Tag: villains

From The Vault: Why I Miss Darth Vader

In light of Star Wars Celebration and the new teaser for the upcoming film, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts on the first Dark Lord of the Sith to which audiences were introduced. When this post first went up, there were some wonderful comments regarding how this character got railroaded, what the Clone Wars series did to address that, and a powerful aspect of Return of the Jedi. It’s clear we’re ready for a Star Wars film that does its characters and universe true justice. I suppose we’ll find out in December if that’s what we’re actually getting.


Vader, back when he was awesome.

My good friend Rick over at Word Asylum brought up some classic villains. What stuck out in his pretty comprehensive top ten list was the presence of one Darth Vader. I was reminded of what he, and Star Wars in general, were like when it was first introduced. I discussed him briefly back when I talked about villainy in general. Let’s go back a bit, however, and examine one of the most iconic bad guys of the big screen a bit more closely.

Star Wars

Rooted as it was in the adventure serials that people like Lucas grew up with, having good and evil somewhat diametrically opposed was par for the course. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad. And they didn’t come badder than Darth Vader. We are introduced to Vader when his stormtroopers blast their way through a Rebel spacecraft, his motivations are clear when he strangles one of the ship’s officers and he’s more than willing to turn his significant strength and wrath against his own people if they question his faith or their orders. You don’t need a manual or novelization to understand Darth Vader. It’s laid out for you on the screen and, surprisingly enough considering later entries in the Star Wars series, it’s shown instead of told. When someone does try to tell instead of show, Vader chokes the bitch. “I find your lack of faith disturbing” is all that need be said.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rick described this as being Vader at “his lowest point, when the Dark Side firmly had him enthralled.” His loyalty and dedication to the Empire has given way this obsession with capturing Luke Skywalker. On the surface, this is a straightforward motivation – Luke humiliated Vader in battle, and Vader wants revenge. He’s willing to strangle anyone, destroy anything, sacrifice entire Star Destroyers and recruit the most insidious of bounty hunters to get what he wants. His villainy takes on a whole new dimension when it’s revealed that his pursuit of the Millenium Falcon is all a ploy to draw Luke out of hiding, and when Luke does appear, Vader goes from being a merely dark villainous presence to a deep and haunting one.

Vader, we discover, is Luke’s father. Beyond his desire to corrupt Luke and seduce him to the Dark Side, Vader wants Luke to join him, work with him and help him build a peaceful, orderly Empire. He wants to establish a true monarchy by deposing Palpatine, becoming Emperor himself and ensuring his son will succeed him and carry on his goals. It’s his way of seeking reconciliation. However, rather than trying to bridge the gap between them, Vader offers to yank Luke over to his side of things. It shows just how far Vader has fallen to the Dark Side, and what happens next is perhaps the greatest moment of storytelling in Star Wars to date.

When Luke chooses to face death rather than join his father, watch Vader closely. Without seeing his face, without saying a word, Vader conveys an emotion that pierces all his Force powers and imposing armor the way blasters never could. Luke breaks Vader’s heart. Not only is this a telling moment in the relationship between father and son, there’s a reveal here even more shocking than that of Luke’s parentage: Darth Vader, a deadly and cunning manipulative bastard of a villain, has a heart to break.

Star Wars never saw anything like this moment again. It shines as the pinnacle of the saga’s power and beyond everything that comes after, for me, it remains untouched.

Return of the Jedi

There’s a huge difference between the Vader in the first two films and the Vader in Jedi. He sounds weary. He’s still driven and loyal, but the wound he suffered on Cloud City still bleeds inside of him. Inside that dark armor wages a battle between the man he wants to be – Luke’s father, someone the boy will admire and want to be with – and the servant of the Empire he has become. When Luke reappears in Vader’s life, he makes another attempt to appeal for the young man’s favor. In response, Luke searches for the smaller side of the internal struggle he feels, the man Vader once was.

Vader as a villain is no less effective in Jedi but his motivations are now far more personal, the sort of things we see in the closing acts of a Greek tragedy. Brought low by his actions, responsible for the deaths of friends and loved ones, Vader must face his own demons and put them to rest even at the expense of his own life. In the process, he finally wins the adoration of his son. The tragedy of his adult life is left far behind as he achieves his redemption. It’s this cycle, falling into darkness only to struggle back to the light regardless of cost, that defines many of Star Wars‘ better tales, such as that of Ulic Qel-Droma.

