A few weeks back, a friend posted a question on Facebook about which movie villains people wished had won. After some thought, I realized there are villains whose performances I admire, but I don’t have any desire to see them victorious. An interesting topic, and it’s kept me thinking about the role of heroes and villains in movies and in writing. Why do we want heroes to win, and why are we happy to see villains defeated?
I suspect there are volumes written on this subject, and I also suspect the answer is based on something basic and psychological. Without getting too deep into discussion of morals or good versus evil, I believe we tend to have sympathy for the cause of the hero, and therefore wish that character success. The villain generally directly attempts to thwart the cause of the hero, which makes it easy to dislike that character’s aims (even while we might love the character).
If, as a reader or a viewer, we can’t establish that sympathy for the protagonist’s cause, chances are the whole story is going to fall flat. In such a case, I could see wanting the villain to win. Note that I said hero’s or protagonist’s cause; I believe you can have an unsympathetic protagonist (although the action of the story is likely to make that character become more sympathetic).
When thinking about my friend’s Facebook question, I kept coming back to the character of Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I don’t think Jack is a valid answer to the question of a movie villain/antagonist that I wanted to win, but I think he’s a useful character to explore some of the issues around heroes and villains.
Jack is certainly the protagonist of the story, although I’d put him in the category of anti-hero because he doesn’t fit a traditional heroic model. He doesn’t conform to the morals of standard society—hey, but he’s not a bad guy. His purpose in life is to scare people, and that’s what he does. When we talk about what his cause (goal) is, things get even more complicated.
The action of the movie centers on Jack and his crew of monsters from Halloweentown stealing Christmas from Christmastown. Jack wants to play Santa Clause this year. It’s fun to watch because the Halloween creatures don’t understand Christmas; no matter how the vampires and zombies try, their version of Christmas is filtered through their creepy vision. Even Jack has a blind spot about it and thinks the citizens of the world will welcome the Christmas he brings them—naturally, he’s dead wrong.
As Jack’s audience, it’s easy to see the errors in his thoughts, and you don’t really want a skeleton from Halloween to be in charge of the festive holiday of Christmas. However, Jack’s true cause is something deeper. He’s the undisputed champion of Halloween scaring, and it’s lost all meaning for him. He wants a new challenge, something to spur his interest and creativity. Stealing Christmas serves this purpose. As viewers, we can certainly understand and support this cause—we want Jack to be successful—even while we don’t have to approve of his methods for trying to achieve it.
Getting back to the original Facebook question, I can’t really think of any villains I would have liked to see win. Others made their suggestions (most of which I didn’t recognize; I really need to get out more), although some of them also fail in the role of actual antagonist. For instance, King Kong was mentioned. Regardless of the version of that movie, Kong is more an agent, a tool, or a catalyst than a villain in the story. If there is a villain, it should be the men who take Kong from his island.
Nonetheless, there are villains that I truly enjoy because of their vibrantly portrayed characters. Yes, sometimes it’s much easier to show the crazy baddies than the good guys. Anyway, here’s a list of some of my fave villains, and yes, many come from the world of Disney; deal with it.
- Judge Doom (from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)—How can you not love that eccentric performance by Christopher Lloyd?
- Ursula (from Disney’s The Little Mermaid)—The villains always get the best songs in these things.
- Scar (from Disney’s The Lion King)—I love the way he works through manipulation, just like a proper Shakespearean villain.
- Maleficent (from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty)—A villain who’s not afraid to be truly evil and call on all the powers of Hell (although I’ll confess I’m a little afraid of the new live-action movie about this character coming next year).
- Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer)—You know, in the early years when he was still really evil.
- Mr. Potter (from It’s a Wonderful Life)—Here’s a guy with no redeeming qualities who you love to hate.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins