Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Best and the Worst: Movie Villains

 A couple weeks ago, I was watching the movie Seven for the twentieth or so time, and I came to the conclusion that the serial killer John Doe (played magnificently by Kevin Spacey) has to be the most intelligent, meticulous, and downright sinister villain in the history of motion pictures.  I'll elaborate more on this momentarily, but after giving it some thought, I tried to come up with some other great movie villains and in contrast, some of their inept and shallow peers.  I'm only going to discuss "main" villains here so you won't be reading about flying monkeys, Mr. Smee, or other less-noteworthy bad guys.

I guess it would help to set up a few guidelines as to what makes a great movie villain.  First of all, it must be someone purely evil, but in his own mind he's the good guy whose quirks and psychological malfunctions are perfectly normal.  He's got a clear agenda, and the focus and determination to make his dastardly dreams come true.  He also has to be someone who the audience almost can't help rooting for.  Sure, we KNOW he's the bad guy but dog-gone-it, we find ourselves on his side some of the time, and we can't wait to see him on-screen again.

Those who made my "worst" list are just the opposite.  They're shallow, easily thwarted by the "hero", and as viewers, we just can't WAIT to see them get their comeuppance.  The kind of guy that you find yourself thinking, mid-movie, man, that guy is gonna die one grisly-ass death (or, in less violent flicks, get really, really humiliated.  I'm looking at YOU, Biff).

So here we go, a look at the best and the worst of cinematic scumbags.


 1. John Doe (Seven)

While there's no doubt whatsoever that this guy was a complete psychopath, you have to give him credit.  Unlike so many other villains, John saw his plan through to the end, and when the game was over he was the winner.  Sure, "winning" required him to be, you know, dead, but we're not going to be nit-picky about things.  And there's no question about his dedication to his craft.  He sliced off his fingerprints, compiled hundreds of meticulous notebooks, and actually spent time in a public library.  How many twisted whack jobs can say that?  He's also one of the few villains who, if we're going to look at it objectively, didn't get caught.  As he tells Detective Mills, "let me remind you, Detective, the only reason I'm here right now is because I wanted to be."  It was all part of his master plan.

A plan, by the way, that included a variety of murder techniques that would make Charles Manson look like an Eagle Scout.  Doe killed a guy with canned spaghetti, for crying out loud.  He made a defense attorney hack off his own flesh (and who doesn't enjoy seeing a lawyer get killed?  I know I sure do.).  And for his coup de gras, he cut off Mills's wife's head, packaged it up, and sent it to him via speedy courier.

What's in the box, indeed.

2. Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal)

Even when he was eating people, you couldn't completely hate the charismatic Dr. Lecter.  He was so intelligent, so completely calm, and had just enough of a sense of humor to make him sort of likable, in his own demented way.

Enter Clarisse Starling.   Lecter was eager to assist the rookie FBI agent in her pursuit of Buffalo Bill, but he had his own agenda in mind.  Quid pro quo, if you will.  While Starling was trying to get Hannibal to give her some insight into the mind of Buffalo Bill, the evil Dr. Lecter was busy foraging around in Starling's own psyche.  Poor Clarisse knew the guy was a psychotic killer, but she just couldn't help herself.  After a while, even she started to like the guy.

While Silence of the Lambs gave us our first look at the good doctor, it was the sequel where we really got to gaze into the depths of his depravity.  I mean, really.  The guy fed one of his enemies to an army of killer pigs, and made another one eat his own brain.  With melted butter.

That, my friends, is called "style".

3. The Joker (The Dark Knight)

There have been many cinematic interpretations of Batman's zany arch-nemesis, from Cesar Romero's jocular interpretation on the TV series, to Nicholson's somewhat campy turn in the 1988 film.  But Heath Ledger showed us a Joker that was far more deranged than he was humorous.

First and foremost, the Joker was obsessed with Batman and wanted nothing more than to find out what made him tick (and learn his true identity).  Beyond that, though, the Joker didn't seem to have a particular objective in mind when creating citywide chaos.  Stir the pot and scare the hell out of people, that was basically the gist of it.  As he himself said (to a facially bereft Harvey Dent), "Do I look like a guy with a plan?  No.  I just do things.  I'm like a dog chasing cars, I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one."

Of all the bedlam he brought to Gotham City, I was particularly impressed with his "give the people on two different boats the opportunity and motivation to destroy the other one."  Creative, sure, but it was also a sociological experiment.

