The best way for a villain to be threatening is to rack up a few victories before the heroes finally triumph in the climax. When the villain wins, it builds tension as audiences worry that the villain might win again. The trick is that, just like with heroes, it has to be credible when the villains win. Otherwise, the story will feel contrived. While contrived victories aren’t as common for the bad guys as they are for Team Good, it’s still a problem storytellers need to be aware of. Let’s look at a few fresh-caught examples and see what we can learn.
1. Sybok: Star Trek V
Who would have guessed that so beloved, so cherished a film would end up with a lackluster villain? Sybok is a Vulcan who would really like to meet God, and to do that he’s got a three-step plan:
- Take a bunch of hostages with mind control.
- Commandeer the rescue ship with mind control.
- Mind-control the rescue ship’s crew so they’ll take him into the center of the galaxy, where God lives. Obviously.
A few problems with this plan are immediately apparent. To start with, spaceships are a dime a dozen in the Star Trek universe. Why does he need to steal one? If he needs a special ship for some reason,* why not just quietly mind-control his way up the chain of command until he gets one? There’s no need to draw all this attention to himself.
Despite those issues, everything goes perfectly. Sybok captures the Enterprise exactly as planned, then flies it to the center of the galaxy so he can meet God. The only hitch is that God turns out to be an evil alien, but never you mind that.
Unfortunately for Sybok, there’s more bad news: his plan should never have worked at all. For one thing, if the Enterprise had possessed a working transporter, it could have beamed the hostages away and then warped on with its mission. For some reason, Starfleet sent a vessel that was still being assembled in the shipyard, so the transporter system was offline.
The next failure point is when Sybok crashes his hijacked shuttle into the Enterprise’s docking bay. So far, he’s maintained the element of surprise, but this crash is so violent that any rational scenario would include emergency personnel coming to investigate. Sybok can’t simply mind-control the crew en masse, as his powers are slow and only work on one person at a time. An emergency response team would therefore discover the infiltration and the jig would be up. Instead, no one comes to investigate the crash, and Sybok is left to continue his plans unhindered.
Finally, there’s the way his mind control actually functions. According to the movie, he’s using his psychic powers to help people work through their psychological issues, or “take their pain away,” as Sybok describes it. Uh-huh. Look, I’m pretty grateful to my therapist, but it wouldn’t exactly take an act of willpower to say no if they asked me to join a hostage-taking scheme. While I’m sure Sybok could find some willing followers, here we see him persuade most of the Enterprise’s crew to fall in line, including Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. The only ones who don’t, besides Kirk, are Spock and McCoy. And in those cases, we see that you can, in fact, say no to Sybok. There’s no actual compulsion.
Sybok is simply not prepared for the task before him, and it shows in every step of his plan. He only succeeds because the filmmakers decided he had to, regardless of what would actually make sense.
2. Vampires: The Dresden Files
In Jim Butcher’s first and second urban fantasy novels, vampires of the Red Court constitute minor antagonists for the wizardly hero Harry Dresden. Dresden doesn’t like vampires, and they’re pretty clearly evil, but he’s got more urgent fish to fry. That is, until book three, when Dresden’s adventures spark a war between the Red Court and the White Council, the political entity that governs all wizards in this setting. This war lasts a whopping nine more books, so it’s a pretty big deal in the series. And now, I finally have a chance to engage in my people’s national pastime: complaining about wizard war logistics.
At first, the two sides seem reasonably well matched. Wizards can throw fire and summon magical shields to protect themselves, while vampires are supernaturally strong, tough, and fast. A trained wizard is more powerful than the average vampire, but there are far more vampires, and they can easily replenish their numbers by turning unwary humans. The only way to make a new wizard is the old-fashioned way, and then you generally have to wait until at least puberty before they’re of any use in a fight.
