From HAL 9000 To Harley Quinn, Screen Villains Sow Chaos Because They Can
Here's how Alfred explains villainy to Batman in The Dark Knight: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
Movie audiences have a long history with onscreen malefactors who would happily fan the flames if the world ever caught fire, the imprisoned supervillains in the movie Suicide Squad being the latest incarnation. These bad guys are often the grabber that gets us to head for the multiplex — more so, at least, than to see the latest iteration of heroic resolve, however spandexed s/he may be.
As much as we don't like to admit it, heroes are boring. Sure, heroes are good. They do good. They think good thoughts. But goodness, in itself, does not make them compelling. Villains are where the fascination lies for audiences.
A villain, after all, is shorthand. Is there evil in the world? The villain personifies it, makes it easier to deal with. Though you can't actually vanquish evil in the world, it is possible — even easy — to vanquish a villain. Just drop a house on her, as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz.
This sort of narrative shorthand is useful to moviemakers, who today have about two hours to tell their stories. In early silent films, they barely had a few minutes, so silent villains twirled mustaches while demanding the rent or tying the heroine to the tracks. In Westerns, they wore black hats. There was no question they were bad guys, or that the hero would ultimately beat them up.
As film narratives became more sophisticated, villains did too. Which is not to suggest there aren't still plenty of miscreants today who announce their villainy in no uncertain terms: Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil, the denizens of Mordor, that HAL 9000 computer that refused to open the pod bay doors for Dave.
Arguably, these scoundrels are the ones who have the real charisma in their respective movies, because as much as we don't like to admit it, heroes are boring. Sure, heroes are good. They do good. They think good thoughts. But goodness, in itself, does not make them compelling. Villains are where the fascination lies for audiences.
Every actor who has ever played Shakespeare's noble Othello has been upstaged by the double-dealing Iago whispering in his ear. Othello's motivations are clear: He thinks his wife has been unfaithful. And his torment is engaging on a certain level. But our eye goes regularly to his lieutenant who is so intent on falsely convincing him he should mistrust his wife. What does Iago get out of doing so? Nothing. Iago is just nasty — the Elizabethan equivalent of a mean girl in high school. He sows chaos because he can.
Other villains do it because they must, because it's hard-wired, and they're predators, whether they're Terminators or aliens or great white sharks.
We tend to judge villains by the havoc they wreak. But villains — when they're not just operating on autopilot, as great whites are — judge themselves by other standards: by how much they've suffered, by how no one listens to them. Often, bad guys are convinced that they're really good guys, and that it's the rest of the world that's got things backward.
Take the military trial movie A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessup is a monster — aloof, arrogant, calling the shots for his men with little regard for rules when they conflict with his own sense of what's necessary — but as an attorney (played by Tom Cruise) goes in for the kill in the courtroom, Jessup is the one who feels aggrieved.
"I want the truth," Cruise demands.
"You can't handle the truth," Nicholson bellows.
It's no accident that the soliloquy that follows is regarded as a classic. As often happens, the bad guy gets the best speech. And Nicholson delivers it furiously, making it as creepily persuasive as it is monstrous. He is, remember, aiming to justify the killing of an innocent soldier for the greater good:
"Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. ... My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty ... as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it."
His belief that he's right does not make him right. But it does make him enormously compelling — one of those rare instances when a putative villain becomes more than a narrative convenience.
His fall doesn't just wrap up A Few Good Men with a melodramatic flourish. It has weight. It means something in the real world. And his fate — self-inflicted, harrowing in its moral implications — haunts you on the way out of the theater.
The Greeks had a word for that: They called it tragedy.
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