Analysis

Five Underpowered Antagonists

Loki on the ground after being beaten up by the Hulk.
While not all antagonists are full villains, they all provide opposition to the protagonists. It’s their job to drive the story’s conflict, and to do that job well, it must feel like they can defeat the heroes. One reason we remember the likes of Darth Vader and Khan is because they were so dangerous and threatening. One wrong move and the heroes were toast!

If an antagonist doesn’t have enough resources at their disposal or is simply incompetent, the story loses urgency. There’s no tension if the audience feels like the heroes can steamroll the villain at any moment. Unfortunately, underpowered antagonists are all too common, and they inflict real damage on their stories.

Spoilers: The Collapsing Empire

1.Captain Swing: The Difference Engine

A mechanical eye, cover art from the difference engine.

In this foundational novel of the steampunk genre, our heroes must keep a set of valuable computer cards away from Captain Swing, leader of violent revolutionaries.* Since the villains are rebels, you would expect the government to be weak and ineffectual, so the heroes can’t just call the police for help. This is not the case.

Instead, Swing is rebelling against the British Empire at the height of its power, when it was by far the strongest nation on Earth. The revolutionaries don’t stand a chance, even if they get the cards they’re after. The book avoids this problem for a while by keeping the action small, so it’s believable that the government wouldn’t notice what was happening, but that stops working when Swing launches a full-scale uprising for the climax.

This goes about as well as you’d expect. The revolution is crushed not by the protagonists’ heroism, but by the British military. Swing and his rebels are such underdogs that it’s hard not to cheer for them, even if you’re not particularly sympathetic to anarchist revolutions.

How to Fix It

The smallest necessary change would be to make Swing’s revolution a cover story. In reality, he could be working for someone in the government, someone who wants the computer cards for nefarious purposes. That would put the heroes in a tough spot, as they realize they can’t count on the authorities for assistance. This kind of fake out is common for a reason: it works.

Alternatively, the book’s setting could be changed to something more like Russia in 1917, when the government was crumbling and revolutionary groups were actually on the verge of seizing power. The protagonists would be the only ones who could stop Swing before he began his reign of terror.

2. Gilderoy Lockhart: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and Gilderoy Lockhart from the Chamber of Secrets film.

The second book in Rowling’s magic school series features a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the charming Gilderoy Lockhart. At least, everyone says he’s charming. We find out quickly that he’s an insufferable ass. He claims to be an accomplished wizard, but near the book’s end, it’s revealed that he merely took credit for the accomplishments of others. He is, in fact, a complete fraud. This is important to the story because even though Lockhart isn’t the big bad, his poor teaching hinders Harry and co’s education. Plus, he almost stops them from saving the day as part of a twisted scheme to increase his own fame.

The problem with Lockhart is that he’s too obvious. To all but the youngest readers, he’s a fraud from his first class, when he releases a horde of pixies and isn’t able to recapture them. If that weren’t enough, he later challenges Snape to a practice duel and is defeated so easily it’s clear he has no idea what he’s doing. So when the big moment comes and he admits to Harry and Ron that he’s a fraud, it doesn’t mean anything. The only surprise is when he demonstrates that he’s actually good at memory charms.

Lockhart’s incompetence is frustrating. First, it makes Dumbledore seem terrible at his job, that he’d hire such an obvious fraud to teach the school’s most important class. It’s also frustrating to hear Hermione constantly make excuses for him, when he clearly has no idea what he’s doing. No matter how charming his smile is, our favorite witch would never fall for that.

Beyond frustration, Lockhart’s portrayal doesn’t even make sense. He’s been a fraud for years without anyone catching on, which implies he’s good at avoiding discovery. Based on his behavior at Hogwarts, he wouldn’t have lasted two minutes before someone found him out.

How to Fix It

Lockhart should have acted more like the professional conman he is. If he were ambitious, he’d have engineered situations that would make him look more competent than he actually is. Take the pixie scene. Instead of making a fool of himself, Lockhart could have bought a crate of specially trained pixies that would follow his commands, impressing everyone when he easily restrains the little monsters.

