You may have heard the saying that a hero is only as good as their villain. Fortunately, this isn’t true, or a lot of very famous stories would be way worse than they are.* However, a good villain can make a story much better, while a bad villain does the opposite. So how are storytellers supposed to know what makes a good villain and what makes a bad one? For the answer, we turn to a TV show that runs the gamut on villains, from the highest highs to the lowest lows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With the villains neatly organized by season, ranking them is even easier. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.
On paper, Adam seems like he should be a great villain. He’s physically very powerful, so he has a decent threat level. More importantly, his plan isn’t just to kill Buffy. As we’ll see, having goals other than killing the hero is really important to a good villain. It means they can actually win sometimes without ending the story, and few things are better for a villain’s threat level than a good victory.
Adam’s main problem is that he’s just. So. Boring. Half the time, I forget season four even has a villain. He doesn’t appear until past the halfway point, and after that, he’s barely present. He spends most of his time hiding in a cave. When he is on screen, he has almost no personality. He’s meant as an homage to Frankenstein’s monster, but he has neither the book version’s scathing wit nor the movie version’s tragic innocence. He comes across as little more than a brick wall for Buffy to punch.
Another major problem with Adam is his evil plan. He wants to create an army of fellow cybernetic human-demon hybrids, but the reasons why are never clear. He sometimes philosophizes about how demons are stuck in the past, so he wants to help them evolve, which isn’t an aesthetic the show had ever used before or ever would again. We’re left with a villain who wants to do evil things, because he’s evil. That can work if your villain is charismatic enough, but Adam is a charisma sinkhole: other characters are somehow less charismatic when he’s around.
A final nail in Adam’s coffin is that he looks silly. The comically oversized stitches seem like they should come apart at any moment, and the metal prosthetics appear held on with superglue. I don’t know if this is due to technical failures or a limited budget, but either way we’re left with a villain who’s hard to look at with a straight face. While prose writers don’t usually have to worry about how much a villain’s appearance will cost, Adam still serves as a warning not to neglect our descriptions.
6. The Trio
I’ll admit, it took a while to decide whether these jokers or Adam should have the bottom slot, but I eventually put the Trio in second-to-last place because they at least have some personality. In fact, season six’s villain trifecta is like the anti-Adam. He has no personality to speak of, while personality is literally all they have. Their threat level is zero, and they have no plan. Their only upside is that they’re sometimes funny to watch.
In fairness to the Trio, they arrive on the scene shortly after Buffy has defeated Glory, a literal god. Having another physically powerful villain would have been repetitive. Unfortunately, instead of creating a villain who would threaten the Scoobies in a different way, the writers went for a “big bad” who wouldn’t threaten anyone at all. As three humans with mild to moderate abilities, the Trio could have worked as a single episode’s villain,* but they are utterly incapable of carrying a season.
Every episode the Trio appears in is an exercise in asking why Buffy hasn’t defeated them yet. Sometimes the writers make some excuse, like the Trio’s attempts being so pathetic that Buffy doesn’t even notice them. Later in the season, we’re supposed to believe that Buffy somehow can’t find the Trio, despite her ability to locate far more elusive villains in previous episodes. That’s actually season six in a nutshell: the heroes are suddenly unable to solve problems that would have been trivial before.
Next, in what I can only assume was an effort to see how low the Trio could go, one of them comes after Buffy with a gun. This is incredibly obnoxious because for the show to work, we have to suspend our disbelief about why no one uses firearms. We do this because we want to see urban fantasy kung-fu fights. So when the show violates its own conceit in an effort to make some pathetic villains even a little threatening, it damages the entire premise. This is also where the Buffy writers infamously buried their gays, but that’s a rant for another time.
5. The Master
Buffy’s first big bad is essentially Adam, but with all of his problems scaled down. The Master is boring, but not as boring. His plan is generic, but not as generic. The Nosferatu makeup looks pretty silly, but is still several steps above store-brand Frankenstein.
One place where the Master stands out from Adam is his presence in the show. Despite being trapped underground by a mystical barrier, the Master makes his presence felt fairly often, usually by sending minions to do something that Buffy has to stop. I suspect season one’s lower episode count helped in this regard.* With fewer episodes, there’s less time for the Master to fade into the background like Adam does.
It’s also interesting that the Master’s supernatural prison was apparently conceived as a way to make sure he and Buffy didn’t fight every episode, thus preserving his threat for the final confrontation. That’s a good instinct, but in the Master’s case, it falls a little flat. Instead of failing fights against Buffy directly, he sends out minions who fail to kill her. The only time he succeeds before the finale is in creating the Anointed One, a character who famously goes nowhere. Taking it a step further, the Master kills his most competent minions, the Three. This group of vampires only missed killing Buffy due to bad timing and could easily have succeeded with a second chance. Great job.
Despite these fumbles, when the final confrontation comes, the Master mostly gets the job done. His plan to cover the world in darkness or whatever is more than a little generic, but at least it’s thematically appropriate. He’s a vampire – covering the world in darkness is what they do. He’s strong enough to easily defeat Buffy the first time they fight, and she only stands a chance in round two because of a new immunity to his hypnosis. So while he’s not a villain anyone will write home about, he isn’t unpleasant to watch.
4. Spike & Angelus
Buffy’s second season gives us not one, but two main villains who effectively switch roles as the story goes forward.* First, we have Spike, a welcome change from the Master’s stuffy monologues and generic villainy. Spike’s a fun-loving vampire who likes to drink blood and kill slayers because it’s awesome. Undeath is basically one long party for him. But there’s room in Spike’s life for emotional depth too. He and Drusilla legitimately care about each other in their twisted way, which is a level of complexity not normally seen on this show. Spike also rids us of the Anointed One, for which all Buffy fans remain eternally grateful.
Spike’s critical flaw is that after his first appearance, he loses nearly all his threat level. It’s clear he can’t beat Buffy, and yet he fights her over and over again, losing every time. After a while, he’s just boring to watch, no matter how compelling his personality. Spike ends up working much better once he transitions into a secondary antagonist and uneasy ally of the heroes, a process that begins near the end of season two.
Incidentally, that’s when the season’s other big bad shows up: Angelus. As the heroic Angel’s evil persona, Angelus doesn’t have quite the same magnetism as Spike, but his personal connection to Buffy helps keep him interesting. Since the two are former lovers, Buffy has some very complicated feelings about killing Angelus, an emotional conflict that plays out over the second half of season two and makes the climactic fight much more interesting.
But Angelus is held back by the same problem as Spike: he’s not strong enough to be a serious threat to Buffy. When the two of them first fight, Buffy not only beats him, but she does it via a humiliating kick to the crotch. From there, the only thing keeping Buffy from total victory are her feelings for Angel. That’s better than nothing, but it still leaves Angelus feeling pretty lackluster as a bad guy. The show also implies that he could have killed several of the heroes in their sleep but didn’t because he wants to crush their spirits first. Maybe this is supposed to make him more threatening, but instead it just adds incompetence to weakness.
3. The First Evil
Originating as a bad guy of the week in season three, the First Evil has the distinction of being the only Buffy big bad who’s entirely non-corporeal. Conceptually, that makes a lot of sense. Much like the Trio, the First came after Buffy had defeated a host of demonic heavyweights, so something had to be different. But where the Trio were just weaker physical threats, the First Evil is an entirely different type of enemy, at least at first.
With access to the memories of personalities of seemingly everyone who’s ever died,* the First Evil’s primary method of attack is through mind games. It turns the heroes against each other, sometimes through simple manipulation, other times through supernatural brainwashing. Getting the heroes to fight each other is a classic move, but it’s not something the main villains on Buffy do very often, so it helps the First stand out.
Being able to appear as any dead person also gives the First a lot of novelty. Season seven is full of arguments between the heroes and their long-departed friends, and it’s always interesting to see such interactions. Some of the living characters have also technically died, meaning the First can stage a debate between Good Buffy and Evil Buffy. And since it can appear anywhere, such confrontations are easy to arrange. All of this makes for a menacing villain who’s unlike anything our heroes have faced before.
Where the First Evil falls short is staying power. Mind games are great, but there has to be something behind them, and with the First it’s not clear that there is. The First’s generic minions aren’t much of a threat, and while it does eventually gain a heavy-hitting lieutenant, it’s not long before he’s taken out and we’re back to the mind games. Neither is it clear what the First is even trying to do. It spends several episodes digging up the very weapon our heroes need to kill it, and then it spends most of the season ignoring an evil portal that it theoretically wants to open.