Everything After

When the prequels were announced, fans looked forward to seeing what Anakin was like before becoming Vader, discovering the details of his fall and fully understanding the pathos beneath the armor. Instead, we got a whiny, willful, selfish and ill-conceived brat with no real charisma, no redeeming values and little to offer the precious few tangible threads of story laid out by Lucas. By focusing on spectacle and merchandising, Lucas tore out the fangs of his greatest success entirely.

When you have potential like this, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. Take some time to consider the groundwork that’s been laid before you build something new. It’s not hard. I hate to keep coming back to this, but if I can throw together something in a weekend that people feel is better structured than a multi-million dollar production, the people that invest that money should be more willing to take a closer look on where their money is actually going.

But that’s just me. I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a starving artist, and for what it’s worth, I miss Darth Vader.

Fine Villainy, Like Fine Wine

Don’t let the previous weeks of writerly pontification on heroes fool you.

I love a good villain.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’ve discussed in the past how even the shittiest human beings we love to hate are still human beings. But the ones I love to hate are not my favorite villains. Like a hero’s growth, a villain’s gains (and their tantrums) have to be earned. And often, to earn these things, the villain has to earn at least some measure of our sympathy and understanding.

The most effective ones do so through charm and guile. You might even know they’re the villain at first. They may come across as a confidant, or even begin the tale as a trusted friend. If they begin in this way, and maintain what makes them sympathetic to both the hero and the reader, they grow much more effective. They draw us in, make us interested in what’s to come, and their betrayals and extreme measures cut even more deeply.

Expected or no, many great villains are best described as “masterminds”. They do not always take the direct approach to achieve their goals. They set their plans in motion carefully, sometimes before the story even begins. Their plans may not always have noble roots, but they often make logical sense, at least to them. They take steps carefully, following meticulous outlines, and trying to anticipate any moves a would-be hero would make. These things take time, and the best villanous plans only get better as they go on, like fine wine getting better with age.

Some masterminds let their henchmen do all of the dirty work, but others like to get into the thick of things themselves. Be it due to the belief that henchmen will never get it right, or simply wanting to ensure the plans come to fruition, they are there amongst both their lackeys and the innocent, overseeing the goings-on, sowing a little discord, perhaps trying to woo the heroes’ loved ones over to their side. This is where we can draw true distinctions between villainous archetypes, the true multi-faceted schemers from the more single-minded but occasionally far more frightening demagogues.

Courtesy Warner Bros

There are some who would accuse stories based on comic books of being simplistic, simple-minded, or even outright dumb. In same cases, I would be hard-pressed to argue. But lately, more than a few of these stories have given us villains in the mold I’ve discussed. While my initial impression of him was less than favorable, the Marvel movies’ take on Loki has really grown on me. Repeated viewings of Thor reveal one of the multi-faceted schemers I was talking about. Even when his true nature becomes apparent, he doesn’t necessarily fly off the handle as some megalomaniacs might. His move against Asgard in general and Odin in particular is calculated; he only truly loses his cool when he makes the dumb decision of sending the Destroyer after his brother. But that’s a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, The Avengers definitely makes Loki a better villain and even improves his previous showing, and I can’t wait to see him in Thor: The Dark World.

As much as I still believe Bane is, as I’ve said, “Darth Vader without the pathos,” he is still an extremely effective villain in his own right. True, the scheme he’s executing in The Dark Knight Rises is not of his own making; yes, the reveal at the end undercuts a portion of his ideology. He was still presented and portrayed in a way that made him both memorable and fascinating. It’s been pointed out to me that Bane is a very deliberate and implacable sort of character. The gait of his steady walk, that little bit of swagger, the stare from behind his arcane mask – all of this adds up to someone you do NOT want to see walking towards you. What I like most about Bane is how effectively and systematically he tears down both our hero and the city that hero serves, bearing out the observations made by the Joker. In a way, Nolan’s Batman films are all about fear. Scarecrow exploited fear; the Joker created fear all his own; Bane is pretty much the personification of it. Take another look at the scene where Bane confronts Daggit, the corporate sleaze who thought to use Bane to take over Wayne Enterprises. Watch the expression on Daggit’s face when Bane lays his hand gently on the douchebag’s shoulder, and simply says, “Do you feel in charge?”

Villainy like this excites me. I love seeing the bad guys work with intelligence and guile, executing plans that, from their perspective, make sense. It makes the hero work harder, stumble, maybe even fall. This causes an even more rewarding apotheosis, because in most cases, a hero’s fall is followed by their rise from the ashes. And the best villains cause the greatest of falls. The hero and their struggles may be the meat and potatoes of your story, but if you want to get the most out of it, pair that hero with a fine villain the way you’d pair that meal with a fine wine.

