The old proverb that a hero is only as great as their villain is a valid concept. In order to understand a villain, we must first understand they are only half of a whole. A binary shared with a hero, where they coexist and depend on one other. Good versus evil. Light versus dark. Protagonist versus antagonist. A dichotomy perfectly captured in Jekyll and Hyde, or more recently in this month’s Venom. Two opposing sides wrestling for control.
So what then qualifies as a great villain? Is it the capability to commit pure evil and show no signs of redemption? Agent Smith, Alien, Predator and the T-1000 are all considered to be relentless killing machines and among the most famous villains standing the test of time. But whilst they are distinctly identifiable as villains, does this black and white approach necessarily make them great? The Joker, arguably the greatest villain of all time, thrives on anarchy and nihilism. But he is not totally dislikeable.
His one redeeming quality is the humanity he displays towards Batman, and the equal status he gives to his nemesis. The Joker is inherently flawed by an inability to permanently kill his adversary, which perfectly personifies how both villains and heroes cannot exist without their antithesis. This by no means makes him less of an effective villain. On the contrary, for a man so hellbent on wreaking chaos, it adds a level of understanding to a character whose backstory remains as ambiguous as his endgame.
This, ironically, is something which Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming standalone film could potentially undermine. By giving the Joker an origin story, a name, a human identity, you suddenly make him comprehensible; but the whole purpose of his character is to thrive on nonsensical actions. The ambiguity surrounding the Joker is what ultimately makes him so compelling to watch, because viewers cannot unpick his thought processes.
I have seen many rankings that place Darth Vader as the greatest villain of all time. And yet by the end of Return of the Jedi, can he even be labelled as such after slam-dunking Emperor Palpatine into the Death Star reactor?
He proves once and for all that he is the Chosen One and finally gets round to bringing balance to the force. While this is a classic example of villains performing heroic deeds, this metamorphosis is becoming increasingly recognisable in contemporary films and television.
We need only take Loki, the villain who broke free from the stereotype of Marvel villains being underdeveloped, and became a tortured soul torn between his selfish ambitions and his family loyalties. By Infinity War, he too was willing to risk everything in order to protect his brother.
Even on the small screen, despicable characters like Jaime Lannister and Negan, who each started off as an incestuous Prince Charming and an eccentric psychopath respectively, are being given stays of execution in order to give them a well rounded arc of redemption.
This sense of completion, revealing more humanity to characters than we might initially consider, simply makes for more engaging drama.And so it seems that villains aren’t considered great because of their lack of humanity, but rather because of their humanity.
While the Daleks and Cybermen are perhaps the most famous Doctor Who villains, the most effective is without doubt the Master, whom has a philosophical stance and sympathisable characteristics which makes him not just a threat, but also a well developed character.
Similarly, Thanos, the being who took the universe’s overpopulation issue into his own hands (quite literally) is only tolerable because he isn’t selfish. He is quite possibly the most selfless person to have ever existed, not caring about personal perceptions and instead focusing on the pragmatism of what’s at stake.
Some films, meanwhile, prefer to keep us completely in the dark about who we should be rooting for. Sicario is critically hailed for its consistent moral shapeshifting, leaving it to the audience to decipher whether there is a clear hero or villain, or whether we are simply left with characters who are inherently human.
What we are seeing nowadays is a preference to shift away from the clear cut binary of heroes and villains. We live in a time of antiheroes like Walter White, Jax Teller, Rick Grimes and Thomas Shelby, whose villainous actions are depicted as a response to their individual circumstances.
So if we can understand the reasons driving a character’s choices, we can connect with their journey and even if we don’t endorse it, we can empathise with where they are coming from. Which is undoubtedly why it is so thrilling to watch an underappreciated chemistry teacher turn into one of the most dangerous drug dealers to ever grace the state of Albuquerque. Not even Thanos poisoned children.