Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Modern Hollywood Villains Stink

Originally posted at Big Hollywood: LINK

Modern Hollywood villains stink. You know I’m right. They’re dull and played out. They’re always the same guy. They’ve all become cartoon villains. . . psychopathic Snidely Whiplashes. I’m sick of it. And you know what’s to blame? Liberalism.

Here’s the problem: the most important aspect of any film is the motivation of the characters. Motivation is what we use to decide whether a character is right or wrong, good or bad, justified or not. It is what makes us sympathize with some and repulses us from others. It is what defines the conflicts of the film. Change the motivation and you change the whole meaning of the story. No other story element is as important as motivation.

"What's my motivation again?"

Consider a story about a businessman who kills someone. Suppose he kills for money. Clearly, he’s a villain. But what if he kills because he likes it? What if he kills in self-defense or by accident? Changing his motivation fundamentally changes the nature of the character and thereby the central conflict of the story. All his other traits can be changed with little effect on the story. For example, it doesn’t matter that he’s a businessman or rich or even male. These may seem important at first glance, but they are just details and like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin can be changed without affecting the story. But motivation is different. Motivation is the key factor. It defines the characters and generates the story. Change it and you change everything.

That’s why it’s vital to give a villain a proper motivation. The villain sets everything into motion. If the villain’s motives are pedestrian or nonexistent, then the story is handicapped from the get-go.

But Hollywood has abandoned the idea of giving villains motivations because motivations are complicated and easily confused. Instead, it substitutes blatantly obvious villains who ooze evil from their cardboard pores. They prance around ranting and raving, kicking puppies and shooting uppity henchmen, and they make actual cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash and Wylie E. Coyote appear to be paragons of depth, sanity and wisdom by comparison. And in those rare moments where the writers feel they must offer a motivation, the villains mumble something about power or money like so many beauty queens babbling on about world peace.

A veritable Socrates among modern villains?

But it wasn’t always this way. At one time, villains had genuine, interesting motives. Consider some of the great villains of the past:
• Darth Vader (pre-whiny Hayden Christensen) was defending the Empire against rebels bent on destroying it.

• Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty could stand no disrespect because he was insecure.

• Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven wanted a quiet life.

• The Terminator relentlessly followed its programming.

• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest despised the people under her care.

• HAL 9000 in 2001 couldn’t resolve a conflict in his programming.
Do you notice something about this list? It isn’t what the characters did that made them memorable, it’s why they did it. When you think of HAL or Vader, you don’t think “oh yeah, he killed that guy,” you think about their mental states and their motivations. And their motives weren't necessarily evil. Their actions were, but their motives weren't.

In fact, that's what's really interesting: none of these villains actually thought they were evil. That’s the creepy part. It’s also very human. Indeed, few people see themselves or their actions as evil or wrong. To the contrary, we are good at justifying our behavior to ourselves so we can maintain the belief that we are doing the right thing. Even truly evil people rarely think of themselves as evil. Hitler never thought of himself as the bad guy, he viewed himself as the savior of the German people and justified everything he did through his twisted racial theories. The Soviets justified their purges by believing they were only eliminating traitors. East German guards justified killing their own people by believing they were just doing their duty. Some do evil because they feel aggrieved or threatened. Some just think their ends outweigh their means. This list goes on. They’re all wrong, but they all think they’re in the right.

"No Lord Vader, we're the bad guys. Go kick a puppy, you'll feel better my young apprentice."

Yet, Hollywood doesn’t get this. It has decided instead that evil characters must revel in being evil, even though that’s cartoon villainry. And why does Hollywood do this? I blame liberalism. Beginning in the 1960s, liberalism adopted the idea that individuals are not responsible for their actions, i.e. don’t judge someone on their actions, judge them on their intentions. That’s how they could excuse the crimes of terrorists (SDS), cop killers (Black Panthers), rapists (Polanski) and even murderous dictators (Mao): because they looked past their deeds and saw only their intentions.