In that context, the war makes perfect sense. The vampires score a major victory in the opening battle, and afterwards, the wizards are always described as just barely hanging on. So far, so good. But as the series continues, Dresden gets more and more powerful. A big draw for each book is seeing what new power Dresden will get, which means that even though only a few years pass in the story, Dresden is soon several times more powerful than he was at the start. In the later books, he can demolish buildings and shield himself from anything short of a nuclear strike.
That might not be a problem if Dresden were the apex of wizardly power, but he’s not. He’s a rising star, but we know that a significant number of established wizards are equally capable, and the six Senior Council members are more powerful still. In one instance, the most recently appointed Senior Councillor, Ebenezar McCoy, kills an influential vampire by dropping a satellite on him from half a world away. The other Councillors’ powers are kept vague, but they’re all at least that strong, if not stronger.
Raw power aside, the sheer flexibility of wizard magic is also a problem. These are just a few of the things we see wizards do throughout the series:
- Make themselves invisible and undetectable.
- Trace their enemies remotely within a city.
- Listen in remotely on conversations.
- Create impregnable magic fortresses.
- Cast spells that jump from one target to another based on kinship.
There’s just no way for the vampires to compete with such a wide array of powers. Even if they can still defeat wizards in a stand-up fight – and that’s a really big if – it wouldn’t matter, because they’d never see their enemy. All the numerical superiority in the world counts for nothing if the enemy knows exactly where you are and can strike with impunity. This conflict would be less like the epic campaigns of World War II and more like the one-sided battles of the Gulf War, where American forces leveraged their superior technology to score decisive wins over and over again.
How does Butcher deal with this problem? At first, he keeps the vampire war largely offscreen. Although it rages on for nine books, Dresden is rarely involved in the war personally, as each novel introduces a new mystery for him to solve. Not seeing the war makes it easier to believe the vampires wouldn’t be wiped out in the first month. But this strategy won’t work forever, as Dresden eventually has to go head to head with a vampiric leader for the war’s climax. What then?
The answer is both simple and disappointing: the vampire higher-ups are also wizards. At least, they sling magical spells the same way Dresden does. This makes for a decent magical duel, but it’s also a jarring change from how vampires were previously portrayed. Their powers were always specific and limited, so the reveal that they can also use the relatively free-form wizard magic feels like a retcon.
It’s also boring. When magical entities fight, part of the excitement comes from seeing how they’ll use their different power suites. Instead, the Dresden Files gives us a mirror-mode battle as if it were the third act of a Marvel film. I guess that’s what happens when you need someone to fight wizards who have effectively no upper limits on their magic.
3. Shinzon: Star Trek: Nemesis
We already looked at the worst TOS movie, so it’s only fair that we look at the worst TNG movie too. For balance, you understand. Shinzon is a discarded clone of Captain Picard, a plot point that exists for no reason other than to justify why the Enterprise in particular is involved in this movie. By the time our heroes come face to face with Shinzon, he’s already taken over the Romulan Empire and is ready to unleash his super mega death ship on the Federation for vague and unexplored reasons. He also wants to creep on Troi, because this movie isn’t unpleasant enough already.
Let’s rewind a little from Shinzon’s nonexistent motivation and look at how he supposedly got to where he is when the plot starts. After some backstory shenanigans, he ends up raised by Remans, who are apparently an enslaved species in the Romulan Empire. At least, the flashbacks we see are exclusively of Remans toiling in mines, and Shinzon specifically refers to being “under the lash of a Romulan guard.” We’re also told that the Remans are sometimes used as “cannon fodder” by the Romulan military. Sounds like they have it pretty rough.
In those circumstances, how did Shinzon get his super mega death ship built in the first place? This ship is called the Scimitar,* and it is several times more powerful than anything in the Federation or Romulan arsenal. What’s more, it can fire and keep its shields up while cloaked. No one in the Alpha Quadrant has ever managed that before, and Shinzon somehow did it without any engineering or scientific training. Even if we assume that there are Remans somewhere with the skills to build such a vessel, how did they do it without the Romulans noticing? You need a lot of stuff for a ship that big, and even replicators require a source of power. All we’re told is that the Scimitar was built at a “secret base.” That must have been one heck of a secret base.
