Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Can You Tell a Good Story Without a Villain?

Well, this is it. My Villain Month ends today. I've discussed as many elements and techniques about writing villains as I could think of this December, and now that those bases are covered, it's time to ask the ultimate question about this topic:

Can you tell a good story without a villain?

I've said before that the basic set-up for a story involves a protagonist having to overcome an antagonist in order to get what the protagonist wants. I've also said that every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain. Considering this, it seems possible for a story to exist without the cruel and malicious presence of a villain, but how compelling can a story be without that?

Not very, according to some writers. 

The plot of L. Frank Baum's book The Wizard of Oz is extremely different from the plot of its 1939 movie adaptation. While the Wicked Witch of the West serves as the villain in the movie, in the book, she comes and goes in one chapter roughly halfway through the story. The book's real antagonist when you get down to it is the twister that carries Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, and the focus of the story is her overcoming that twister by finding her way home from the place where it stranded her. This didn't seem like enough of a conflict to L. Frank Baum, so he wisely inserted a variety of minor but personified antagonists into his tale at every twist and turn. If he hadn't, the book would have either been two chapters long or so tedious that no child would have ever wanted to read it, and there wouldn't be a movie adaptation to compare it with today.

This episodic structure is also used in the 2009 comedy movie The Hangover. Yes, I just compared The Hangover to The Wizard of Oz. The biggest threat in The Hangover is that the three protagonists won't be able to find their friend, who went missing at his own bachelor party, in time for his wedding. A ticking clock is the antagonist. Despite that, the movie still gives the protagonists everything from bitter police officers to an angry crime lord -- and even Mike Tyson -- to deal with on the side while searching for their friend. Without the inclusion of those opposing characters, there wouldn't be nearly as much urgency behind the protagonists' actions, and the story of them following clue after clue around Las Vegas would get repetitive fast.

Disaster movies in particular like to add villains to the mix to support the main conflict. The film Twister has a subplot about a rival team of storm chasers trying to beat the protagonist's team to the catch. The Day After Tomorrow has a stubborn, closed-minded Vice President who objects to the hero's every suggestion (and who couldn't be a more obvious Dick Cheney caricature if he shot someone with a hunting rifle halfway through the film). And of course, Titanic has a slimy rich fiance who tries to come between the betrothed heroine and her true love. By attaching a nasty personality to the conflict in each story, it becomes somewhat easier to get emotionally invested in the main characters.

But what are some examples of stories that truly have no villain? Ironically enough, the first one that comes to mind is another disaster movie set on a boat, The Poseidon Adventure. A giant wave flips a cruise ship upside down at the beginning of the movie and the survivors spend the rest of it trying to escape without drowning or getting killed by the ship's mechanisms. The characters do argue a lot along the way, but they all share the same goal and never try to sabotage each other.

What makes the conflict so interesting is that not all of the people who initially survive the ship flipping over end up surviving the journey out of it, and our concern for the remaining characters increases with each additional death. On top of that, the main protagonist, a preacher played by Gene Hackman, has his faith put to the ultimate test throughout the story as he questions why God would allow so many innocent people to die so senselessly. The film's main focus is on humanity overcoming hardships and how a single character views that, as opposed to most other disaster movies that focus on spectacle and juggle so many character subplots that they tend to feel like soap operas.  

Another story with no real villain is the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, which is obviously rare for a children's film. We find out that the human who "captured" the fish Nemo only did so because he thought that Nemo was too injured to survive in the ocean and would live longer in a tank. The man's niece Darla, despite her theme music that's borrowed from Psycho, is not a villain who's out to terrorize fish either. She's a little girl who just shakes the bag too much because she doesn't know any better. What's more, the creatures that attack Nemo's father Marlin and friend Dory while they search for Nemo are portrayed more like real, instinctive animals than like anthropomorphic characters; the only attackers who even talk are the brainless seagulls that just yell "Mine!" over and over again. Bruce the shark does briefly go after Marlin and Dory when he smells blood and relapses from his no-fish diet, but the movie makes it clear that he's only attacking in a mindless frenzy, and he's in control again by the end of the scene. Nobody ever plots against the protagonists or intends any personal harm on them throughout the course of the movie.

The real antagonist that hangs over all of this is Marlin's fear of facing life and taking risks, as well as the risk that this fear will ruin his relationship with Nemo. Much like The Poseidon Adventure, Finding Nemo is mainly a character study, albeit a more fun-oriented one. This also seems to be the case in romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally, where the antagonist is Harry's own fear of commitment.

So from the above sampling, I think I've answered my closing question for Villain Month. It is entirely possible to write a good story without any villains as long as your characters are well-written enough to drive the conflict themselves. Otherwise, I say keep giving them bad guys to fight off and match wits with until they've become well-written enough characters.

