What’s With All The British Villains?

This year, Jaguar launched its “British Villains” marketing campaign to convince drivers everywhere that “It’s good to be bad.”

If you want to be as sexy, stylish, and smart as your favorite villain, evidently you must drive a Jaguar.

Ignore the part where the hero eventually beats the shit out of you, steals back the loot, and kills all your henchmen.

The campaign combines two of my favorite things–Brits and villains–and ponders why they work so well together. Although I’ve never liked Jaguar vehicles, this is a wheel I can definitely get behind.

“What makes a great villain?” Tom Hiddleston asks in the latest ovary-destorying, brain-melting, totally inappropriate effective ad clip. His arguments are … persuasive.

 

I’ve already blogged at length about villains, why I like them, and what makes a “classic” villain. But even though I’ve cited many Brits as examples, I don’t think I’ve delved into why Brits in particular are such effective antagonists.

Yes, there’s the accent, of course, but why does it work?

I’ve said before, my favorite villains are the smart ones. Americans tend to be impressed with a British accent because it sounds more cultured and educated and intellectual, which often is a delicious and unsettling contrast to a villain’s evil deeds.

Well, a type of British accent, anyway. I really don’t know if Loki would be as sexy or threatening if he spoke like he was on Eastenders or, God forbid, had Dick Van Dyke’s “accent” from Mary Poppins.

loki hulksmash

“Chim chim-in-ey, chim chim-in-ey, chim chim cher-OWWWW”

 

But a “proper” English accent does something else–it immediately identifies the speaker as an “outsider.” Obviously this doesn’t work when you’re talking about James Bond or Harry Potter movies, where people on both sides are running around with British accents. Then there’s the modern Sherlock Holmes movies, where yeah, the hero has a British accent, but he’s played by an American, and the villain is a genuine Brit, so that complicates things.

But in many American films, like Die Hard, Batman BeginsThe Patriot, and even The Lion King, you have the heroes, the damsels in distress, and almost everyone else on the side of “good” played by Americans, and the primary “bad guys” played by Brits with their obvious, sophisticated accents. Is this an example of American xenophobia? Is it a simplistic desire to make the “good” and “bad” more obvious and make sure the audience picks the right side? Does our national psyche still connect “British = enemy” because of the Revolutionary War? I don’t have any definite answers, but it’s something to think about.

The oft-brilliant and hilarious Eddie Izzard makes the  Revolutionary War argument, among other things. Here he gives his own take on the phenomenon (language warning, especially if you go back to watch the whole clip):

 

But is it just the accent? What else about Brits makes them good villains?

I’m glad you asked! Well, debate over his identity notwithstanding, William Shakespeare is easily one of the most famous Brits who ever lived. He also wrote some of the best villains and conflicted antiheroes. Maybe Brits play the best villains because a Brit already wrote the best villains. Shylock from Merchant of Venice, Iago from Othello, Lady Macbeth, Aaron in Titus Andronicus (a play every bit as disturbing as any Game of Thrones episode, might I add), and Richard III are just a few examples.

(The Jaguar clip embedded above, by the way, starts and ends with a quote by John of Gaunt in Richard II, who wasn’t technically a villain, but I’m not going to be picky. Not with Tom Hiddleston speaking the lines.)

It’s not even just about Shakespeare, though his influence cannot be ignored. Other British authors, including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J. R. R. Tolkien have also had a hand in sculpting our cultural ideas of villains, knaves, rogues, and antiheroes, creating more roles to be filled by more Brits behaving badly. British myth, legend, and history gave us the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne in the Robin Hood tales, Mordred and Morgan le Fay in Arthurian legend, and let us not forget the ever-mysterious Jack the Ripper, or the pirates Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. Where would British actors be today without them? And where would we be?

 

[Voiced by Leonardo DiCaprio]

Speaking of those actors…

It’s not just the characters–it seems that the British actors themselves are also better suited for villainous roles. I may be speaking in terrible ignorance here, since I know very little of the nitty-gritty of the acting profession, but the best villainous roles require subtlety, elegance, psychological analysis, dedication, and respect for the characters, and maybe their training makes Brits better suited for that type of work. Not that American actors don’t also study theatre, but the path to an acting career in America seems dominated by the idea of “move to Hollywood (or New York) and do what you can to be a star.” The British take seems to be more methodical and traditional, focused on honing a craft rather than pursuing a big break. Brits also seem, in general, better in touch with their nation’s history and culture than Americans.

At the end of the day, though, whatever the reason for combining Brits and villainy, it’s a combination that works.