Way weirder than the Scimitar is Shinzon taking over the Romulan government. We’re told that the Romulan military supported his coup because the high command wanted a war with the Federation, a war the civilian government wouldn’t authorize. That’s a reasonable motivation for a coup, but why would Shinzon be involved? What does he have to offer the high command? According to the movie, it’s one ship. Granted, the Scimitar is unreasonably powerful, but even that won’t make a huge difference in a war between two galactic powers. It’s certainly not enough to convince the famously xenophobic Romulan military to start taking orders from a human and his Reman followers. We can’t even say he’s bringing Reman soldiers with him, since the Romulans seem to have those already.
I think we’re supposed to view the Remans as a parallel for Germanic mercenaries in the Roman Empire. That’s my best guess, as the Romulans are clearly Roman-inspired, and the Remans are a subjugated people who eventually rise up to take control of the empire. And indeed, the Roman military was increasingly dependent on Germanic auxiliaries in its waning days, right up until the probably-German soldier Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor.*
But this parallel falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, Germanic leaders had been integrated into Roman society for centuries. Odoacer didn’t invade across the frontier; he was an established figure in Roman politics. The Remans, by contrast, appear to have no power at all. Also, while some Germanic groups were subjugated by Rome, many others stayed permanently outside the empire’s borders. As far as we know, there’s no independent Reman state that could support Shinzon’s operation.
Shinzon’s background with the Remans comes across as partly a half-baked attempt to make him sympathetic and partly an excuse to put space orcs in Star Trek. It’s too bad, because a Romulan political thriller could have made for a great movie. Instead, we get a villain who should have died long before the heroes even knew about him.
4. Palpatine: Star Wars Prequels
Lest you think I’m unfairly targeting Star Trek, let’s look at a character who is somehow the big bad of three Star Wars trilogies: Sheev Palpatine.* Specifically, we’ll examine Palpatine’s portrayal in the prequel films, as he actually comes out on top in those movies. Surely his plans will be properly set up to support such a victory?
In fact, no. The first stage in Palpatine’s plan to take over the galaxy is to cause a crisis on Naboo, which he can then use to seize power. That sounds reasonable, except that in order to take advantage of a crisis to seize power, you need to already have some power to start with. Such crises often suspend the normal checks and balances, which allow powerful figures to seize even greater control than they had already. A chancellor might take advantage of a (possibly staged) fire to end democracy, or a president might use a (definitely not staged) terrorist attack to justify their favorite war.
Palpatine, on the other hand, has very little power. He’s an unimportant senator from a backwater world. Supposedly, he can’t even muster senatorial support to stop Naboo from being invaded. But somehow, he can arrange to become supreme chancellor on the support he gains from Naboo being invaded? We could always assume that he’s got some kind of unknown political machinations going on behind the scenes, but if that’s the case, why don’t any of the supposedly intelligent good guys notice something is wrong?
The second half of Palpatine’s plan is even worse, as it requires the Jedi to unquestioningly adopt his clone army so they can fight in a civil war. He needs this so that later he can use the clones to purge all Jedi via Order 66. Sure, but why would the Jedi accept this army? All they know about it is that it was supposedly commissioned years ago by a Jedi who had no reason to commission it and who is now conveniently dead. And they don’t look into the clones any deeper?
The best explanation is that the Jedi really need a clone army, so they won’t ask too many questions. Except that they don’t need an army at all. As far as we know, all the Separatists want is to separate from the Galactic Republic, which hardly sounds like something the Jedi would fight a war over. The Jedi are guardians of peace and justice, not guardians of maintaining a single galactic polity. Of course, there could be some other reason. Maybe the Separatists are also morally unacceptable for some reason, or the Jedi have self-serving reasons to keep the Republic together, but none of that is explored in the films.