That's I'm doing in my next book, anyway.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil: Villains with Pathos

I mentioned briefly in my "Is It Okay for a Villain To Just Be Evil?" entry that readers and viewers have come to favor pathos from villains in more recent years. Loki from the Thor and Avengers movies is of course a prime example of that element, along with Gollum from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Captain Barbossa and Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Voldemort from Harry Potter to an extent. Some stories like Wicked have even taken villains from older works of fiction, such as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and presented them in a more sympathetic light. Why is this such a growing trend in storytelling? More importantly, what makes it work?

It's understandable why more antagonists would be written with pathos nowadays. We understand that real people aren't inherently evil and that they normally don't do bad things just for the sake of it. They usually do it out of desperation or ignorance, or for some other reason that they feel is logical and justified. Showing how villains are compelled to carry out their dark deeds can make their motivations deeper and more understandable, and thus more engaging for the audience.

One of the oldest and best cases of this is the devil Lucifer from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. Rather than portraying Lucifer strictly as an evil-doer, the story explains that he fell from grace and became the ruler of Hell because he felt confined living in the service of a higher being in Heaven. This certainly doesn't excuse the devil's actions in either Paradise Lost or the Bible, but it does give us some insight into the way he views the world. We can even see where he's coming from and agree with him to a point, which really reinforces the story's theme of everyone having the potential to be tempted by evil. Lucifer baiting Adam and Eve with the same thing that he fell for, the promise of power, might just be literature's very first instance of the "You and I are not so different," villain cliche.

That's another part of what makes sympathetic villains so interesting: we can see ourselves in them. Because of this, such villains can often win favor with an audience, so much so that we may want to see them repent by the story's end or, in rarer cases, actually succeed in their plans. And sometimes the latter makes a lot of sense. Sure, Loki betrayed his family to take the throne of Asgard, but who's to say really that he'll make a bad king? He seems to care about the realm's well-being, he seems a lot wiser and more mindful than Thor, and he's clearly a better strategist. And sure, Captain Barbossa attacked an innocent town and kidnapped a woman to try and lift his curse in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but what's so horrible about him actually lifting that curse? He just wants to be able to experience the simple pleasures of life again. Heck, he even says that his next order of business after ending the curse is to "eat a whole bushel of apples." That doesn't sound like an awful bad guy! Lots of people would be violent if they couldn't eat anything for an entire decade!

More often than not though, these characters fail just like any other kind of villain, and the audience can be left feeling rather bittersweet about the good guy's victory. If my 13-year-old self had known in Chapter 2 of Fellowship of the Ring that Tolkien was setting me up for a heartache over Gollum's failed redemption and unheroic death at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I might not have let myself grow so fond of that character. But that's what's so unique about villains with pathos -- they challenge us. They show us that things aren't always black and white and that not every decision is easy. Sometimes a protagonist has to choose the lesser of two evils by letting one stubborn person fall in order to protect countless other people. And doesn't that tragedy leave a much deeper impression and stay with us longer than a mere jerk getting his comeuppance?

So that's my view on villains with pathos. We're down to about two more days for Villain Month, but I think I have it in me to write one more entry before January 1st. If you've been following this little marathon of mine, then keep your eyes peeled for my closing thoughts on New Year's Eve!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Recurring Villains

The AMC channel has been hosting a Home Alone movie marathon for the past few days, and I got the chance to see Home Alone 2: Lost In New York again for the first time in years. Well, I remembered over the course of watching the film why I haven't bothered with it for so long. It has a lot of issues, but I think its ultimate problem is that it's so desperate to copy the first film that it keeps stretching the logic in its own story.

One case of this is the return of Harry and Marv, the two bumbling robbers from the first film. Somehow, against all odds, they escape from prison between movies and wind up in a completely different city at the exact same time that the protagonist Kevin does -- and they just happen to randomly cross paths with him in the middle of that huge, crowded city. Why did the screenwriters bring their characters back instead of replacing them with two new villains? Most likely because Harry and Marv were popular with audiences, and because they'd already proven that they could carry a Home Alone film. They were a safe bet, but not necessarily a good choice.

This brings me to today's topic: recurring villains. When do they work and when don't they? More importantly, when does a good recurring villain stop working?

Let's look at some good examples. Loki kept finding his way back into the Marvel movies despite being defeated twice, but his second and third inclusions never felt contrived. That's because his returns into the story were never coincidences. He didn't just happen to bump into Thor on Earth in The Avengers; Thor intentionally sought him out after learning that he survived the end of the first Thor film and wound up there. It's a similar case in Thor: The Dark World, where Loki spends the first part of the story in prison and is then sought out by Thor to help defeat another villain. His returns are completely plausible.