In other words, whereas conservatives first look at the person’s deeds to decide if they acted in a good or bad manner, and only rarely go into intent as a possible extenuating circumstance (like erroneous self-defense), liberals typically start and stop at intent. And if the person had a “good motive,” then liberals will excuse their acts no matter how heinous. Conservatives don’t buy that and except for a small set of defenses (e.g. justified self-defense) don’t care what the person’s motive was.

That’s also what leads to our present problem. When you can only judge someone on their intent (i.e. motivation), then logically, you can only define someone as evil if they intend to do evil. Thus, if you want an evil character, the liberal mindset tells us they must see themselves as evil and must intend an evil motive. Hence the prancing. Blech.

This is a shame and a crime against storytelling. Come on Hollywood, wake up. . . this isn't that hard.

So who are your favorite villains and why?


Outlaw 13 said...

Capt. Quieg from The Cain Mutiny. Throughout the entire film you are shown through the eyes of the ship's officers how Capt. Quieg is irrational and almost crazy. At the end of the film it's all turned on it's ear.

It's a great movie to show people about duty and leadership.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw 13, That is one of my favorite movies. The first time through I thought he was so rotten and just a jerk.... and the Ferrer gave his final speech and I was stunned. Suddenly it was "wow did I misjudge him!"

Plus, I love Bogart and this is some of his best acting.

Tennessee Jed said...

great article, Andrew. Harry Waters of In Bruges is another villain of immense proportions, but he has a very strict moral code which he ultimately inflicts upon himself. It is that motivation and conflict which makes him memorable, not his acts.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed! It seems to be going over pretty well. About 320 comments at the moment.

I haven't seen Bruges yet, though I will soon. So I can't comment on him specifically. But I absolutely think the best villains are the ones that give you something to think about, some depth of character, some reason to feel conflicted.

Tennessee Jed said...

I was out all day getting my horeless carriage get it's 65K check-up ;-) I'll swing on over to BH and make it 321 or more!

I know you are a netflix guy, but just in case some readers are interested, both In Bruges and Fracture Blu-Ray discs are on sale at Best Buy this week for $7.99

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed, Good to know! I do use Netflix, but I know not everyone does, so it's good to pass information like that on! :-)

Things are hopping at BH, though they're starting to slow down.

It was an interesting response. Even one of the guys who normally trolls over there was complimentary. :-)

thundercatkp said...

Favorite villain...ooh. That's a good one.

Right now it Gerald Swinney. (Bob Newhart) In Alfred Hitchcock's "How to Get Rid of Your Wife"

Why? Have you seen his wife? She is impossible.

The man (I don't remember his name) in Alfred Hitchcock's "Isabel" runs a close second.

I like villains that want revenge.

AndrewPrice said...

thundercatkp, Hitchcock has some great villains. He really was a master at producing quality villains.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Top notch post, Andrew!

I actually read most of the comments at BH. Well, as of when it was 4 hundred and something.

It's good to see that most were thoughtful and interesting comments which is why I read them.

You're sure right about the villains in most modern films being one dimensional, uninteresting, and with little or no thought to their motivation(s).
The same could be said of the heroes (or anti-heroes).

Apparently, this is a trend among many writers, direstors, producers, and studios.
And they wonder why people ain't flocking to the movies like they used to.

When the asteroid in Armegeddon has more depth than most modern villains I believe that's a sign they're doin' it wrong.

And you're right about it not being rocket science to come up with motivations which in turn may actually get the writers to think more about how they portray the villains.

Would the villain really do this? Why? What's driving him/her/it/they?

Most of the villains I was gonna pick have already been spoken for so I thought about a few that I didn't see mentioned.

Possible spoilers.

Tony Soprano and his crew.
I think the reason no one thought to mention them is because most people didn't really see Tony as a villain per se.

Plus, he did have some good qualities. And he tried to avoid whacking people or having them whacked unless he "had no choice."