The real reason everyone just goes along with Palpatine’s wishes is that his plan is paper-thin. If the Jedi or anyone else actually investigated, his schemes would be immediately laid bare, and then it would be Palpatine against the entire Jedi order – a fight he couldn’t possibly win. Even when everything goes his way, Palpatine still depends on Anakin making some really contrived choices. Otherwise, our good buddy Sheev would soon wind up on the wrong end of Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber.
5. Cerberus: Mass Effect 3
In the first Mass Effect game, Cerberus is a secretive organization that always stays in the shadows. The most you see of it is a handful of labs and some mercenary teams. In Mass Effect 2, you temporarily join up with Cerberus and learn more about them. They’re a former black-ops organization that went rogue to pursue their xenophobic, pro-human agenda. Cerberus has deep pockets but few personnel, since they’re mainly limited to recruiting the occasional disgruntled soldier or scientist from the Systems Alliance, humanity’s official governing body. Cerberus is rich in information and advanced tech, but they depend on hired muscle when force is required.*
Then, in Mass Effect 3, Cerberus is back to being a villain, so now they have infinite soldiers. At first, we mostly see Cerberus launch devastating raids on facilities that belong to both the Alliance and various alien powers. This is jarring enough already, and it makes you wonder where all these soldiers were in ME2 when you were stuck trying to protect Cerberus holdings from the villains of that game.
Once you’re used to the idea of Cerberus casually raiding alien homeworlds, things get really extreme: Cerberus attacks and occupies entire human colonies. While these colonies are sparsely populated by planetary standards, they’re still home to millions of people. There’s no way Cerberus has the personnel for even one occupation of that scale, and we see them do it at least twice, plus a few more times that we hear about secondhand. Unless one of those Cerberus labs discovered how to copy+paste human beings, I don’t see how this can work.*
Cerberus’s troops are also way better equipped than anyone else. They have more extensive armor, heavier weapons, and giant mechs that are a real pain to fight. None of the other soldiers you see have gear like this, not even the Turians, who are supposed to have the most powerful military in the galaxy. A small team of elite, well-equipped soldiers would make sense for Cerberus, but instead, they have a huge army with better firepower than the galaxy’s great powers.
All of this puts Cerberus firmly on the list of fictional organizations that are super powerful when opposing the protagonist, but largely impotent when on the hero’s side. See also Loki’s Time Variance Authority and Buffy’s Watchers Council. But since Mass Effect is a video game, it takes things a step further, delivering a villain whose wins are contrived beyond what other artistic mediums can even imagine.
That villain is Kai Leng, and he’s the worst. Everyone talks about him like you should know who he is,* and he absolutely buys into his own hype. Practically all of his lines are variations on how great he is. He also brings a sword as his primary weapon to this space-opera gunfight, which makes him seem more clueless than competent. I guess he hasn’t gotten the memo that we all use rapid-fire projectile launchers now.
The pinnacle of Kai Leng’s awfulness is when you beat him in a fight, and he then turns around and wins in a cutscene. It’s difficult to describe just how frustrating that is, as there’s no equivalent in noninteractive stories. The combat mechanics are how we interact with the world in Mass Effect, but instead of honoring that contract, the game just declares Kai Leng the winner. I understand why the game does that: it’s trying to create a low point so your eventual victory will be more satisfying. In a novel, you’d just write the hero losing a fight, but in a video game, this requires more finesse. Unfortunately, Kai Leng has all the finesse of a spiked brick, resulting in the most contrived villain win I’ve ever seen.
Authors correctly spend a lot of time making sure their heroes’ wins are deserved. Villains should get the same treatment. Since most stories don’t spend as much time following the bad guys, it’s easy for a villain to slip through the cracks and end up with contrived accomplishments. Keep an eye on your villains and make sure they’re equipped to handle the problems they encounter!
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