But an air-tight way back into the story is only half of what makes a recurring villain work. The other half is staying power, the justification for why they've come back. What gives Loki staying power after he returns to the story is that his character keeps developing and becoming more interesting each time. Harry and Marv from Home Alone 2 really don't grow or change after they come back. There are a few times when they're more careful because they know what kind of tricks Kevin played on them last time, but they still fall for those tricks again by the end of those scenes. Even if their return wasn't so sloppily written, their characters are still too one-dimensional to justify it.

Another good example of a recurring villain is, of course, Kahn from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. His character had been dealt with previously in an episode of the original TV series, where he and his crew were left stranded on a desert planet. In the film Star Trek II, the character Chekov and another person land on that planet due to a misunderstanding and are (to put it mildly) hijacked by Kahn's crew. This villain's return is a lot more coincidental than Loki's, but what seems to make it work is that so much time and so many other villains have come and gone between Kahn's appearances. The whole point of the story is that this is that one-in-a-million worst-case scenario that Captain James Kirk was hoping would never happen, but did eventually happen due to his negligence over the years. It was a coincidence that occurred because of something that the protagonist failed to do. From a thematic standpoint, that can almost be seen as not really a coincidence at all. In Home Alone 2 though, the villains' escape and return is no result of anything that Kevin did or failed to do. It just happened for the film's convenience.

What gives Kahn his staying power after his return is his stubbornness. His only reason for living now is to get revenge on Kirk, and in so many words, he decrees that the story will not end until he has his revenge. Appropriately enough, he uses his final moments of life to set in motion an event that he believes will destroy Kirk's ship and crew, and then he dies thinking he won.

And this is the point where another return would be one too many. The screenwriters for Star Trek could have easily come up with some outer space scientific phenomenon to resurrect Kahn -- they did it for Spock, after all -- but they refrained from that because they understood that Kahn's character had nowhere else to go. I don't really count his appearance in Star Trek: Into Darkness as a return since that's an alternate universe and also sort of a prequel. As the original timeline stands, Kahn piqued in Star Trek II and went out on his best note.

So that's my take on recurring villains. If you think a bad guy that you've disposed of in a previous story still has potential for growth and you know a sensible way to bring them back, I say go for it. If one of those elements isn't falling into place though, I suggest creating a new antagonist in the meantime.

And don't feel bad if it takes you a while to make both elements work. Judging from Khan, the time to beat for a villain comeback is fifteen years.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Was Loki a Good Villain for 'The Avengers'?

Let's talk about Loki.

Yes, the god of mischief from the recent Thor and Avengers films certainly has made a name for himself, both as a heartthrob and as one of Marvel Studios' most compelling villains. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a Loki fan myself, but what I've always found interesting is that his character didn't seem to have that huge of a fanbase until The Avengers (his second film appearance) came out. The reason I find this interesting is because for as much as that movie boosted his appeal, it also seemed to harm his character the most.

Many people have criticized Loki as one of the biggest weaknesses in The Avengers, saying that he fell flat as the villain due to a lack of menace, determination, and most notably, success. He doesn't just lose at the end of the story; he loses almost every step of the way. Nearly every confrontation that he gets into results in him looking like a fool while his opponent wraps up the scene with a victorious one-liner. This brings me to today's question:

Was Loki a good villain for The Avengers?

By "good," I of course mean "ideal." Was he the right fit as the main antagonist? Did his character serve the movie well in that role?

To everyone who's criticized Loki as a villain in The Avengers, I would like to make a friendly appeal. You're all correct. Loki did fall flat as the villain. He wasn't menacing, he wasn't highly determined, and he was an overall failure.

And I believe that was the point.

As much as the Thor storyline in the movies has been about Thor growing into a wiser and more compassionate hero, it's also been about Loki becoming a stronger villain. There's a very sharp focus on Loki's character development throughout the series, and we see that his various successes and failures throughout it teach him how to be more effective in his schemes.

The reason he did such a poor job at taking over Earth in The Avengers was because he was doing something out of his comfort zone. He was trying to be the big, bombastic tough guy who frightens people with loud speeches and defeats them with brute force. The problem is that Loki at his core isn't a fighter, he's a trickster. His greatest skill is being able to subtly pull strings behind people's backs. That was what he did in the first Thor movie, and for the most part, that worked. It just didn't pay off in full, which is likely why he tried a different strategy the next time around. And why wouldn't he try being the big, bombastic tough guy for once? It usually pays off for his brother, after all.

However, Loki's constant failure with that new strategy seemed to teach him, as well as Thor, that upfront combat is not his strong suit. I think he later harnessed Thor's knowledge of that in order to convincingly stage his own death in Thor: The Dark World. In that regard, Loki's story arc in The Avengers can be viewed as him reconciling with his trickster ways so that he could finally succeed with them in the following movie.