Of course, in Tony's eyes he didn't think he was evil. It was just business. He was even haunted by some of his decisions.

Besides, some of the people he whacked (and his sister got one) deserved it. Didn't they?

But no matter how you slice it, Tony was the villain...and the star. A very interesting villain with several layers.
And he was likable. I cared about Tony and his family and friends.

I wanted desperately for Tony to get out of the mob while he still could, but alas, it wasn't to be.

Sure, Tony had boundaries. He wouldn't let his crew get into the drug trade.
But he still did the usual: extortion, fraud, theft, racketeering, gambling, the occasional beatdowns and whackings.

Deep down I knew Tony was a bad guy for the most part as are all mafia wise guys.
And it was his choice. He was motivated by greed.

Another good bad guy is Keifer Sutherland in Phone Booth.
Very interesting villain. He was trying to force jerks like Colin Farrell (also very good in this flick) to be completely honest and change their ways (or repent, actually and stop being an immoral jackass).

In this villain's mind, his prey would determine whether they lived or died based on their choices.
Not his fault if the jerk chooses to stay a jerk...bang! Next.

No doubt he thought of himself as some kind of knight, putting stray people back on the path of righteousness for their own good and the good of those around them.
At least that's the impression I got by the end.

It didn't seem to be a game to him. He was deadly serious. But he did enjoy the interaction and the jerk getting his "just" rewards which was public humiliation.
But the jerk became a better man.

Yeah, but he had to kill other people that got in the way of his mission. And he had no remorse over it. The ends justifies the means.

Sutherland was leftism incarnate.
He's gonna force bad people to be good...or else...bang!

I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel in a different venue.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I would be remiss not to mention Sam Harris in The Rock.
Truly a complex and conflicted villain and damn it, I liked him.
But he was using the wrong means to achieve reperations for his men.

Men who were let down by their government.
Although this flick is fiction, our government has a bad track record when it comes to honoring our troops and there have been many broken promises (no more free healthcare for retirees is just one example).

And, of course, where's the first place most of our politicians go when they need to make cuts?
The military, of course.

But Harris wasn't prepared to follow through with his threats. He could never murder millions of innocent people.

But a few of his men could because they were motivated by money and if a bunch of civilians needed to die to make that happen then no problemo.

In the end, Harris became a hero and we had new villains taking over. Villains we didn't care about because they didn't have a concience so to speak.

Anyhow, I could go on (no. Please don't!). But I just noticed this has become a very long comment so I'll end it here. (Thank you. Don't you have your own blog to bloviate on and on?)

What can I say? I got carried away. (understatement of the day!) :^)

Thanks for sparking a fun and interesting discussion, Andrew!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Oh, I forgot to mention:

One of my biggest pet peeves is when the writers or director or the studio (or a combination thereof) have the villain(s) and/or the hero(es) or anyone else for that matter do something completely out of character.

This is another area that they drop the ball on quite often due to not thinking about the characters motivation(s) or the characters themselves.

I know everyone wants a surprise twist out of left field (pun intended), but that requires thinking and creativity.

When they do it simply to shock or as some kind of statement or whatever and it;s something that character would never do it really hurts the movie and angers the audience (those that notice anyway).

I mean, c'mon! Not everyone can be a wild card like the Joker, who, incidently, stayed in character based on his motivations.

And as you said yesterday, if the villain is murdering his own people every five minutes for stupid reasons (he was angry, he didn't like the news, yadda yadda) they're either gonna turn on him or get the hell outta Dodge. Sheesh.

When the Joker killed some of his men he did it without witnesses and for a reason.
Not in front of his entire crew.

If the writers can't come up with a good twist or surprise then please concentrate on the story and the characters.
We don't hafta have the surprise ending in virtually every movie. It's okay...let it go.

Speakin' of letting go...LOL! Sorry again.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

One last one:

Skeet Ulrich in Scream.
His villain was brilliant! The writing, directing and acting was outstanding!