Alternatively, if he’s just looking to coast on his fame and fortune, he could make efforts to avoid situations where his skill might be tested. He’d assign a lot of reading and theory in his class but avoid practical demonstrations. When pressed, he could say something vague about the students “not being ready” to test the knowledge he’s imparting, granting him a sense of mystique.

3. Loki: The Avengers

Loki in battle armor from The Avengers.

With the release of Thor: Ragnarok, Loki has firmly transitioned into the role of sympathetic foil for his brother. But some of you might be old enough to remember a time when Loki was the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big bad, making the heroes quake with fear. That time was 2012, and Loki didn’t make the heroes quake so much as mildly shiver.

At first, Loki seems competent. He starts the film by easily stealing the magic McGuffin and mind controlling one of the heroes to boot. Then he gets captured, but it’s one of those “I meant to be captured” moments. From inside his cell, he tricks the heroes into distrusting and fighting each other.*

Ironically, this all ends once Loki escapes. He reaches New York and unleashes his alien invasion, which turns out to be laughably weak. The aliens aren’t up to the task of defeating the US army, let alone the Avengers. Loki himself isn’t physically powerful either, which is a problem when he’s facing a team of superheroes. Once the Hulk smashes him around like a rag doll, any threat he might have possessed is gone.

This might have worked if the battle sequence was just a short conclusion to Loki’s plan, but it takes up a lot of the film’s runtime. We spend scene after scene watching the Avengers chew through Loki’s pathetic minions, and then even more scenes with Loki suddenly in the position of underdog against a team of heroes more powerful than he is. Remember, this battle is supposed to be so desperate that Shield’s leaders decided to nuke New York to keep Loki from winning. Watching how the father of lies fights, that never seems like a possibility.

How to Fix It

Making Loki stronger is the obvious solution, but how? It wouldn’t make sense for him to suddenly bulk up, as it’s been previously established that he uses lies and trickery because he’s not physically powerful.* One option would be for him to have stolen some kind of weapon during his escape, something to give him an edge against the Avengers. In the film he does steal his staff back, but that didn’t seem to help him much. Maybe Stark left a suit lying around that Loki could have borrowed?

Alternatively, the final confrontation could have been something other than a straight battle. This would be a challenge for a film about heroes who primarily interact with the story via punching, but there are still options. Perhaps instead of summoning an alien army, Loki uses his magic to turn NYC into his personal kingdom, everyone in the city a slave to his will. That would put our heroes in a tough spot, as they’d need to beat Loki without hurting innocents.

4. Caesar’s Legion: Fallout: New Vegas

A legion camp from Fallout: New Vegas

In the post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert, a vast and brutal army advances on the New California Republic. This is Caesar’s Legion, and it has come to make war.* Technically, Caesar’s Legion is one of several factions you can side with in this post-apocalyptic video game, but since it’s a group of slavers who torture people to death for fun, we can confidently call them the antagonists. Even if you do end up siding with the Legion at the end, most of the game’s quests will have you fighting it.

The first problem with the Legion is their setup. In the backstory, they’ve already fought the New California Republic (NCR) for control of the Mojave once and lost. Now they’re back for round two, but so far as we know, nothing has changed since last time. There’s no reason to think this fight will go any differently, so the player can rest safe in the knowledge that if they do nothing, the NCR will defeat the Legion like it did before.

The second, far worse, problem is that the Legion mostly uses melee weapons. Meanwhile, the NCR is equipped like the modern US military, with some salvaged powered armor thrown in. If you’re imagining a bunch of Legionaries armed with gladiuses charging into machine-gun fire, that’s exactly what happens. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Of course, the game gives the Legionaries a mountain of hit points so they can still pose a mechanical challenge, but that doesn’t change how absurd they look.

The standard fallback here would be to give the Legion so many soldiers that they can exhaust the NCR’s ammunition with sheer numbers. That still wouldn’t have made sense, as even the most disciplined army will break and run in the face of total slaughter, but New Vegas doesn’t even attempt it. The Legion actually seems to have a much smaller presence in the Mojave than the NCR does. It’s possible there’s some dialogue buried somewhere about a massive hoard of legionaries hiding off screen, but what you actually see clearly favors the NCR.

