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 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
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
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
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
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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