Why I Miss Darth Vader

Vader, back when he was awesome.

Yesterday my good friend Rick over at Word Asylum brought up some classic villains. What stuck out in his pretty comprehensive top ten list was the presence of one Darth Vader. I was reminded of what he, and Star Wars in general, were like when it was first introduced. I discussed him briefly back when I talked about villainy in general. Let’s go back a bit, however, and examine one of the most iconic bad guys of the big screen a bit more closely.

Star Wars

Rooted as it was in the adventure serials that people like Lucas grew up with, having good and evil somewhat diametrically opposed was par for the course. Good guys were good, bad guys were bad. And they didn’t come badder than Darth Vader. We are introduced to Vader when his stormtroopers blast their way through a Rebel spacecraft, his motivations are clear when he strangles one of the ship’s officers and he’s more than willing to turn his significant strength and wrath against his own people if they question his faith or their orders. You don’t need a manual or novelization to understand Darth Vader. It’s laid out for you on the screen and, surprisingly enough considering later entries in the Star Wars series, it’s shown instead of told. When someone does try to tell instead of show, Vader chokes the bitch. “I find your lack of faith disturbing” is all that need be said.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rick described this as being Vader at “his lowest point, when the Dark Side firmly had him enthralled.” His loyalty and dedication to the Empire has given way this obsession with capturing Luke Skywalker. On the surface, this is a straightforward motivation – Luke humiliated Vader in battle, and Vader wants revenge. He’s willing to strangle anyone, destroy anything, sacrifice entire Star Destroyers and recruit the most insidious of bounty hunters to get what he wants. His villainy takes on a whole new dimension when it’s revealed that his pursuit of the Millenium Falcon is all a ploy to draw Luke out of hiding, and when Luke does appear, Vader goes from being a merely dark villainous presence to a deep and haunting one.

Vader, we discover, is Luke’s father. Beyond his desire to corrupt Luke and seduce him to the Dark Side, Vader wants Luke to join him, work with him and help him build a peaceful, orderly Empire. He wants to establish a true monarchy by deposing Palpatine, becoming Emperor himself and ensuring his son will succeed him and carry on his goals. It’s his way of seeking reconciliation. However, rather than trying to bridge the gap between them, Vader offers to yank Luke over to his side of things. It shows just how far Vader has fallen to the Dark Side, and what happens next is perhaps the greatest moment of storytelling in Star Wars to date.

When Luke chooses to face death rather than join his father, watch Vader closely. Without seeing his face, without saying a word, Vader conveys an emotion that pierces all his Force powers and imposing armor the way blasters never could. Luke breaks Vader’s heart. Not only is this a telling moment in the relationship between father and son, there’s a reveal here even more shocking than that of Luke’s parentage: Darth Vader, a deadly and cunning manipulative bastard of a villain, has a heart to break.

Star Wars never saw anything like this moment again. It shines as the pinnacle of the saga’s power and beyond everything that comes after, for me, it remains untouched.

Return of the Jedi

There’s a huge difference between the Vader in the first two films and the Vader in Jedi. He sounds weary. He’s still driven and loyal, but the wound he suffered on Cloud City still bleeds inside of him. Inside that dark armor wages a battle between the man he wants to be – Luke’s father, someone the boy will admire and want to be with – and the servant of the Empire he has become. When Luke reappears in Vader’s life, he makes another attempt to appeal for the young man’s favor. In response, Luke searches for the smaller side of the internal struggle he feels, the man Vader once was.

Vader as a villain is no less effective in Jedi but his motivations are now far more personal, the sort of things we see in the closing acts of a Greek tragedy. Brought low by his actions, responsible for the deaths of friends and loved ones, Vader must face his own demons and put them to rest even at the expense of his own life. In the process, he finally wins the adoration of his son. The tragedy of his adult life is left far behind as he achieves his redemption. It’s this cycle, falling into darkness only to struggle back to the light regardless of cost, that defines many of Star Wars‘ better tales, such as that of Ulic Qel-Droma.

Everything After

When the prequels were announced, fans looked forward to seeing what Anakin was like before becoming Vader, discovering the details of his fall and fully understanding the pathos beneath the armor. Instead, we got a whiny, willful, selfish and ill-conceived brat with no real charisma, no redeeming values and little to offer the precious few tangible threads of story laid out by Lucas. By focusing on spectacle and merchandising, Lucas tore out the fangs of his greatest success entirely.

