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What Makes a Villain Memorable?

by Andrew J. Salazar

*Memorability is a very opinionated topic so it should be clear that the following views are not solely mine but a combination of what I believe and what I have seen others believe (regardless if I disagree) in physical and online forums*

    Take a moment and try to count all the films that you saw just last year. When you reach an answer ask yourself how many of these films do you think you will remember in five years? The answer will more than likely be noticeably smaller than the amount of films on your list. We see so many films a year because we are truly living in the cinematic age of the franchise. Most of the films that are released now are either sequels, reboots, prequels, or spin offs. However, the large amount of franchise tied films is not necessarily a negative. Not only does the sea of sequels and reboots make original content like Get Out and Baby Driver stand out and shine but, you can truly find some unique and amazing work within this sea. The three comic book films released this year: Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, and Wonder Woman are sequels or parts of a larger franchise that are vastly unique with their own great merits. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Jungle Book (2016) are two recent critically acclaimed films and one is a sequel while the other is a reboot. The market for film is still providing us with some great pieces even though some may argue it is too inflated with franchise content. So why is it that even when the industry is booming that we will probably will only remember less than half of the films released yearly in five or so years? There are many answers to this question, but they all lead us to not ultimately receiving fresh content. Unique installments like Logan help create and keep enough freshness within their series and genres to convince audiences to stay for another day. Introducing new variations of drama, tone, and style all contribute to creating this sense of freshness, but there is one important key factor that does not get utilized as much as it should. This key factor can be applied to most of film (not all) and can ultimately create a more memorable and unique product. If you have not already guessed that this key factor is the role of the antagonist, then this further proves the need to put this topic in the limelight. Most of the films we see feature villains and it is more than likely that the films that stay with you for five years and beyond highlight the most memorable of them. Therefore, we are forgetting half of the films that we see now, because we are not being presented with enough memorable antagonists. Films like The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back are still remembered and held to a high regard today because the threats and challenges that Heath Ledger’s Joker and Darth Vader presented to our heroes were like no other. The films and protagonists that we connect to are only as good as the challenges and obstacles that they have to face. So, what makes a memorable film villain?

    Before diving into this topic one must understand that there can be a difference between a good villain and a memorable villain. Good villains are often associated with being memorable but there are instances where the memorable factor is not met. So, let us first breakdown what makes a good villain at a basic level. The dilemma is that we the audience often know that our protagonists are ultimately going to win or survive through the end of the story. This leads to our antagonists being underestimated or overlooked. There are three factors that are needed to solve this dilemma and create a good villain onscreen: performance, motivation, and overall effectiveness. The performance factor relies on the actor portraying the role. They have the power to elevate mere lines on a script into reality with whatever portrayal he or she chooses. No good film villain is underperformed. The second factor is motivation. Good villains cannot be evil just because they woke up one morning upset for some unexplained reason. Do we know why the antagonist is the antagonist in the first place?  Does the character have good reason to believe that what he or she is doing is right in their eyes? Most of the villains that are criticized in comicbook films suffer from this problem.

Thor-The-Dark-World-Malekith(Been there-Done that)

    Thor: The Dark World’s antagonist Malekith is a notorious example. The film explains that he is the leader of an ancient race that was defeated in their quest to control a powerful weapon. Later in the film he is awakened from a long period of dormancy and vows to get his revenge and retrieve this weapon. That is literally all that there is to his motivation. Sure, we get that he is the leader of a defeated group that seeks revenge, but we do not understand why he chooses to lead besides him being the default leader and what he ultimately seeks to find in himself. He has little to no complex motivation and that makes him forgettable which has a huge overall negative effect on the film. Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (2016) is an example of a villain with clear motivation. He is after Mowgli who is the only human living in the jungle and will do whatever it takes to kill him. He was personally injured in a confrontation with Mowgli’s deceased father and the law of the jungle does state that man is not allowed. Technically, the ancient laws set forth by the animals in the jungle put him in the right when wanting to get rid of Mowgli. He has personal ties to Mowgli and he sees that his apex power makes him the only candidate for carrying out this law. We not only know why he makes his decisions, but also that he has good reason to believe that he is on the right side of this conflict. This is clear and understandable motivation.