That still doesn't answer whether or not Loki was an ideal villain for The Avengers. Well, for what that movie was, I think he really was ideal. The Avengers is the first installment in a relatively lighthearted and fun film series, so it had to clearly set the tone for that. I think that having a much darker and imposing villain would have hindered what the filmmakers were going for. A villain like that could certainly work in the second or third installment where the stakes are usually a lot higher, but for the opening act of the series, it's fine to set the bad guy bar low.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to flee before the diehard Loki fangirls decide to murder me. Spare me from the wrath of your army, god of mischief!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Villainous Protagonists

We all know the basic set-up for a story: a protagonist wants something, but an antagonist stands in their way and they have to overcome that antagonist to get what they want. The protagonist, by definition, is the character or entity that the story's main focus is on. They're also the character that the reader or viewer is meant to connect with and root for, and most times, that protagonist is the good guy -- but not every time.

It's not hard to root for protagonists like Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter. Those characters have their flaws, but they're inherently good people who want to do the right thing. But what about protagonists like Alex DeLarge or Patrick Bateman, who commit horrific acts left and right with little to no remorse? They would easily be the villains in other stories, and yet we're meant to follow the stories of A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho through their eyes and become fully invested in their side of each tale. How in the world does a writer achieve that?

I should explore first whether or not such a character is still considered a "villain" when placed in the role of protagonist. Being a villain implies being an antagonist, and it's the role of an antagonist to oppose the protagonist. The only kind of character I can think of who can oppose themselves is a character with multiple personalities. Otherwise, if there's no clear hero anywhere else in the story, I would have to say that someone like Alex DeLarge or Patrick Bateman is not a villain. That person is a form of antihero, a main character who lacks some or all of the qualities of a traditional hero. They can certainly still be villainous, though.

So how does a villainous character work as a protagonist? A good way to start is by creating a sense of logic behind what they do. If the protagonist sees a questionable act as a rational or righteous thing to do, then the audience can get behind them to an extent. Patrick Batemen murders homeless people and prostitutes because he's bound by the conformity of society and sees these "nonconformists" as something bad that has to be removed. One of the reasons Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas is because he struggled to earn money most of his life and he sees the holidays as a financially wasteful time of year. In today's economy especially, we can kind of see where the latter character is coming from.

Another way of getting an audience on the side of a villainous protagonist, though it can seem trite if not done carefully, is to make the characters who oppose that protagonist even worse by comparison. Did you ever think an audience could remotely feel sorry for Adolf Hitler? The movie Downfall somehow managed to garner that reaction by making Stalin's Red Army even less compassionate and more brutal than the faltering Nazi Party. On a lighter note, the "Jersey Shore" character knockoffs in the TV movie Jersey Shore Shark Attack become somewhat less detestable when the movie pits them against a group of snobby country club kids. Somewhat less.

A third method is to give a villainous protagonist just enough redeeming qualities to endear them to the audience. In the case of Alex DeLarge, his biggest redeeming quality is that he's sophisticated. He's intelligent, well-spoken, and appreciates classical music to the point that he scolds one of his "droogs" for yelling over a singer's rendition of "Ode To Joy."

For me, it was the way he interacted with his pet snake that made me really start to connect with him. He takes care of it, lets it roam his room and curl up in bed with him, and he's visibly sad when he hears that it died. Audiences can be oddly forgiving of violence against humans in movies because we've become so desensitized to it, but violence against animals is harder for us to accept. The fact that a sadistic teenage criminal has a soft spot for an animal, however uncuddly that animal may be, shows that he's not completely heartless.

Those are just a few tips that I've come across over the years. These obviously aren't the only ways to make a "bad guy" function as a main character, but they're probably the three most fundamental ones. Every writer who takes on the challenge of telling a story from a villainous character's point of view incorporates their own ideas and nuances into the narrative, and when it works, it really works. I personally don't think that there are only a handful of story ideas out there, and with re-defined roles like this being incorporated, I think writers will always come up with one more idea that we haven't seen before.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Is Smaug Really the Villain in 'The Hobbit'?

Well, I said this day would come! I've finally seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and it's time for me to talk about it. For my readers' sakes though, I'm going to keep the focus of this entry tied in with Villain Month instead of rambling aimlessly. Seeing how this movie is named after an iconic bad guy, I think I know what to discuss today:

Is Smaug really the villain in The Hobbit?

Let me clarify something -- Smaug is definitely a villain. He has a mind of his own and he deliberately kills and terrorizes people for his own selfish gain. What's up for debate here is whether or not he's the main villain in the story.