How to Fix It

There are exactly two ways to handle this: either the NCR has fewer guns, or the Legion has more guns. Since it seems important to the canon that the NCR has the ability to actually make guns, not just salvage them, option two is easier. I know the designers wanted the Legion to seem Roman, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of their competence. Roman iconography and titles can do the job just fine.

5. The Nohamapetan Family: The Collapsing Empire

Ships launching from a massive space station, from cover art of The Collapsing Empire

John Scalzi’s latest book takes place in a galaxy-spanning empire, with the emperox* as its protagonist. She came to the throne unexpectedly and has the unenviable task of preparing the empire for an oncoming natural disaster that will destroy its way of life, as the hyperspace lanes used for interstellar travel vanish from existence.

Opposing the emperox is the Nohamapetan family, scheming nobles who think they can use the disaster to their own ends. Even though the emperox’s word is law within her domain, this could still have worked. She’s inexperienced and unprepared for her role. The Nohamapetans should have had a strong edge to leverage in imperial politics.

Instead, the Nohamapetans are transparent and ineffectual from the start. They make a few half-hearted attempts to manipulate the emperox, and she sees through all of them. When the Nohamapetans are threatened by a rival house, they back down without a fight. When they finally try to assassinate the emperox, it feels more like an act of desperation than a master stroke. It’s not clear what would have happened if they’d succeeded.

The rest of the Nohamapetans’ efforts in the book are focused on repeatedly trying and failing to take over a single planet. They feel incompetent there too, as their representative is thwarted at every turn. Scalzi tries to end the book with a surprise turnaround as the Nohamapetans finally succeed in taking over the planet and blockading its hyperspace route, but even this feels incompetent. Sure, the Nohamapetans have their planet, but the emperox has the entire military at her disposal. It feels certain she’ll find a way to kick them out, no matter how much the book talks about hyperspace choke points.

How to Fix It

This one is tricky because the protagonist is the emperox. Her word is law, which makes it hard for any antagonist to obstruct her. The best option is probably to have her discover that her position is not as all-powerful as she’s been led to believe. Perhaps the Nohamapetans have been slowly building their influence for years before she even took the throne, making sure that powerful officials are in their pocket even as they pay lip service to the emperox.

This would put the protagonist in a position similar to Japanese emperors before the Meji Restoration: the subject of much cultural prestige, but with little political power. Another option would have been for the Nohamapetans to convince the emperox they were her allies before turning on her in the climax. This would have required someone else to stand in as the faux-antagonist, but it would have made for a more satisfying conclusion.


Stories where the hero has it easy are boring. If the protagonist never works to get what they want, then their goals mean nothing. Antagonists are the ones who make sure the struggle isn’t too easy. So if you ever find yourself with a story where it looks like the hero is sure to win from the first page, consider giving the bad guy a boost.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    #3: Loki

    He actually makes a much better antagonist in the first Thor movie, because there it’s his deviousness which works most things out for him (even though he and Thor do fight at the end). He takes control of Asgard (since Odin is unconscious and Thor banished), tells Thor he can never come back (which is a lie, he would have been welcome back home), lures Laufey (his biological father) to Asgard to legally be allowed to kill him, and almost destroys Jotunheim (the realm he was born in) with the Bifrost, leaving Thor no other choice but to destroy the Bifrost and, thus, cut Asgard off from the other realms.

    Avengers unfortunately is a movie where they wanted a big battle at the end. They wanted the Chitauri against mankind (or, rather, against their heroes) and that forces Loki to take a back seat. Had they played more to his strengths, they would have made him turn the heroes against each other more efficiently and, perhaps, even have him take control over more than one of them (Black Widow as second ‘normal’ Avenger would have been an option and, with two top agents, he could have done a lot of damage to SHIELD). He would have disrupted things, which could indirectly have made a battle harder for the heroes.