How about that, the Joker was a scientist.

4. Darth Vader (Star Wars Series)

Lord Vader (nee: Anakin Skywalker) could read minds, hurl objects across the room without actually picking them up, and choke a guy out from across the room.  If that doesn't intimidate the shit out of you, I don't know what will.  He was also a hands-on leader and one hell of a fighter pilot, willing to lead his troops into the belly of the beast (or the metallic canyons of the Death Star, if we're going to be historically accurate here).

Technically, Vader was an apprentice of sorts, playing Otis to Emperor Palpatine's Lex Luthor.  But there was no questioning Vader's ultimate authority over his stormtroopers or Imperial officers.  Just ask the late Admiral Ozzel, who made the fatal mistake of bringing his cruiser out of hyperspace too soon.  When you're one of Darth Vader's employees, failure is, unquestionably, not an option.

Despite his nefarious military career, there was a tender heart beating within the Sith Lord's chest.  It was a technologically enhanced heart, crackling with electrical wires and microchips, but a heart nonetheless.  When light saber came to lightning bolts, Vader shunned the dark side, hurling Emperor Palpatine to his death in order to save his estranged son Luke Skywalker.

In that galaxy far, far away, apparently, blood is thicker than evil.

5. Dr. Evil (Austin Powers Trilogy)

Okay, from a purely objective standpoint, Dr. Evil can't really be thought of as a criminal mastermind, but damn it, the dude's entertaining.  He's a villain from the old school, seeking to bilk the world out of one million dollars and dispose of his enemies (specifically Austin Powers) by such inventive methods as sharks with laser beams on their heads.

Dr. Evil has a Daffy Duck-like quality to him, in that he always knows what it would take to come out on top, but he can't quite seem to pull it off.  He was great at concocting his devilish schemes, but something always got in the way, not unlike when Bugs would pull the ol' verbal switcheroo on Daffy, tricking the duck into shouting "DUCK SEASON, FIRE!" which of course resulted in having his beak blown all to hell.

The main problem with Dr. Evil, though, is that he's a walking cliche.  He engages in the time-honored "villain's monologue" where he lays out exactly what he's going to do to outwit the hero.  After telling Powers what was up, he then left the room and as he explained to his son Scotty, "no, we're not going to watch, we're going to leave and assume everything will go according to plan."

The Riddler would've been proud. 


1. Harry and Marv (Home Alone)

When Macaulay Culkin can make you his bitch, it's time to abandon your life of crime and take up something a little less risky, like selling Girl Scout cookies or attending Sunday night bingo games.  Harry and Marv were so inept they made the Three Stooges look like the Three Musketeers.

First off, they violated the cardinal rule of home invasion burglary which states, "If someone is in the home, seek a different target."  Even if we're willing to forgive them for their initial break-in, once they took the paint cans to the face, it was clearly time to move on.

And really, "The Wet Bandits"?  It sounds like a team of incontinent old men wearing Depends.

2. Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)

Also known by the chilling moniker "Death From Above," Ivan Drago was a finely-tuned, perfectly trained Russian assault cyborg disguised as a professional boxer.  All he did was beat people up while his exceptionally hot wife and politically-controlled manager did his talking for him.  Drago himself had very little to say, so little in fact that he makes the Terminator sound like Jesse Jackson.  Here's a few of Drago's famous quips:

"I must break you."

"You will lose."

"If he dies, he dies."

And for God's sake, the bastard killed Apollo Creed.  That was completely uncalled for.

From a boxing standpoint, though, Drago seemed invincible.  He stood about six-five, weighed in at 260 pounds of rock-solid muscle, trained like a beast, and if all that wasn't enough, his training staff fueled him with a daily supply of anabolic steroids.  But Rocky Balboa possessed three qualities that allowed him to defeat his seemingly superior opponent.  First off, Rocky packed a mean body punch which is the key to taking down a taller fighter.  Secondly, he had an indomitable spirit and was willing to endure tremendous pain and adversity to accomplish his goals.  Finally, and this is perhaps the most important of all, he wrote the screenplay.

Drago never had a chance.

3. John Creese (The Karate Kid)

This asshole got his jollies by intimidating punk-ass teenagers and turning them into class A douchebags.  And then, when Miyagi and Daniel-san systematically brought a couple Samsonite bags full of whoop-ass to the All-Valley Karate Tournament, Creese had one of his Cobras resort to cheating in an effort to stave off embarrassment.  It didn't work, though, thanks to Daniel's "crane technique."