This especially becomes debatable looking at the Hobbit movies, where the story is now split into three parts. I don't want to give away any major spoilers for the second movie here, but let's just say that Smaug isn't going to be in the third one for very long. Audiences will go into the theatre next year and see a three-hour Hobbit movie that most likely won't have a dragon in its second half. It's pretty odd for a fantasy film to lose its biggest threat so early; imagine what Lord of the Rings would have been like if Frodo threw the One Ring into Mt. Doom at the halfway point of Return of the King. That story would have worn out its welcome rather quickly after that point, but The Hobbit manages to go on for quite a while without its great and terrible dragon. Could that be because Smaug isn't really the main villain?

He's certainly treated like he is. The scenes leading to his appearance build him up as the most horrible monster to ever plague Middle Earth and the only thing that's keeping peace and prosperity at bay in the world. Everyone that Bilbo, Thorin, and company encounter in the first movie and in this one warns them not to enter the Lonely Mountain (and tries to prevent them from reaching it) because they're afraid that Smaug will destroy everything if he's awakened. Granted, he does destroy quite a bit after waking up, but he's dealt with relatively quickly. To top that off, the story promptly moves on from him and then becomes about a number of other dilemmas that have risen over the course of the plot, many of which don't pertain to him.

Considering this, Smaug seems less like the main villain and more like a huge MacGuffin -- a mere plot device that was used to get the real story rolling. Smaug may in fact be the biggest and longest-staying MacGuffin in storytelling history. Even Marion Crane was gone within the first half of Psycho. Given what happens afterwards in The Hobbit, Smaug's removal from the tale seems to do nothing but make the treasure he was guarding suddenly accessible to every interested rival party.

So then who or what could be the real main villain in The Hobbit? The movies have heavily suggested the Necromancer, which really supports the idea that Smaug was just the story's cover-up for a far greater threat, but our knowledge of Lord of the Rings tells us that the Necromancer won't accomplish much by the end of the trilogy. The main villain also definitely isn't Azog the orc, who's been reduced to a prominent minion as of the newest film. It's not even the One Ring, despite the much more emphasized effect that it seems to have on Bilbo in the movies.

I was weighing these options in my head on the way home from the theatre when all of a sudden, it hit me: maybe The Hobbit has NEVER had a main villain. Maybe the biggest obstacle in this story is an antagonist. And then it all fell into place for me -- the greatest force of evil that the characters have to overcome in The Hobbit is the treasure.

Greed is an enormous running theme in this story. The dwarf king Thror's greed caused him to steal from his allies and build up the treasure hoard that attracted Smaug, Smaug himself was greedy enough to kill hundreds of people for that treasure, most of the people who offer to help Bilbo and the dwarves along the way only do so because they want a share of that treasure, and [a major character] eventually turns on Bilbo over a piece of that treasure. That mountain full of gold can be seen as the One Ring on a way larger scale, symbolizing all the corruption in the world and bringing out the worst in everybody who lays eyes on it, and Smaug can be seen as a way larger version of Gollum, the most corrupted victim of all.

So yeah, Smaug just went from main villain to main victim in my mind in the course of an evening. That isn't to say the character is any less imposing, just that he's not the type of character I used to think he was. Rest assured, he's well worth the price of an admission ticket if you have any desire to see Desolation of Smaug in theatres. And if treasure is the real antagonist, then look forward to a scene near the end where Smaug almost literally transforms into the main villain for a few seconds.

You'll know what I mean after you've seen it!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is It Okay for a Villain to Just Be Evil?

I was watching He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special recently -- don't judge, everyone indulges in cheesy movies around the holidays -- when something happened that I thought was worth mentioning for Villain Month. The whole story of the special centers around two kids from Earth winding up in the realm of Eternia with He-Man and She-Ra and then being kidnapped by the villain Skeletor, who's working with another villain named Horde Prime to eliminate the Christmas spirit that the two kids have been teaching everyone in the kingdom.

Yeah, it's one of those movies.

The thing is, Skeletor gets stranded with the kids somewhere on the way to Horde Prime's lair, and he not only ends up bonding with them, but also falling into the Christmas spirit himself and ultimately helping He-Man and She-Ra save the day. I should have been impressed by this unexpected character arc, especially since the characters in He-Man are usually flatter than the paper they're drawn on, but all I could do the whole rest of the movie was cringe and groan, "No! Don't puss-ify Skeletor!" at the screen. But why? I never watched He-Man or She-Ra as a kid, so it's not like I have any nostalgic attachment to Skeletor, and I've always loved villain redemption stories. Why on Earth (or Eternia) would I hate seeing the skull-faced lord of evil save someone?

I think a lot of Skeletor's charm comes from how over-the-top evil he is and just how much he relishes being evil. You love to hate the guy. Also, it's hard to take him seriously as a villain in the first place when he's so easily defeated all the time and he talks like Inspector Gadget on helium, so I guess he needs to be so un-apologetically evil to make up for it. In any case, I'm glad that he's actually very reluctant to do good in He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special and that he clearly has no intention of staying good after the movie's resolution.