I've always liked Skeet's work and loved his dad in Ice Pirates, LOL.

I won't get into the villains motivations, having typed a manifesto already. Just wanted to mention the fantastic job Ulrich did in that flick.

PS- I promise not to plagerize anyone in my next manifesto. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, Thanks!

I saw that it was over 500 this morning! Wow! And even better, as you note, people are actually talking and thinking. Even some of the guys who normally just troll are putting forth their ideas and talking like everyone else. I was very impressed with the response!

(With regard to heroes, I’m going to do a movie review next, but then I will tackle heroes -- a couple people actually requested it. And thinking about it, there is a good bit of analysis there.)

Excellent way to put it -- when the asteroid in Armageddon has more depth than your villain... this is sadly becoming so true. And you’re right, people won’t pay to see these things. Who would want to pay to see cardboard characters punch each other?

I think using a motive forces you to answer the questions they always leave unanswered.

Soprano is an excellent villain because you WANT to like the guy, but he keeps making his problems worse by making bad choices -- and he shows these flashes of pure evil. By the way, I think the final scene was brilliant because it made you paranoid. As you sat there wondering who was going to kill him, you got a taste of what Tony’s day to day life is like and you start to understand why he makes the decisions he does.

Phone Booth was a fascinating film. I would have thought it was too narrow a concept to pull off, but they did it brilliantly! I thought all the actors in that one were just brilliant. And I think you’re right that Sutherland thought he was the good guy -- he saw himself as forcing people to make themselves better. And true, very leftist.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, You're welcome on sparking the discussion, I'm just glad people ran with it!

I agree entirely about Harris. I think villains with a genuinely good motive, who actually end up becoming heroic are truly fascinating characters. Roy Batty comes to mind, for example. He was a true villain, but redeemed himself when he suddenly realized how precious live truly is.

Harris another great example because his motives were strong and he never wanted to be the villain. He just didn't choose his underlings wisely.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I agree completely. I think having a motive helps to reduce the chances of out of character behavior, but it's still something to guard against. And like you, I am totally frustrated by the number of characters who do something completely stupid or bizarre or which they would NEVER do just because it feeds the plot.

I have always felt that the best stories are those where the writer forces themselves to stay within the confines of the character and make the plot work for them, not the other way around.

Ice Pirates!!! I love that film! LOL! That's a vastly underrated comedy.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"I have always felt that the best stories are those where the writer forces themselves to stay within the confines of the character and make the plot work for them, not the other way around."

You nailed it right there!
I know a lot of writers and directors feel that boundaries harsh their mellow and don't allow them to be artistic.

However, the opposite is true. The boundaries actually free the writer to be more creative, just as the scales and notes in music permit musicians to be creative.

Without the boundaries of each character and the story itself it become a jumbled mess and not a movie most people will wanna see again.

This is reflected from our culture, I think, because the baby boomers threw out all the wise traditions ('cause they knew better!) so they could be "free" to do whatever they wanted.

And it doesn't work. Period. The fredom they sought has become chains and their song, if you wanna call it that, remains the same.

I think by throwing away liberty and responsibility for mere freedom, without regard to the long term consequences, explains why their has been a decreasing quality of, well, basically everything in the arts.

It's that attitude that leads to statism or staleness.
Ergo, the music, movies, art (crap...literally!), etc., has gotten gradually worse.

The newfound freedom of no responsibilty destroys creativity...because there is no boundaries.
It's like a musician that just plays notes with no consistent beat, harmony or melody. No structure. It sounds like crap (because it is).

This applies to everything. How much creativity do we see froim countries with no liberty? Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
That may be the US someday if not enough of us value life, liberty and property rights.

There I go again, ranting away, lol.

