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.

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