A while back I commented on the villain in the new Bond movie, Silva, being an actual villain instead of merely a bad guy. Having seen the film again I stand by that. But I mentioned it to friends and managed to spark a discussion. Two, actually.
One was, who are the best movie villains ever? There’s a “top 100” list from the film institute that did a pretty good job but we came up with a few good ones from the nerdier side. Darth Vader, for one (who was number 3 on that list anyway). The shark from Jaws. Heath Ledger’s Joker. Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek 2. We tried to classify a handful of others: Morgana from Excalibur? Not so much… she could have been but the movie had that campy feel to it that sort of overrode that. Vermithrax Pejorative, the dragon in DragonSlayer? No, there it was mostly just a foil for the main character’s journey, just like Sauron actually.
And those last two led to the second discussion, which is, err… what exactly did I mean by bad guy versus villain? Well you see… uhh. Hrm. If you think of the… I dunno.
Think of when you saw the villains on screen for the first time, or as you watched them grow into a full character. Remember how you felt? Did you hate the character in a visceral way? Did you feel tension between scenes about when the shark would pop up again? When Vader strode onto the screen and begin issuing orders was there a certain amount of dread for this guy?
That’s what it boils down to. Sure you may hate their dastardly plan and want the hero to beat them, and that’s all well and good. There has to be bad guys. Does the villain manage to reach out of that screen and instill that feeling in you?
Silva, and Heath Ledger’s Joker too, gives me a sort of intense unease. I can tell he’s really unhinged. They’re outside of the realm of expected human action/reaction. Vader is like walking death, carrying around a presence even before you even know who the hell he is. Jaws was a constant unknowable even in spite of the fact that it’s just a really big shark (which in retrospect also explains why the first, original Godzilla movie was so good, in Japanese unlike the really quite bad English re-do… it used some of the same tricks in filming and editing).
Blofeld? He’ll send his henchmen after you, you have a shootout, job done. Sauron, same deal… in fact, the Nazgul were far closer to being villains than Sauron, though their limited screentime and lack of need to use acting diminished that. Gollum had the bigger performance there.
And I guess that adds another sort of side point, which is that you’re more likely to sense a great villain if they get out of their ivory tower and get personally involved, rather than just throwing the hero to their constant supply of attack dogs.
Anyway, that’s the best I can do to encompass what I really meant by that.