Anyhow, I believe that's one of the root causes of the why and how we got here in the arts and culture.
I know it sounds kind of cynical, but I believe there's still a majority of Americans who value self evident truth's and I sincerely hope it stays that way.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I think you make an excellent point. In the 1960s, the liberals threw off the "restrictions" of the past. Suddenly, anything became art. But when anything is art, nothing is art. And the result is that while some of the first may have had talent, those that came later didn't -- but you couldn't criticize them because it was no longer considered valid to criticize.

Thus, they have managed to destroy art.

In terms of staying within characters, I think you're right that spurs creativity. There is no creativity when a writer can have characters to whatever is needed to move the plot. Creativity comes from building a story out of legitimate elements.

Koshcat said...

Great post and congrats on the interest at BH. what is sad is that the villain is what makes the whole movie. It is the conflict. That thing the protagonist has to get over to succeed. A good movie usually has a very strong villain that actually have more story than anyone else. Take the joker in both Batman. Nicholson is awesome but so is Ledger but in an entirely different way. The truly are the center of the story and are formidable opponents. Longshanks in Braveheart is great; brutal, devious. I think there are still some good villains out there and typically they are in the more successful movies. But until people stop wasting money on crap like Avatar (still refuse to give that jerk a dime of my money), they are still going to make crap.

Speaking of Avatar, did you ever see the photo floating around the web were someone crossed out the script and character and place names for Pocahontas and inserted Avatar?

AndrewPrice said...

Koshkat, Thanks! The response has absolutely amazed me. I'm thrilled!

I agree totally about the importance of villain -- the villain makes the story because the villain defines the conflict and the challenge for the hero to overcome. If the villain is only stealing quarters from pay phones, then the hero isn't going to be all that impressive either.

Unfortunately, people keep seeing these awful films with awful cardboard villains. And as long as Hollywood makes money selling bland cardboard, they will keep doing it because it's a lot safer than writing a great villain and possibly getting it wrong.

Great point about the Jokers. They are both fantastic villains, but for very different reasons. And in both movies they are just fascinating, deep characters to watch. In fact, it was interesting to read the comments as people argued about their motivations -- especially Ledger's Joker. The fact that people could agree on general outlines, but not the specifics of his motivation, and wrote lengthy comments arguing their points tells me that the character was truly well drawn. Compare that with the guy from Resident Evil: Afterlife who wasn't mentioned and probably couldn't have drawn more than a sentence of discussion!

I had not seen the Avatar/Pocahontas thing. So I looked it up on Google. What a hoot! They are literally the same movie! Amazing.

Kit said...

With villains.

More Pocahontas bashing and more Beauty and the Beast praising.

In POCAHONTAS, Radcliffe is nothing more than the "Evil Greedy White Man" whereas in Beauty and the Beast, while Gaston is clearly an inversion of the manly outdoorsman he is given some depth. The reason he is evil is not because he is the manly outdoorsman but because he is a vain, self-entitled prick.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Good point. I think you're right. There is a definite difference and Gaston is evil not for economic or "socio" reasons but because he's vain and self-centered. He has no other motive that his own ego. So he is a good lesson for kids.

But Radcliffe is presented as a representation of capitalism and Western Civilization and that makes him a lousy villain.

Kit said...

Good villains, like any good character, is an individual. Nto some allegorical/metaphorical representation of a society or idea.

Kit said...

Which, interestingly, is the problem Tolkein had with allegory.

Allegorical characters were not characters, they were 2D representations of something else.

Kit said...

PHONE BOOTH, a movie that almost made me forgive Joel Schumacher for BATMAN AND ROBIN . . . almost.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think that's absolutely true that good villains are individuals, not representations of something else. But Hollywood loves stereotypes, especially when they are pro-liberal stereotypes.

Phone Booth is a fantastic film, though oddly it flies under the radar for a lot of people. And what an interesting villain. He's like a good guy gone very wrong.

simonwou said...

Nice thread regarding modern best villains! You fetched a good concept into lime light through this blog. I like those meanings of motivation that you have given here in filmy sense. Well I just say, it is a fictions world & everything is taken into account here from entertainment point of view.

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