After the match, even Creese's star pupil Johnny Lawrence saw the light and congratulated Daniel, in a show of sportsmanship unprecedented in Cobra Kai history.  You know what happened next?  Creese smacked Johnny around in the parking lot and broke his second place trophy in half.

What a dick.

Of course, Mr. Miyagi intervened and without even laying a hand on Creese, served the evil sensei a heaping helping of humiliation in the form of a couple bloody fists and a nose-tweak.  As a result, Creese has spent the last couple decades doing one thing, and one thing only.

I'll give you a hint.  It isn't "wax on".

4. Biff Tannen (Back to the Future Trilogy)

Biff, Biff, Biff.  The tandem of Marty McFly and Doc Brown gave it to this loser in three different centuries.  This is not to say that Tannen didn't have his moments, in fact, in one alternate reality he became a multi-millionaire after swiping Marty's copy of Gray's Sports Almanac and using it to make a series of successful bets.  He used his newfound wealth to build a sleazy empire of gambling and prostitution (why do bad guys never use their wealth to, say, support public education or feed the homeless?) and after killing Marty's father George, marry the girl of his dreams, Lorraine Baines-McFly.  But that reality would eventually change.

At the end of the day (or the year, or the century, or whatever), Biff was far too predictable and his resources were far too limited for him to have any long-term success as a bully or thug.  His inept trio of henchman wasn't much help, either (for example, 3D glasses really screw up your depth perception).  When all was said and done, the Tannens got everything that they deserved.

Usually in the form of a truckload of manure.

5. Shooter McGavin (Happy Gilmore)

Even among incompetent bad guys, Shooter McGavin was fairly tame.  He wasn't looking to take over the world, he didn't want to pull off a brilliant bank heist, and he certainly wasn't about to chop off Gwyneth Paltrow's head and ship it to Brad Pitt.  He just wanted to win a gold jacket and thwart Happy Gilmore's meteoric rise to golf stardom.  That sounds like a reasonably harmless master plan, but McGavin went about it completely the wrong way.

He messed with Happy's grandma.

I'll give villains a lot of leeway in their methods, especially if they're clever or entertaining.  As I mentioned earlier, Hannibal's scheme to feed Ray Liotta his own brain was off-the-charts brilliant and uniquely twisted.  John Doe letting a pedophile rot over the course of an entire year, that's just breath-taking.  But I don't think any of those guys would stoop to messing with somebody's grandmother.  It's just not done.

Thankfully, Shooter's poorly thought-out plan backfired on him and Granny got her house back.

He never did get his yellow jacket.


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Andy said...

2nd place, my friend, is for losers.

"Sweep the leg, Johnny!"

Eva Gallant said...

Dinero in Cape Fear was pretty creepy too...But I agree with your choices!

Mr. Condescending said...

You're so good at these type of posts! What was that name you were going by when you first started this blog up, Rusty Dagger or something?

I think these were all excellent choices, but how 'bout I throw in a good one? Jim Carrey as Chip Douglas in The Cable Guy.

As funny as that movie was, I think he played a good villain that you almost have to like. "Don't worry about the tip, but I've got one for you..."

ReformingGeek said...

Great job, Knucklhead!

I loved Darth Vader and The Joker!

Wait. Isn't Kuncklehead a villain in some show?

vickilikesfrogs said...

Rebecca Whatshername in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle!!! (yeah, I could google it and see how to spell her last name, but it's late and I'm tired and you all know who I'm talking about anyway). But that bitch was NUTSO!

Andy said...

Happy Thanksgiving!

Jeremy from We Took The Bait said...

Definitely among the best villains are Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddiker in "RoboCop," and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in "No Country For Old Men."

Mr. Condescending said...

I just thought of another one. "Bill the Butcher" from Gangs of New York.

If I were God said...

Nice way to bring back some pretty good movies; a great villian makes a great movie. I would say your list makes my point; the better five movies all had your best five villians.

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

You're list is great, but I'd have to give the award to Heath Ledger's Joker, or possibly Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, because they made those characters seem so real--as if they were people you might actually meet, and then deeply regret meeting. I'm also a fan of the German dude in the first Die Hard, Jet Li's character in Die Hard XXVII, and, of course, any number of the classic anti-heros played by Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns.

Tommy said...

The Joker was the ultimate bad guy! Also, christoph Waltz was amazing in Inglourious Bastards.

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