17 Oct 2013
Stereotypes aside, there’s something eminently endearing about a ‘bad’ character in fiction. By bad I mean those nefarious villains that play the dark half to our hero. The Darth Vadar to Luke Skywalker, Joker to Batman and Lex Luthor to Superman. And we wonder what is it that make a bad character ‘good’.?
For me personally, there has to be a sense of redemption possible. And a certain context to the acts they carry out. Not that most of those acts are in any way acceptable (I am not condoning violence – I always think a good dialogue solves most issues, especially as I’m always right!) but still . . . you hope that there might just be a little more to it than just being ‘bad’. So here’s my top ten of fictional villains and why I love to hate them. For the sake of my own sanity I’ve tried to stick to comic book or TV/film!
A recent addition to film but a character that’s been around for much longer. I grew up reading the Norse legends and had something of a soft spot for Loki the trickster. I especially enjoyed the time he convinced Thor to dress up in drag (something not about to be covered by the films, I suspect!). In the Marvel version there’s more context for his ‘acting out’ with his insecurity at being adopted and his jealousy of Thor. Tom Hiddleston does a great job of balancing the two aspects of his character so you can’t help but feel some empathy for him. And he does provide some brilliant one-liners!
Back before vampires were sparkly or watched over you protectively (read stalker!) while you slept, came Anne Rice‘s much darker and sexier Lestat. The original bad boy, his antics even put his own kind to shame – they named him affectionately ‘the Brat Prince’. He broke every taboo going, even creating a child vampire in the form of the psychotic and tragic Claudia. The film adaptation starring Tom Cruise didn’t do the character justice and little of Lestat’s constant tortured questioning of himself, ‘Was he good or evil?’, ‘Was there a divine purpose for his creation?’ or his animistic love for humanity was portrayed convincingly.
The antihero from Heroes so well-portrayed by Zachary Quinto (before logic overcame him), was an incredibly torn character. He reminds me of a combination of Norman Bates and Carrie, and they all had deep psychological issues with their mothers. Sylar had a deep sated determination to live up to the expectations that he was special, that he needed to make a difference. To begin with this, and his addiction for gathering more power through sadistically killing other ‘talented’ humans to steal their powers, made him the show’s ultimate nemesis. However, throughout we saw him struggle, come to terms with what and who he was and eventually try to make amends for it.
A Jewish holocaust survivor, sometimes superhero, sometimes antihero, Magneto again walks a fine line between what it means to be a hero or a villian. It all depends on perspective. Stan Lee, his creator, commented that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist . . . he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson.’ It’s the whole one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter concept and one dealt with brilliantly in both the comics and film adaptations of his character. So flawed, and misplaced as his actions are – you can’t help but understand where Magneto’s coming from – even if you don’t agree with his methods.
6. Darth Vadar
Have four words ever caused as much surprise and entertainment as ‘I am your father’? When Darth Vadar, the arch-nemesis of Luke Skywalker reveals his true identity it still gives me goosebumps, because you constantly question – how could it have gone SO wrong for him? Well, of course, they covered that in the prequels and the voyage of one small boy becoming one of the darkest characters in SF film history was mapped very nicely. While you may love or hate the prequels, seeing the choices made and how, what at the time seemed to be an innocent decision can potentially lead you to the dark side, was pretty damned fascinating. And after all he’s done, you still can’t help but feel sorry for him when he dies.
5. Lex Luthor
There have been various explanations for the mad genius of Alexander ‘Lex’ Luthor. Child abuse, a difficult relationship with his father, a serious jealousy problem concerning Superman . . . all of which have shaped him into becoming the technological megalomaniac he is. Michael Rosenbaum‘s portrayal of Lex in Smallville gave a nice insight into the complexities of his character – and a very clear case for the argument of nurture over nature. But despite having many opportunities to equal Superman’s deeds for humanity with his own, Lex’s own self-obsession tends to override any good he may want to do and his all too human frailties just let him down at the last hurdle.
4. The Master
Another sociopath with close parallels to the Doctor, there’s seemingly a very fine line between the two of them. Maybe it’s a Time Lord thing. But somewhere along the line, the Master decided that universal domination was more important than having fun – he makes the Doctor suddenly look a little flighty. ;-) Again, as with some of the other villains you have to wonder if there were no hero set against them to initially fertilize that ugly seed of envy – would they perhaps have been the hero rather than the villain? Although, personally, I think the Rani was a much more interesting villain – bring her back!
The next three characters are slightly different to the rest in that most of what they claim to do stems from love. And in some ways, that’s the most poignant and empathic of all reasons to become a villain. It’s for the incestuous love of his sister that Jaime stoops to some very unknightly behaviour saying ‘the things I do for love’. It’s for love of his father and family name that he’s constantly striving to be something he doesn’t want to be – and it’s only as the series continues and these ‘loves’ are put aside that we see him struggle to make redemption for his past sins and reclaim something of the honour he admired so much as a boy.
You can’t help feel a little bit sorry for Khan. A genetically engineered superhuman, he’s been created specifically to be free of human limitations, including most emotional connectivity (something that Benedict Cumberbatch with prior experience of playing ‘trained emotionless’ excelled at) to a species weaker than themselves. It’s like creating a superbug virus and then asking it not infect anyone once it’s been released into society. Seemingly, at the heart of most of his actions, were thoughts of his family and crew. A desire to keep them safe and to avenge them if harm came to them. Ironically enough – a very human emotion and one that’s at the core of Kirk’s actions as well and we’ve got to love him for that even if we do wish we could sit him down and give him a good talking to.
One of the most recent villains on the scene and someone I’ve spent a lot of time with over the last couple of years while working on Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonasinga’s The Walking Dead novels, which feature The Governor’s rise and fall. The Governor is very much a character who has suffered, loved and lost. A very human character. I won’t give you any spoilers just in case you haven’t seen the show or read the books (and seriously? Why haven’t you?!), but tracking his progress from a simple, terrified man just trying to survive in horrendous circumstances to a man determined to lead and make a safe place for those he cares about in a post-apocalyptic world is fascinating. It also sounds a little like another character we know and love from the series: Rick Grimes anyone? The Walking Dead is back on TV tomorrow night Fox at 10pm. I, for one, can’t wait. The novels have helped colour in backstory and add depth to an, already, complex and layered character and David Morrissey‘s portrayal of him is spot on. When you have two men, determined to do right and egotistical enough to believe their way is the only way – well you just know the sparks are going to fly. Bring it on!
So bad boys in general? The type of villain that I love to hate (and occasionally sympathise with), are those who, while supposedly are the polar opposites of their nemesis are actually far closer to them than that. I love the moral complexities that colour them, the background that has shaped them and the motivations behind some of their more questionable actions. And let’s face it – a hero without a good villain is no hero at all! So this is my top ten, what’s yours? Pop into the comments and feel free to add.
And coming up in the next few weeks – a top ten of our favourite female villains. Let’s face it girls, we know when it comes to sheer devilment – we’re so much more imaginative than the boys! ;-)