The result is a villain who starts out cool but quickly feels like it’s running out the clock until the finale. It’s still better than the previous entries, but it’s kept out of the higher tiers by an inability to follow through.
Blazing into season five, Glory was originally meant to be Buffy’s final villain, and it shows. Like Adam, she can easily ruin the slayer’s day in a physical confrontation, but that’s where the similarities end. That’s because Glory has a little thing called screen presence. While Adam makes you wanna check your phone* whenever he’s on screen, Glory makes every scene solely about her. It helps that she isn’t hindered by terrible makeup, but her larger-than-life self-confidence and casual brutality is what really sells it. It’s just fun to see her so excited about being evil.
What’s more, Glory’s goal, plan, and motivation are refreshingly straightforward. She needs to find the Key so she can go home and take over her native hell dimension. This will effectively destroy Earth, but Glory isn’t bothered about such things. That’s another aspect of Glory that works really well. She isn’t actively trying to end the world; it’s just a side effect of her plan. Humans aren’t her enemies; they’re completely beneath her.
So how is Glory’s threat level? We’ve established that she can wipe the floor with Buffy, but that’s no guarantee, as the Master showed earlier. Unfortunately, there’s only one real stage in Glory’s plan: she finds the Key, then she ends the world and goes home. This means the writers can’t have her succeed at her actual goals. Instead, their solution is for Glory to always fail in her attempts to find the Key, but also beat up our heroes along the way. This is essentially a consolation prize approach. Sure, Glory didn’t find the Key this episode, but she did get to punch Buffy through a wall.
The strategy works reasonably well, giving the impression that the Scoobies are always struggling to stay half a step ahead of Glory until it’s time to defeat her in the final battle. The only major disappointment with Glory is that despite dramatically stating she’s a god rather than a demon, the show never does anything with that. Functionally, she appears indistinguishable from a very powerful demon. Even so, Glory is a very effective villain and only misses the top slot by a few points.
1. The Mayor
Finally, we have season three’s big bad, Mayor Wilkins. To start, he has a perfect but strangely underused villain personality: friendly and polite. This is way more intimidating than any amount of angry shouting or violent outbursts, and there’s a simple reason why. When a villain smiles and offers to shake your hand, it indicates that they don’t have to do any of that other stuff. They’re confident in their status, so they don’t have to constantly remind everyone of it. Despite how successful this approach is, surprisingly few stories employ it, which makes villains like the Mayor stand out even more.
Moving on to Wilkins’s evil plan, it’s similar in general shape to Glory’s. He wants to transform himself into a powerful demon, which is something he’s been working on since Sunnydale was first founded. This is a multistep process that requires several items and materials, but the end result is that he’ll have to consume a lot of people for sustenance, which naturally isn’t something our heroes can allow.
Wilkins’s demon transformation is unlike anything Buffy has faced. While she’s fought creatures that called themselves “demons” before, these were comparatively weak creatures watered down by living in the human world. Wilkins, on the other hand, takes the form of a building-sized serpent. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it actually is different from previous enemies, something the show claims with Glory but never demonstrates. On the other hand, limits on CGI mean the human characters can’t really interact with Snake-Wilkins, so there are a lot of creative camera cuts to disguise that they’re attacking empty air, which doesn’t look fantastic.
But by far the most effective element of the Mayor’s villainy is that he actually succeeds sometimes. Since his transformation plan requires several steps, he has things to accomplish that don’t immediately end the show. Unusually, this takes the form of acquiring a magic item, but in at least one case, he manipulates the Scoobies into taking out an enemy of his. Even when Wilkins loses his best minion trying to kill Buffy, he comes out ahead, as the recently heel-turned Faith soon joins his team. This is more than even Glory manages, and it’s what puts the Mayor at #1.
Almost nothing makes a villain threatening like success. When the bad guy accomplishes what they seek to do, it creates the impression that they might succeed again. This is crucial for maintaining tension, which is what keeps people turning the page or playing the next episode. It works for Mayor Wilkins because he has things to succeed at that don’t bring the story to a screeching halt. This isn’t a difficult technique to implement in your own work. The next time you’re planning a story, make sure the villain has some objective that isn’t killing the hero or achieving total victory. You’ll be well on your way.
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