Now that my mind has been opened to unabashed baddies, I have to wonder: is it okay for a villain to just be evil?

Saturday morning kids' cartoons are one thing, but what about movies, shows, and books that are meant for more mature audiences? A pure-evil villain is certainly functional; Sauron and all of his minions from Lord of the Rings didn't have much motivation beyond just being evil, and not many people seemed to mind that. In more recent years though, readers and audiences have come to expect a little more from villains. We want bad guys with depth and interesting reasons for what they do, along with maybe even some pathos that helps you to connect with them. Just chalking a villain's actions up to "because he's evil" is generally viewed as lazy writing nowadays.

For instance, take the villain Malekith from the movie Thor: The Dark World. We know that he's a dark elf who's race was nearly wiped out in a war with Asgard centuries ago and that he wants to fill the universe with darkness so his people can start a new life, but we don't know who he is as a person, what his personal backstory is, or even what a dark elf is. I suspect that a lot of scenes explaining those things were cut for time, but the scenes that we do get present Malekith mainly as a member of an evil race who wants to get revenge and take over the world. It's nearly impossible to relate to him or feel for him, which makes it very difficult to get invested in his plan. As a result, his character has been almost universally panned by critics and viewers for being unmemorable and underwhelming. It also doesn't help that he shares the movie with an engaging and complex villain like Loki.

Now, you could argue that a pure-evil villain is a lot scarier than one with a well-defined motive. We have no idea why Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight wanted to spread anarchy and chaos throughout Gotham City, but that worked to the film's advantage. The whole point of his character was that he embodied anarchy and chaos, so we knew that there was nothing in him that could be reasoned with. That made him seem like even more of an unstoppable force, and there are few things scarier than a threat that can never be stopped.

It's the same case with slasher villains like Leatherface and Michael Meyers. What makes them work as horror movie villains is that we see no humanity in them, to the point that we never even see their real faces. When we can't associate anything human with them, our senses of fear convince us that they are something super-human. In fact, a lot of filmgoers have complained that the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween ruined the Leatherface and Michael Meyers characters by delving into their backstories and showing that they used to be normal people. They were "puss-ified," if you will.

I guess I just answered my question about whether or not it's okay for a villain to just be evil; it is, but not for every villain. But what's the deciding factor? Why does being evil work for some of these bad guys and not for others?

The answer to that, at least from what I've gathered, is that purely evil villains are not simply characters. They're also symbols. Sauron and his One Ring symbolize greed and corruption, the Joker symbolizes anarchy and chaos, and slashers symbolize fear of the unknown and the irrationality of that fear. The focus of the story is not so much on what they do, but on how it affects the characters they do it to. I'm actually wondering now if Michael Meyers would stop "resurrecting" if people in the Halloween movies stopped being afraid of him.

A villain like Malekith doesn't work strictly as an evil-doer because he doesn't stand for anything particularly bad. Okay, he wants revenge on Asgard for winning that war that almost wiped out his race, but that stops being a personal thing for him halfway through the film. You can't even really say that his goal of destroying the universe to create a home for his people demonstrates how good intentions can be corrupted into a force of evil, because we have no idea whether or not he was actually corrupted. He doesn't have enough personality or screentime to properly convey whether he was good or evil at the beginning of the story. I sincerely think that Malekith was meant to be a complex and sympathetic villain, but his development scenes were stripped away and he didn't have the right subtext to work as a purely evil villain either.

Bottom line, a villain who's only motivation is to be villainous has to represent more than just the character he appears as. It is lazy writing to make him evil for no sound reason in this day and age, so the writer creating him has to harness a different type of creativity to keep that villain engaging.

But sometimes, if the story is just being told to make us laugh, it's enough to make him love his job.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Can Machines Be Villains?

This is sort of Part 2 of my last blog entry. When asking what distinguishes villains from other antagonists, I concluded that the presence of personal malice and deliberation behind a being's actions was the determining factor. Characters like the Predator, Hans Gruber, and the Wicked Witch can definitely be classified as villains because they are knowingly and willingly harming other characters. But what about other famous antagonists such as the Terminator, Agent Smith, and the HAL 9000? Those bad guys aren't of the same makeup as the previous three. They're all at least partially made from artificial elements, and one of those elements may or may not be artificial intelligence. If an entity functions strictly on artificial intelligence, then it's only "thinking" the way that someone else designed it to think. It lacks awareness, free will, and a true sense of what's right or wrong.

With that being said, can a robot, computer, computer program, or any other mechanical antagonist truly be considered a villain? Can one ever truly be held responsible for its own actions?

