  6. bobkat

    I can’t quite agree on Faith. Her mode was always, underlying, survival in the sense of the very young street wise-gal she almost certainly ha d been most of her life e before meeting her Watcher. And when she felt she had lost any status she could have on one side, she both switched an d adapted to it with the sadism you mentioned. And the cruelty was nothing new; even before the killing, she had used Xander ruthlessly for a one-night stand, with no thought of how he’d react.

    • David Mesick

      Interesting. I had never though of as sadism as a replacement for her deep survival instinct. They do establish the survival instinct as an important factor, though I do wish they played it up or worked with it a bit more. However, I disagree that cruelty is the same as being sexually open or manipulative. Sure, she used Xander, but that is not the same as torture. Entirely two different things.

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