(Welcome to my attempt at levity after that quite depressing previous post.)
“Every fairy tale needs a good, old-fashioned villain.” ~ Jim Moriarty, BBC’s “Sherlock”
That’s one of my favorite quotes from “Sherlock,” so much so that I have made it my tagline on my DeviantART account. It stuck with me not only because I love Sherlock but because I also looooooooooove me some villainy. And honey, you should see Moriarty being evil.
After mentioning that quote to my friend Joy—who has never met a word she hasn’t loved to overanalyze—she asked me what makes a “good, old-fashioned” villain.
My initial reaction is to assume that the phrase “good, old-fashioned” is no longer meant literally, at least in this case, but instead is slightly sarcastic, possibly a response to ages of mourning those things that were once considered truly “good” and “old-fashioned” … family values or Christmas being the first things that spring to mind.
But then, could “good, old-fashioned” really describe villains? What would that mean, and what other villains would I describe as such?
This was part of our conversation:
Joy: (i wonder what makes villains old-fashioned?)
(moriarty is, after all, no stuffy professor)
Me: That makes me think, someone who is just straight-up evil. Not redeemable, not a “good heart inside emo boy/girl who just needs the love of a good woman/man.” Just someone who is out to f— shit up.
Me: I think Iago, I think the evil stepmother, the original Snow White wicked queen
I think original nosferatu / Dracula vampires, not Edward Cullen “i want to be good” vampire
Joy: (i feel like you should blog this for some reason)
And so here we are.
In summary: A good, old-fashioned villain is selfish, is without redemption or remorse, is without a sympathetic backstory, possesses some amount of intellect or other power that makes them threatening and interesting to watch, and is usually physically unattractive—as most classic, “old-fashioned” stories and fairy tales have villains with outsides that match their insides, though of course there are exceptions like the queen of “Snow White.” They may have self-serving motives, such as jealousy or greed, or they may just want to screw with people.
So now that we’ve established that, what are some examples?
I’m glad you asked!
(You didn’t ask? Pssht.)
So I’m thinking, despite his modern methods/settings of evil, the Joker in The Dark Knight is one such villain. Straight-up evil, an unknown history so we can’t pinpoint a cause of his madness—which severely limits any amount of sympathy one might have for him (though if you have sympathy for the Joker … well, frankly, I don’t know what to do with you)—entertaining as hell, physically unappealing (notwithstanding Heath Ledger’s real-life handsomeness), dangerous, and out to “watch the world burn,” as Alfred points out.
I would say that Voldemort is another such villain: evil, ugly, out for power, an interesting character. However, J.K. Rowling gives us much more background into his (sad) life story than what you get with most traditional villains. To the point that even Voldemort’s nemesis Harry Potter feels kind of sorry for him. But then, this knowledge of his history does not make us root for him, does not make us conflicted. So then, in Voldemort’s case, does the backstory really matter so much?
If you’re talking fairy tales, there’s the witch who lures children with candy so she can eat them, the evil stepmother who practically crushes Cinderella under her boot, the jealous queen who believes that anyone prettier than her deserves to die. You have monsters and other wicked creatures out to make trouble simply because that’s what villains DO!
Like the Joker, BBC’s Moriarty is definitely one such “good, old-fashioned villain.” The one tiny detail I take umbrage at is the lack of physical repulsiveness, since Andrew Scott has such pretty brown (crazy) eyes. Though Moriarty’s insanity makes one cringe at the sight of him anyway, so that might still count.
Of course, Disney does well with these villains—ranging from the “old-fashioned” classics of Maleficent and evil stepmothers to the more recent (as in, made in my lifetime) films of Ursula and Scar. What do they want? Their way. When do they want it? Now! How many lives will they destroy in the process? As many as it takes.
So what makes a villain not old-fashioned? I’ve thought of a few characteristics of many “modern” villains.
To clarify: I’m not necessarily saying that I disapprove of these methods. I’m not saying that villains with these characteristics aren’t “real” villains. I’m not saying I don’t like such villains. I’m just saying that these are some things that, in my mind, prevent a villain from fitting my definition of a “good, old-fashioned” villain.
1. They are made so appealing that the audience/reader/etc. wants them to prevail, or wants to join them. Examples include sexy vampires that make people want to be vampires, even if they’re still doing evil stuff—like being vampires. Or love stories in which the subjects are zombies. I’m not giving examples, because I hate zombie stories/movies because they freak me out, but one Google search was enough to tell me they exist.
2. The story attempts to turn the idea of the villain on its head, making once-evil characters good, or at least “misunderstood.” The most glaring case is Elphaba’s character in Wicked. Now, I like Wicked, book and musical, so don’t think that I necessarily disapprove of this technique. But it’s definitely a modern thing, and not one that belongs in a classic fairy tale. That’s why we have fractured fairy tales.
Now, this is usually accompanied by #3. However, the presence of 3 does not always mean there is 2.
3. The villain has so much backstory and history that you sympathize with them and can understand where they’re coming from. Even if you don’t want them to succeed with whatever villainy they are up to, you “get” it. Since I know some people reading this are totally expecting me to mention him, I’ll just go ahead and say that Loki (as in, from the movies Thor and The Avengers) is one such villain. More so Thor than Avengers, really, since that’s where his “troubled past” and “daddy issues” are really explained. Of course, in The Avengers he’s actually kind of an ineffective villain (unless he meant to do that), so that also doesn’t help. If a character gives rise to an army of fangirls who go, “I just want to hug him and tell him everything is going to be all right!!!” then no, he is not a “good, old-fashioned villain.”
Now that I have babbled on and on about my definition of villains and their characteristics and some of my favorites, what about you?
What makes a good villain? What are some of your favorites, and why?
(And saying “he’s just super sexy” doesn’t count.)
(HAHAHA! I kid. It totally counts.)