Whether or not machines can think independently of their programming is of course a popular topic in science fiction. Each story that tackles the subject brings its own unique ideas and suggestions to the table, but not all of them reach a clear verdict by the end. In fact, some stories such as Blade Runner offer the idea that a robot's programming can sometimes be so close to an actual human thought process that it's pointless to even ask whether or not the robot can think beyond said programming; the lines between human and machine are so blurred that the answer doesn't matter.

If you want the condensed version of this blog entry, here's my conclusion: The possibility of a machine truly being villainous (or sentient at all) depends on the story that the machine is featured in and what the rules of AI are in that particular universe. The replicant Roy from Blade Runner is featured in a story where robots are programmed so perfectly that they are self-aware, capable of independent thought, and able to feel emotions that often motivate them to kill people; Roy is a villain. Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still is featured in a story where robots are giant metal killing machines that can be deactivated by saying the right code words; Gort is an antagonist, but not a villain.

Let's look at a hazier case. I've already said that the creature from the film Alien as an example of a non-villainous antagonist because it's a purely instinctive being. There is, however, another antagonist in that movie whose role is a little more debatable: Ash. His character (played by a not-so-hobbit-like Ian Holm) is presented at first to be a normal human medical officer on the spaceship that discovers the alien creature. Throughout Acts 1 and 2 of the plot, he seems to be on the side of the human characters, but his curious and rebellious habits tend to result in the creature escaping from traps and thriving off of the tasty crewmembers. By Act 3, it's revealed that the company funding the expedition planted Ash in the crew with directions to obtain the creature and deliver it alive to headquarters at any cost -- and also that he's an android.

This extra factoid might seem a tad excessive for the twist, but it does make Ash's role a lot more thought-provoking. It actually makes sense that the company would have an android for its inside man, since 1) he's not edible like a human, so they don't have to worry about the creature attacking him during the mission, and 2) it could minimize the risk of him becoming emotionally conflicted about betraying his crewmates. Exactly how minimized is that risk in this case, though? Ash does maintain a very cold, distant demeanor throughout the film, but the reason for it isn't spelled out. Was he trying to stay emotionally detached from his crewmates so he wouldn't feel guilty, or was he really incapable of bonding with them because he wasn't subject to feeling emotions?

There's evidence of both. After being apprehended, Ash says that he admires the creature because it is "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality," as if to say that he wishes he could've been unclouded by those things as well. He also goes on to tell the remaining three crewmembers that they have his sympathies. Granted, this line may not have been sincere, as it was said with a smug-looking smirk, but the fact that Ash is able to express arrogance and sarcasm could still mean that he has the capacity for emotion. However, in the scene where the protagonist Ripley uncovers Ash's secret agenda, she confronts him and grows upset to the point that she starts to cry, and Ash responds to this by backing away uncertainly. According to the commentary on the Director's Cut DVD, this is meant to show that Ash is not familiar with emotional behavior like crying and does not understand what it means.

I think the ultimate tie-breaker lies in the famous chest-burster scene, where the alien fetus that was implanted in John Hurt's character "hatches" from its host. After the gore-covered creature scurries away from the rest of the crew, we see a close-up shot of Ash looking utterly horrified by what he's just witnessed. That was the creature that he was sent to obtain, and it did what he knew it was going to do. He literally came face-to-face with his directive -- and he was frightened by it.

Ash may not fully understand emotions, but he is certainly subject to them. He's aware enough to know that the events he's helping to unfold are not good, and even though he's capable of telling his crewmates about his secret mission and thus warning them (evidenced by his "dying" confession), he refrains from doing so. What's more, he goes out of his way to subdue and abuse Ripley, whom he's butted heads with all throughout the film, when she discovers his secret. Ash is not a mindless pawn. He is a villain.

And since I brought them up earlier, let's take a quick look at the Terminator, Agent Smith, and the HAL 9000.

The Terminator is an easy one. He's not a villain. In the first Terminator film, he has no comprehension of human life or emotions, does strictly what he's programmed to do, and never questions it. It's only when he's reprogrammed in Terminator 2 that he starts to understand humanity, but he's not even an antagonist anymore in that film. The T-1000 from Terminator 2 is not a villain either, just another programmed antagonist. His behavior only seems more human because the T-1000 is a more advanced model than the original Terminator -- not because Robert Patrick is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Agent Smith in all three Matrix movies is a villain. Even in the first film, before he's disconnected from his programming system, he demonstrates a stronger sense of individuality and contempt for humans than his fellow agents do. In the "Humans are a virus" scene, he removes his earpiece, which allows him to share a collective consciousness with the other agents, so that he can speak to the human character Morpheus without the Matrix knowing. He was always able to think and act independently of his programming, even though how is never explained. The same can be said for the machines that control the Matrix, since the protagonist Neo is ultimately able to reason with them in the third film.

The HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey is harder to pin down. He does have a mind of his own, but it's hard to tell whether or not he carries out his actions with malice. HAL doesn't have a face to read and he speaks without any vocal inflections, and since he's clearly capable of deception, it's uncertain whether or not his word can be trusted. Does he really mean it when he says he enjoyed working with the human characters and that he had no choice but to eliminate them? The film seems to suggest that he acted mainly out of fear because the crew posed a threat to their mission by deciding to deactivate him, and since he kills off most of the crewmembers in a painless way (by shutting off their life support systems while they were in hyper-sleep), I'm going to lean towards a non-malicious intent. HAL, in my opinion, is not a villain.

So that's my take on machines as antagonists. Now that we've picked apart all the technicals of the term "villain," we can move on to discuss their aspects and what makes some better than others. I'll see you in the next blog entry.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What Is the Difference Between Villains and Antagonists?

Well, it's December. Normally I would spend this time of year rambling about the new Hobbit movie (and trust me, that time will come), but I thought of trying something a little different this year. I sort of had a fanfiction-themed month back in April, and since that lent itself to a few interesting literary topics, I figured why not do another theme month? That's why I'm officially declaring this December my Villain Month.

Discussions about writing villains, lectures on the elements of villains, case-studies on famous villains from fiction -- I'm going to cover as much as I can before the end of the year. There's a lot to blog about, and seeing how we're already a week into December, let's dive in! I'll start with a fairly basic question that's been in my head for a while:

What is the difference between villains and antagonists?

We all know essentially what both of those terms mean, and they're often used interchangeably when discussing movies, books, and other storytelling mediums. The thing is though, there are certain instances where the term "villain" doesn't seem appropriate to say. People don't normally refer to the tornado in Twister or the asteroid in Armageddon as the "villains" of those films, despite both being the things that the heroes have to overcome in order to resolve the conflicts in their stories. The same goes for the iceberg in Titanic, the lava in Volcano, or the dilemma-causing element in any other given disaster movie.

But why is that? A common explanation is that the word "villain" refers to an individual character; it's a title specifically given to a personified living being who competes with the hero of a story. By that logic, things like icebergs and tornadoes can't be called villains because they don't have personalities and are not alive. They can instead be called antagonists, which many people consider to be the more generalized term for opposing forces in a story.

Another explanation can be found right in Webster's Dictionary. That book defines the word "villain" as "a cruelly malicious person," and the word "antagonist," in terms of drama and literature, as "the opponent of the hero or protagonist." Much like in the first explanation, it seems here that the difference between the terms is that "antagonist" is more general while "villain" refers to a specific type of antagonist. Every villain is an antagonist, but not every antagonist is a villain. To sum up, natural disasters are also not villains because they lack that defining "cruelly malicious" quality.

That leads to another issue though. If cruelty and malice are what determine whether an opposing force is a villain or a general antagonist, then it really all comes down to the motivation behind that opposition's actions. The idea of all personified living characters automatically being villains suddenly doesn't hold together anymore.

Take the shark in Jaws for instance. He doesn't kill people because he wants to cause pain and suffering. He kills people because he's hungry. He gives dogs, boats, and compressed air tanks the same treatment because as far as his simple shark brain is concerned, these things are all the same. There is nothing personal behind it when he attacks humans. In fact, the only reason he pursues the main characters at all is because they keep luring him to their boat with gallons of chopped-up bloody fish. He would just as soon leave them alone if another, more plentiful food source presented itself to him.

This is also the case for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the titular creatures in the Alien series. It doesn't matter that they were cloned from fossils or bred on another planet. At their cores, they're both basic predatory animals fulfilling their needs, and therefore they're incapable of malice.

An antagonist who is capable of malice is the hunter from Predator. He's clearly shown to be a sentient being with a sense of morality who is deliberately carrying out his actions with the knowledge that he's hurting other sentient beings -- and in extremely cruel ways, no less. He may have a sense of honor at times, like when he refrains from killing people who are unarmed and discards his armor to fight the protagonist hand-to-hand, but that doesn't stop him from cackling maniacally when he thinks he's going to take the protagonist down with him at the end by activating a bomb. He only spares someone's life because a rule somewhere decrees that he has to spare them for that time being. As soon as he determines that the person can adequately defend themselves again, he goes right back to attacking them. There is meditation and an intention to inflict personal harm behind his actions. The Predator and every antagonist like him is a villain.

I started Villain Month with this topic because it's important to understand what villains really are before you can properly discuss them. It's the reason for their behavior more so than the behavior itself that creates them, and what that reason is will determine how good, bad, likeable, despicable, or mystifying they can be. But that's another blog entry for another day. Welcome to Villain Month, folks!