jungle_book_2016_42-19n66ju-e1498648353256.png(The look of determination from the hunter)

       The third factor is overall effectiveness. Did the villain’s plan make sense by the end of the film? Even if the antagonist is beaten, will his or her actions leave repercussions for the protagonist to face? The Joker from The Dark Knight is a great example of a villain that left a significant mark. His schemes are unpredictable to our hero but they are planned intricately in ways that he can only understand. Even though Batman physically bests him in the end, the repercussions he leaves Batman to face put him in a hard place. The Joker ultimately wins by successfully framing an ugly picture of our hero to the public thus leading him to retire for the better good. His plan made enough sense to effectively work even though he was apprehended by the authorities in the end. This of course is an extreme example of a villain with great effectiveness. Whether the repercussions they leave behind be on a personal or grand scale does not matter- as long as their schemes and efforts amount to something. You can usually tell if the villain left a mark if the protagonist significantly grows or changes from the person he or she was at the beginning of the film. If you look at the entire James Bond filmography, you will find numerous villains who had no effect on our lead spy. How many times is James Bond in situations where he is caught and must find some witty way to escape to deactivate a device in time? The character has found himself in very similar situations in which he always manages to achieve by doing the same thing he always does. He is so successful because very few villains have managed to create an influence and offer new challenges that he is not used to. The 007 series features examples of one and done villains that fail at impacting our lead spy and the franchise. Try to name ten villains out of this series which has over twenty entries. If you cannot do so, then this only shows how overall effectiveness can help define a villain.

The-World-Is-Not-Enough-Elektra-James-Bond-Sophie-Marceau-Pierce-Brosnan-torture-chair (I wonder how he is going to escape this time?)

       Performance, motivation, and effectiveness are the three important factors that help create a good villain at a basic level. I say basic level because these three factors can be utilized in ways that can elevate a villain from better than one might think is just good. As stated before, a good villain is not always a memorable one. These three factors are a necessity to creating a good villain, but there is a crucial element that helps create something more unique. One might think that this could be costume or character design? These factors could help create a higher level of memorability. You can see this with Heath Ledger’s Joker. He had a unique design and attire that we had not seen before that is still stuck in our minds today. Even though costume and or character design can help with creating memorability it is not completely necessary. You can create the most eye popping costume ever, but this will not matter if there is no substance to the villain’s actual character. We do not remember The Joker just for his looks. Good villains do not necessarily need to be dressed in never seen attire to get the job done. Take Aldrich Killian from Iron Man 3; he has clear motivation, an after effect on Tony Stark’s character, and is brought to life with a great performance by Guy Pearce. He has the three factors but boasts nothing but a simple suit throughout the film. His design serves director Shane Black’s tone and style by looking like a conceited Miami Vice character. However, I have noticed that he does not get the attention and praise that other Marvel film antagonists (both older and recent) have gotten. You do not see the same love audiences give to antagonists like Loki to Killian. This is because Killian lacks the main factor that increases memorability. He lacks a sense of originality.

     The element that helps create a memorable villain is a fresh sense of originality. Even though a memorable villain must feature the three previous factors, it should be noted that these factors should not be literally taken as a formula (2+2=4). This is because memorability can be seen differently to many people. The point of highlighting originality is to point out how it could create memorability when used effectively. A fresh sense of originality does not mean that the antagonist must deprive from a completely new idea. However, like we see with the Armitage family in Get Out, the more original concept and of an antagonist does create strong memorability. This element is about originality within any of the following: motivations, actions, characteristics, or concept and origin. It does not matter if this element is utilized in one or all of these parts if it is utilized to the best ability. Killian lacks originality with his concept and origin. Because we see and process so many films a year, it often becomes the case that we strongly recognize similar products repeatedly throughout the course of time. One of the popular criticisms for Iron Man 3 is that the antagonist’s origin story is very like that of Syndrome’s from the 2004 Pixar film, The Incredibles. Both Syndrome and Killian believe that they were wronged by one of their biggest role models when they were younger. They both initiate their evil plans in the future when our protagonists are in a rusty or beaten state in their careers. Even though Killian and Syndrome have different plans up their sleeves, their origins are the same at the very core. It is a story similar enough for audiences to notice and criticize. Even though Killian is a good and effective villain, this criticism is what holds Killian back from being as remembered as Loki.