    I would like to point out, though, that the Hulk actually easily beats up both Asgardians. He also has a go at Thor earlier (in the Helicarrier).

    • Carl

      Yeah, I’ve heard in a number of commentaries on the Avenger’s… good guys win because of green rage monster.

      • Cay Reet

        No, that’s not what I mean. I simply mean both Thor and Loki go up against the Hulk and actually lose, which shows his immense strength. That has nothing to do with him winning the battle, because he doesn’t. Without the nuke going through the portal, everything would have been lost, and neither the Hulk nor Banner have anything to do with that.

  2. GeniusLemur

    “Maybe Stark left a suit lying around that Loki could have borrowed?”
    Would it really help the underpowered villain problem if Loki is a physical threat, but only because Tony conveniently left a suit way more powerful than than one he usually uses lying around with the (metaphorical) key in the ignition?

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, a suit probably wouldn’t have helped. Some kind of magical object which allowed for Loki to heighten his powers might help. But, to be honest, the problem was rather that Loki isn’t the kind of villain for the kind of final battle in the movie.

  3. Tyson Adams

    Disagree with you about Lockhart. I’ve worked with people like him. It is inexplicable how they continue to be employed, how everyone knows they are being conned but that doesn’t sink them.

    Make no mistake, aside from being played for a few laughs, Lockhart was all too realistic. It would not surprise me to discover he was based on a real person.

    • GriffTheGriffin

      He was. Actually, I’ve read that Rowling said he is the only character in the series who was based on a real person. I don’t know much more, but I can give you this from a StackExchange answer:

      “Are any of your characters based on real people?

      The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. [Laughter]. Maybe he is not the one that you would think of, but I have to say that the living model was worse. [Laughter]. He was a shocker! The lies that he told about adventures that he’d had, things he’d done and impressive acts that he had committed… He was a shocking man. I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart. I am always frightened that he is going to turn up one day. He is just one of those people from your past whom you feel you have never quite shaken off. I will look up one day at a signing and he will say, “Hello, Jo”. [Laughter]. Other people have contributed the odd characteristic, such as a nose, to a character, but the only character who I sat down and thought that I would base on someone is Gilderoy Lockhart. It made up for having to endure him for two solid years.

      J.K. Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival, in response to a question from the audience, through Accio Quote.”

      (StackExchange question/answer: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/68648/who-is-gilderoy-lockhart-based-on)

      • Tyson Adams

        And I’m completely unsurprised.

        Thanks for digging that up, Griff.

        Oren, I’m guessing you haven’t had the pleasure of working with or knowing a con artist? It’s lots of fun seeing your work with their name on it.

  4. Hannan

    I’m going to quote a meme. “You know, you are a pretty good villain who it take six superheroes to defeat you.” ‘Nuff said, that’s Loki.
    Also, I think Lockhart was meant to be more of that oblivious character who is incompetent and can’t do a thing right but still believes himself to be great, at least at con. Voldemort was the real enemy all along. Jeez, do you read?

    • Dave L

      Six superheroes?

      In “Destroy All Monsters” King Ghidorah faced Godzilla and NINE other giant monsters

  5. Some Guy

    I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but have you actually played Fallout New Vegas? You can’t talk to any npc with an NCR relation without getting some sort of lecture about the reasons that might lead to a possible Legion victory. Their army is too spread out attempting to deal with the Legion’s guerilla attacks and the local raider groups, their army is demoralized from the lack of progress in their war with the Legion, the Legion has a new Super Big Bad Guy™ leading their army who’s defeated dozens of other “tribes” while the Legion was prepping for round two with the NCR, t
    . It literally goes on and on. I’m not saying all this because I’m some offended fanboy trying to defend the honor of an impeccable game. I just think the assement made of Fallout New Vegas in this article is inaccurate, given the incredible (borderline AGONIZING) pains the developers went too to demonstrate the weakness of the NCR. (oh and it’s only the really low and high level Legion troops who rely on melee weapons in combat, love this blog btw!)

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