I have a villain fetish. There, I said it. I like villains more than heroes, at least most of the time. Antagonists interest me because they challenge the hero. Questioning his motives, challenging his beliefs, denying his convictions. Echoing the serpent of Eden, true villains subvert the truth while questioning the hero’s convictions. Does that mean that a villain is founded on lies? Or is a good villain one who focuses solely on defeating the hero? What makes a good villain?
Villains occupy this interesting niche in storytelling. Their job is to provide a challenge to the hero, yet by existing they are set up to fail. We know the villain will lose, at least with the majority of stories. The journey towards that climax is what captivates us, but with so many stories how do good villains stand out?
In the opening of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark ruminates that “we create our own demons”. It’s a poetic line, both in the movie and in the context of literary history. Cultural landscape and society play a large part in our perception of the villain. Post-WWII Japan coped with loss by personifying the West in monsters like Godzilla or Mothra, giving shape to the radioactive destruction that heralded their surrender. More recently, Western culture’s obsession with zombies reflects a fear of the slow, inevitable incursion of technology into our lives. Interesting villains play with our perception of the world, either as a personification of our fear, or a doorway to show us what we might become.
Seeing others as pawns is fittingly symbolic for Izaya
Take the Izaya Orihara, from Durarara! He’s a smooth-talking, deep-thinking, mastermind who makes fur look good. Over the course of the show he’s seen manipulating just about every character he comes across, from the benign Mikado to the insane Namie and every otaku, hitman, and bartender in-between. While his overall goal in the series is to attain immortal life (more on that later), his primary motivation is stated out in the open: he simply “loves human beings!”. Izaya is an example of the modern, more anarchistic villain: one who is in it to prove a point to the system and the people who are in it. The world is broken, Izaya wants to see what he can do with the pieces.
Patient as ever, the Joker’s scheming never quite ends
An interesting parallel can be made with Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker. In a world where rules are the norm and the norm is the rules, both Izaya and the Joker appear to challenge them. By asking how quo the status truly is, they introduce an element of chaos that their rigid social structures can’t fully understand. Their blatant disregard for the established social order makes them a hero to some, a villain to others, but overall makes them both extremely relevant and incredibly charming to watch. Dismantling Gotham’s legal system or manipulating Ikebukuro’s gang hierarchy is nothing more than a tool in the hands of these characters. Rather, the thrill is in the hunt, and in the implosion of emotion that occurs when they succeed.
The angular antagonist of Gravity Falls, Bill is nothing if not eccentric
Our modern antagonists can be described in one word: incomplete. Not in the sense that they’re undeveloped, but that they each feel the need to be complete. Izaya wants immortality, Joker needs Batman to foil his plans, Bill wants another universe to take over: each of these needs reflects a desire for satisfaction. Society holds no answers save for the turning cogs of the machine, so these characters look inward to find what truth they want to hold onto. In each case, their inward reflection reveals emptiness, and thus they decide that truth is what they make it. This is why the Joker laughs, why Izaya finds pleasure in manipulation, and why Bill takes everything for granted. If there is no purpose, all of life is trivial. It’s all a game. Thus, to get at least a taste of purpose and a way out of a meaningless existence, these characters challenge fate.
In a way, the modern villain is more of a hero than the protagonist. Rather than simply accepting the status quo, he questions the system. Mocking the masses for drinking the kool-aid, the modern villain finds himself by attacking what appears to be invulnerable. Not knowing whether he’ll succeed or fail is all part of the experience, and it is in the journey that he finds peace. Whether it be evading the Batman, managing the Dollars, or infiltrating the Mystery Shack, the modern villain finds purpose in subverting the norm.
So we’ve managed to distill the modern villain into 3 main ingredients: representing a fear of the socially unacceptable, enjoying the act of manipulating others, and seeking purpose in meaninglessness. That’s great, but there’s no way there’s all there is to it, is there? You would be right, O astute reader: today’s post was merely an appetizer to prepare you for next week, where we’ll take a deeper look at what goes into creating a villain (not only the more popular modern spin), and how villains work in the context of story. In the meantime, keep strong, keep sharp, and may the hero be one step behind you.