When you have potential like this, you shouldn’t let it go to waste. Take some time to consider the groundwork that’s been laid before you build something new. It’s not hard. I hate to keep coming back to this, but if I can throw together something in a weekend that people feel is better structured than a multi-million dollar production, the people that invest that money should be more willing to take a closer look on where their money is actually going.

But that’s just me. I’m a wide-eyed idealist and a starving artist, and for what it’s worth, I miss Darth Vader.

When You’re Evil

Russ Pitts’ triumphant return as an Escapist columnist prompted me to finally lay down some thoughts on villainy. A little roleplaying in World of Warcraft on my characters reminded me how much fun it can be to write for or portray a villain. My brother-in-law, when running Dungeons & Dragons is described as “an evil DM,” always bringing out the malevolence in his NPCs so that the player characters in his campaigns are always motivated to dispense a little adventurous justice. My father’s an attorney. I’m surrounded by villainy.

There are all sorts of villains, however, and every one of them sees themselves more or less in a positive light, if not convinced that they are the hero. Let’s stay with the D&D theme for a few archetypal examples.

Lawful Evil

Vader, back when he was awesome.

Some villains actually try to uphold the law. Sure, the laws might be corrupt or warped in some way, but it’s still a structure for peace and order. Police states can be peaceful, after all.

There are also villains who have a personal code of honor they will not violate under any circumstances. “No women, no kids,” for example. Sometimes they verge a bit into anti-hero territory, but for the most part, these villains don’t pursue villainy for its own sake – they pursue the law, or justice, as they see it.

Take Darth Vader. For the most part, when he is Darth Vader, he’s hunting down terrorists and insurgents, trying to stop a full-on rebellion against the established government. His methods are somewhat draconian and he isn’t one to compromise or even show remorse, but he’s pursing a noble end in the eyes of the Empire’s creators.

Neutral Evil

Eric Northman

Some people are motivated selfishly. They want what they want, and that’s it. Some are compromised in the pursuit of their desires by their morals or ethics, or the restrictions of society’s laws. Others… not so much. They’re seen as villains, but in their own minds, they’re just getting what they want.

Not quite as unpredictable as the upcoming alignment, but not as restricted as their lawful cousins, neutral evil characters are wild cards. They’re often as charismatic as they are ruthless, as fun to be around as they are chillingly dominant. They strive to be masters of their domain, and really could care less about things that aren’t the things that they want.

Look no further than Eric Northman of HBO’s True Blood for a fantastic example of both a Neutral Evil character who’s also a Magnificent Bastard. Even when he’s acting his most vampiric, speaking in cold, dispassionate tones about human beings like they’re slabs of meat, there’s something of a twinkle in his eye, the occasional twitch of his mouth that reaches for a smirk. We do see other sides of him, especially when it comes to his Maker, but for the most part he’s about as evil as Neutral Evil can get.

Chaotic Evil

We miss you, Heath.

You have villains who pursue the law or their own code of honor for the sake of those laws or that code. You have villains who just want what they feel is coming to them, even if they have to lie, cheat, or murder to get it. And then you have these guys.

Chaotic Evil villains aren’t necessarily crazy. They might, however, string you up by your nostril hairs and slap you around with meter-long pieces of rebar if you call them crazy. No, Chaotic Evil villains are motivated by a desire to destroy everything they see so something new can be built up in its place. Or perhaps they’ve had a vision of Hell coming to Earth to shake the complacent religious types out of their stupor and give them something worth fighting for if their faith is, indeed, true. They have a goal in mind, but the path to that goal isn’t exactly mapped out. If it were, the map would be covered in squiggles of blood and crayon. They may believe what they’re doing will ultimately benefit the world, in some way shape or form, but for the most part? They just do things.

Which brings me to the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill have all taken turns playing Batman’s favorite monstrous clown, but Heath & Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan took the insanity to a whole new level. By removing some of the more ridiculous trappings of the character and focusing on his anarchistic mindset, the Joker came across as a true agent of chaos. He wanted to show people what he felt was their true nature. His goal was to bring down the carefully-crafted artifices of civility and organization some used to hide their deepest desires. He lived out loud, which is something any artist should want to do, but did it in a very violent and very infectious way. It affected everybody around him, as he probably knew it would. He just didn’t know how. Nor did he know for certain what he’d do next – just that something needed doing.

Name some of your favorite bad guys. Where do you think they fall? How do you think they see themselves? And how might their villainy be perceived as heroism by some? Food for thought.

© 2019 Blue Ink Alchemy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