Antagonists need to be threatening so they can provide tension. If the story doesn’t have tension, then the conflict isn’t interesting, and the audience will get bored in a hurry. Storytellers have many tools at their disposal to make bad guys more threatening, but there are just as many ways a villain can lose threat. They might be totally incompetent, they might fail over and over again until no one takes them seriously, or they might just be underpowered to start with.
It’s that last one we’re looking at again today. Underpowered villains might be perfectly competent, they might even win sometimes, but they simply don’t have the resources to credibly take on the hero. What level of power each villain needs depends on what type of story is being told and their role in it, but it isn’t hard to spot a villain who doesn’t have the tools to get the job done.
In The Next Generation’s fourth season, the writers decided to introduce a new enemy species, likely in preparation for the upcoming launch of Deep Space Nine. These aliens were called the Cardassians, and they were to be more intellectual than the Klingons without being as standoffish as the Romulans. They love to plot and scheme, but they’re also happy to do it over a friendly chat.
Sounds like a great setup, until we find out that Cardassian ships are made of papier-mâché. Their premiere episode, The Wounded, features a Cardassian surprise attack on the Enterprise; our heroes don’t even have time to raise shields. This devastating attack results in… some minor damage that the Enterprise easily shrugs off. Worf then disables the Cardassian ship with a quick phaser volley.
This is the Federation’s new enemy? Pardon me if I’m not quaking in my uniform. Okay, that’s unfair – maybe it’s just a fluke. The Enterprise is Starfleet’s flagship, after all, so maybe this was a destroyer attacking a battleship. Naturally, later in the episode the Cardassians have an opportunity for a rematch with a weaker Federation ship, and… the Cardassians are destroyed by a single torpedo. It’s even a plot point that the Federation ship’s shields aren’t working. Give me a break!
This is total failure for establishing the new villains we’re supposed to be worried about. At the end of the episode, there’s a moment where it’s indicated that the Cardassians have some deeper plan. It’s meant to be a tense exchange, but it’s not because, honestly, who cares? The Cardassians can scheme all they want; the next time they show up maybe Starfleet will need to use two torpedoes.
Adding even more irony, just a season later in Conundrum, the crew come up against an enemy whom they defeat just as easily, and that’s used as evidence that something must be wrong. Surely, such a weak species wouldn’t be at war with the mighty Federation. Riker even marvels that they could have won the battle with a single torpedo. Fortunately, later episodes with the Cardassians mostly pretend The Wounded didn’t happen, but they’ll never be able to erase how underwhelming the Cardassian debut was.
Runaways is a superhero show where a group of kids must grapple with the fact that their parents are evil, or at least highly amoral. This is a fantastic premise, as it allows for meaty emotional conflict to play out alongside exciting battle sequences. Except it doesn’t, because most of the parents don’t have any powers.
You read that right. Even though most of the kids have special powers or fancy tech, their parents don’t have the same. Marvel, the company that can’t resist ending every movie with a fight between characters sporting the same power, decided to pass on that premise the one time they had a setup that actually supported it.
This creates a serious problem: how are parents without powers supposed to be a credible threat to kids who do have powers? Runaways doesn’t have an answer. At first, the show delays by making the first few episodes about the kids investigating their parents’ evil secrets, but that only lasts for so long. Then the writers try to use corrupt cops as the parents’ minions, but said cops don’t have any real connection to the heroes, so they’re dispatched fairly quickly. The show’s original big bad does at least have his own powers, but he’s just one character who can’t be everywhere at once.
Finally, the show tries leaning on the one parent who does have powers, but then she gives her powers up so her daughter can have them. This decision is absolutely baffling and only makes the problem worse. After that, we have several scenes where the parents try to physically overpower their children, and they’re easily defeated each time. It’s a little sad to watch because the writers put so much work into establishing the emotional conflict, but it’s all short-circuited by the parents having no ability to threaten the kids.
Eventually, the writers try to fix this by having the parents get possessed by aliens, and that does help, but a season and a half was already gone by then. That’s a long time to spend with villains we’re not at all worried about.
Hey look, a second Star Trek entry on this list. What a weird coincidence that has nothing to do with my viewing habits. No, YOU watch too much Star Trek.
Anyway, Lursa and B’etor are some no good, very bad Klingons who want to take over the empire, declare war on the Federation, and probably over-steep Picard’s tea. You know, standard Star Trek villain stuff. When they first appeared in TNG’s fourth season, they were okay villains, mainly serving as cover for the more threatening Romulans.* Then they showed up as minor antagonists on Deep Space Nine, where they were also fine.
It wasn’t until TNG’s first feature film, Generations, that things went wrong. In that movie, the sisters form half of a villain tag team, and their job is primarily to threaten the Enterprise while Picard has a solo adventure with the film’s other villain. That shouldn’t be a problem, except their ship is just not up to the task.
Lursa and B’etor fly the classic Bird of Prey. Though the exact capabilities of this craft are a little hazy, it’s usually described as a small scout ship, whereas the Enterprise is among Starfleet’s most powerful vessels. Even within the film, they make a point of noting that the sisters’ ship is no match for a Galaxy-class starship. Naturally, when these mismatched opponents come to blows, the battle… ends in a draw? With both ships destroyed? Hang on, that doesn’t sound right.