20170628_030135.jpg(The Parallels!)

    Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron is another marvel antagonist who is good in the context of the film, but is not as remembered as others. He is a divisive subject to dissect because there are fans that love him. This is probably because his actions leave great repercussions for the marvel film franchise. This and other factors do make him a good villain but his actions in the third act of the film are very like what Loki did in the third act of the first Avengers film. He leads an army of disposable drones and plans to destroy a city by planting a doomsday device in the center of it. This is what makes Ultron not as memorable as other marvel foes; we have seen his plan and actions before. This can also be seen with many antagonists in many action films. How many times have we seen villains who simply want to destroy the world? How many times have we seen villains whose plan is to activate a destructive portal/beam in the center of a city? Trying to create an antagonist with some original aspects to their character can go a long way now in the age of the franchise. The villains that we remember the most now are the ones that are or tried something different.

20170628_041023-1.jpg(Not exactly the same but very similar in the concept of being the main destruction device)

     To give another divisive example, take Lex Luthor from Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many people like Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex because he is very different from the other on screen interpretations of the character. I personally did not like this villain, but I must absolutely respect and acknowledge the decision the film team took with creating a unique interpretation for the character. We see so many of the same villains (both figuratively and literally when it comes to reboots) now that doing something different is crucial. Regardless if I like this version of Lex or not, he is now sewed in my mind for being the Lex for this ongoing DC film universe. Eilenberg’s Lex is a good example of how originality can help with memorability, but unfortunately this take did not work for me. Three recent great antagonists that were crafted with a sense of originality are Immortan Joe from Fury Road, Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and David from Prometheus/Alien: Covenant. You might be wondering why out of all the great recent original villains that I’m choosing to dissect these three. Unless you do not participate in film discussion, you will notice that these characters boast groups of fans that bring them up in conversation on a regular basis. These prime examples of memorable foes also share a common trait; their archetypes are not uncommon in film. There have been plenty of villains with similar basic cores before yet these three have managed to rise with great memorability. This is because they brought something original to the table for us to ingest. Highlighting these three shows how powerful a sense of originality can be when crafting character.


     Immortan Joe might seem like a simple villain at a first glance. He is an unjust dictator in a cruel world that only cares about keeping his rule and legacy alive. Reading that sentence should bring multiple similar antagonists to mind. Take almost any king or dictator from period pieces and that is their basic character description. He even enforces his own belief system upon those who blindly follow him. Another trait that similar characters like him share. He might seem boring at first, but in the world of the fury road Immortan Joe is like no other. There is more to his character than just being a crazy dictator. He is truly one of the most vile and disgusting a-holes that film has seen in recent years. He is physically deformed to the point where he needs a respiration suit not only to help his body, but to also fool his followers. He has designed his suit to make him look like some sort of godly deity. Even though he is physically unfit his goal is to produce the perfect offspring to keep his legacy alive. He plans to achieve this by trying to procreate with his five slave wives. These are some of the most beautiful and normal looking women in all the land. The belief system he enforces on his followers is also one of the most original ideas that people remember about Fury Road. Going chrome to Valhalla is such a bizarre and hilarious concept that will surely be screamed in the heads of fans for years to come. The dystopian motor world of Fury Road does help make Immortan Joe and his empire memorable, but the way he paints an image of himself and his perfect empire was a new creative interpretation of this evil that made him instantly iconic. The Immortan Joe is a title that is almost too heavy for him to carry; can he make it to Valhalla himself? These are the character traits and actions that make him more memorable than being a generic dictator.

  Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-EGO-and-Star-Lord-Peter-Quills-dad-movie-photo(The deception of the deadbeat father figure)

       Ego from GotG Vol. 2 shares a very similar goal to that of Immortan Joe. The dream of producing the perfect offspring. Ego’s dream is different enough to make him one of the most memorable comicbook film villains of the past decade. Writer/director James Gunn utilizes the ideas and actions of this villain in his script in ways that many comic book films fail to achieve. Ego is both the physical and metaphorical villain of Vol. 2. He stands only for himself and being the best version of himself for all to see because he believes that he is the best at what he does, literally creating what seems to be perfect examples of life. This theme of being the best at what you do and being cocky about it is something almost every single one of our protagonists deals with in the film. His motivations and actions are more symbolic and important to the entire narrative. He is a deadbeat dad that also happens to be a living planet. We have seen plenty of villainous deabeat dads and few evil living planets (e.g. Unicron from the Transformers series) in film. Combining these two structures does not necessarily make Ego automatically memorable. The way Ego became the unique villainous combination of both is what makes him stand over recent comic book villains. The perfect planet that went around the galaxy mating with hundreds of species in hopes of creating the perfect bastard child but couldn’t. This is somewhat sad from a biological point of view but still incredibly cruel. This is what makes us care about his plans when he does finally create the perfect offspring (Starlord) to help carry his legacy. Not only is this an original interpretation of this comicbook character, but his schemes and impact reached certain levels of evil that have not been recently seen in comicbook films. He will stand above Ultron and Killian next to Loki in the gallery of remembered marvel film villains in given time.

alien-covenant-images-michael-fassbender(Perfection at a first glance)

     David finishes this chain of connections with his goals that are like Ego’s, but are different enough for audiences to not even immediately notice the comparison. We have seen the mad scientist type of antagonist countless of times. David also fits in the category of evil sentient robots that have also been cinematically beaten to death by the science fiction genre. What makes David so memorable and refreshing (besides the outstanding performance from Michael Fassbender) is the twist on these archetypes. He is Frankenstein’s Monster if he became motivated and smart enough to start creating life himself. Regardless if you like the direction that director Ridley Scott is taking the Alien franchise, you must admit that you would have never guessed that David was going to take on this role from the beginning of Prometheus. What makes David more interesting than other generic evil sentient robots is that he knows that he is not perfect. He knows that he is above human life, but that is not enough and this fuels his desire to create the perfect lifeform (e.g the Xenomorph). We have seen his sentient journey from discovering life, studying it, to finally trying to create the perfect example of it. Very like Ego’s quest for creating the perfect examples of life except that David knows that it cannot be modeled after him. His journey of sentience is told through the evil obstacles he sets forth for our human protagonists to face. Even though he can be slightly compared to Ego with his motivations and actions, he has enough differences to be memorable on his own level. When will we see the uncontrollable and imperfect android succeed in doing what his creator couldn’t? This is a new question that will bring audiences back for another sequel. When the new alien film hits theaters, viewers will be going in wanting more David than xenomorph action. This may be a divisive statement because the xenomorph is one of the most iconic film creatures. Regardless if you agree one thing is true; behind every original creation there is a unique mind.

     By years’ end try to count how many great villains you saw in theaters that you think you will remember throughout time. Once you have a list you should be able to clearly see that these antagonists will stick with you for either being new ideas or for achieving new heights in villainy. If you already think that we are getting a lot of film content a year, then prepare yourself for the future. The number of comicbook films a year is slowly growing with every major studio wanting to jump on the franchise hype. The Fast and the Furious, Transformers, Harry Potter, and Mission: Impossible franchises are not showing any signs of slowing down with the planned sequels and spin offs. Do not also forget that Lucasfilm is starting to release big Star Wars event films every year now. Think about all the possibilities of the antagonists that we can get. It would be a real shame if we got a plethora of decent but forgettable villains wouldn’t it? It would be a bigger nightmare if each film villain we get just seems too similar like the one before it. This plea for originality comes from an acceptance that the market is not slowing down any time soon. If we are getting fifteen yearly comicbook/spy/horror films by 2025 then why not try to create enough originality to differentiate them all from each other? We should also stress this question on non-franchised tied films. The films that we are going to remember for decades and beyond are the ones that push our beloved protagonists to their limits. The future for villainy in film only looks as bright if the most creative and innovative craftsmen are behind the camera.

maxresdefault (1)“Big things have small beginnings” 

-David (Prometheus)


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