To the writers’ credit, they do have the Klingons find a way to neutralize the Enterprise’s shields, but that isn’t enough. Even without shields, it feels like the Enterprise should be able unleash its entire arsenal and overwhelm the much smaller Bird of Prey. This isn’t based on any technical schematics or other background material, but we know the Enterprise has a powerful array of weapons at its disposal from watching seven seasons of TNG.
Instead, the Enterprise gets off one or two shots and then tries to flee until the characters can come up with a technobabble solution. It really makes Riker look like an incompetent commander in what should have been his moment of triumph on the big screen. Having the Enterprise actually destroyed by such an underwhelming opponent just adds insult to injury.
The fix for this problem is simply to give Lursa and B’etor a more powerful ship. It didn’t need to be an unstoppable dreadnought, just something that the Enterprise couldn’t easily overwhelm with one volley. Then, the shield-defeating plot would have turned an evenly matched situation into a desperate one.
We move on from space opera to a superhero show about dysfunctional family drama. A second superhero show about dysfunctional family drama, I mean. Umbrella Academy’s first major villains are Cha-Cha and Hazel, a pair of jaded assassins from the future who complain about incompetent bosses, shrinking budgets, and joint pains. So relatable! If deadpan sarcasm was all you needed to be threatening, these two would be set.
Unfortunately, in an action-oriented story like Umbrella Academy, villains also need to pose a physical danger. In that capacity, Hazel and Cha-Cha are a strange contradiction, both too powerful and not powerful enough. The first part of that comes from the fact that they use machine guns, and none of the heroes are bulletproof. In any rational scenario, the assassins should auto-win any time they have surprise, which they usually do.
But it wouldn’t work for the characters to all end up dead in the third episode, so the show’s solution is to make Cha-Cha and Hazel really bad shots. At least, that’s the only way I can explain how they manage to constantly miss, even at close range with no cover. Once they ditch their useless guns, the second problem becomes clear: they have no powers.
Our protagonists are a group of superheroes. One can teleport, another can hit anything with throwing knives, and the third is super strong.* Against this setup, the assassins should have no chance. They both know how to fight, and Hazel is really big, but otherwise they’re just normal humans as far as I can tell. Their first fight should have ended with the teleporter getting behind them and stabbing them to death like he does everyone else, the knife thrower putting blades through their hearts, or super-strength dude just ripping them in half.
None of that happens. Instead, the teleporter just doesn’t use his power very much against them,* knife man throws two knives at the one armored place on the assassins’ bodies before giving up, and Hazel is somehow able to overpower a guy who is explicitly stronger than a human can be. The only way to reconcile this power mismatch was for the show to mostly forget how the heroes’ powers work.
The solution here was clearly to give Hazel and Cha-Cha some powers of their own, or maybe some future tech that would put them on even footing with the heroes. Guns don’t work for this, since they’re so powerful that they destroy the chance for interesting fights. That means they can’t be allowed to work. Instead, something that mimics super strength or enhanced reflexes would have done wonders. It might not match the source material, but adaptations make that kind of change all the time.
For our final entry, we’re going old school, to the magical land of Narnia where the eternal winter holds sway and the White Witch reigns. That’s our villain, and at first glance, she seems plenty powerful. The Witch has a wand of petrification and Turkish Delight of mind control at her disposal, plus a nasty stone knife that she’s no slouch with. How could this not be enough when the heroes of this book are all school children?
The twist is that she isn’t actually facing off against Peter, Suzan, Edmund, and Lucy. They just happen to be along for the ride. The real leader of team good in this book is Lion-Jesus, also known as Aslan. His mere appearance in Narnia is enough to destroy the Witch’s spells, and it’s made clear none of her powers will work on him. In fact it’s heavily implied that Aslan is just invincible and can destroy the Witch’s entire army on his own.
So how does the book not just immediately end if Aslan is that much more powerful? Aside from filler scenes of the characters eating delicious fantasy food, I mean? It’s because the Witch suddenly acts more like a protagonist than the actual protagonists. She plots and schemes until she comes up with a clever plan for defeating a more powerful opponent. Granted, her plan is a little contrived as it relies on previously unknown “deep magic,” but we can forgive her a faux pas because of the circumstances.
Of course the Witch’s plan doesn’t actually work, and eventually Aslan comes back via even deeper magic.* From there any tension the story might have had is lost as Aslan can not only defeat the Witch but also un-petrify her victims. But for a brief moment, it seemed like the Witch might succeed through cunning and guile, which actually makes us want to cheer for her as if she were the protagonist.
Audiences automatically sympathize with the underdog in any conflict because their victory is the more interesting outcome. If Goliath wins, it’s boring. Everyone expected Goliath to win, so why are you telling me this story? We want David to win because it’s more satisfying. This dynamic holds true even when the underdog is evil like the White Witch, to the point that we actually take more satisfaction from her short-lived victory than we do when the heroes finally triumph.
I’m not sure if this could have been fixed while retaining the religious metaphor that Lewis placed so much importance on. What I do know is that beings who are all-good and all-powerful rarely make good heroes, since they don’t have to struggle for anything. Worse, they end up making us cheer for the outmatched villain, and after that there’s no way to give the story a satisfying ending.
It’s a simple fact that audiences like a powerful villain. Weak, ineffectual villains rarely get the job done, and the few who do usually have extenuating circumstances. Even so, it’s not difficult to make an underpowered villain by accident. If you do, there isn’t any satisfaction when your heroes win the day, and it’ll be simply unbelievable if you go for a villain victory. Keep that in mind when designing your next antagonist, so your heroes will be properly afraid.
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