If you saw a movie last weekend, it was probably Spider-Man: Homecoming. (And if you haven’t, well, you should; it’s one damn fine piece of entertainment.) Anyway, those of you who have seen it know that it seems like the MCU might be finally wisening up to what we the people have deemed their “villain problem”—as in, they tend to be about as interesting and memorable as a piece of dry toast. Michael Keaton’s Vulture might not be all-time-top-ten material, but at least he’s not trying to take over or destroy the city/world/galaxy/etc. (adjust blast radius to taste) ’cuz reasons. The fact that the “what” of Vulture’s master plan is different is interesting—most of the damage (read: like 98%) done to the cities of New York and Washington over the course of the film is not the result of Vulture’s machinations but of Peter Parker’s well-intentioned interference—but the focus today is instead on the question of “why?”
Now, while Vulture isn’t looking to blow up New York or New Mexico or DC or Sokovia or any other locale recently victimized by the MCU, Marvel does seem to be fond of keeping around at least a few of its default villain settings: Adrian Toomes is a member of the very popular “Screwed Over By Tony Stark and/or Stark Industries” club. Admittedly, as Tony Stark is a Semi-Reformed Jackass™, it’s a very convenient way to craft a villain with an understandable grudge against Stark and Stark affiliates. Considering that now multiple of the MCU’s strongest entries in this aspect have taken this angle—Captain America: Civil War’s Helmut Zemo is also a card-carrying club member (losing his family in the Battle of Sokovia, which was totally Tony Stark’s bad)—one can imagine that this particular trope might have to be pried from Marvel’s cold, dead hands. That said, hopefully, they’ll decide to retire this particular trick before it gets old (I’d say they can squeeze one, maybe two more villains out of it before that happens).
The reason the MCU’s parade of cardboard-flavored villains hasn’t proven a bigger issue thus far is that Marvel’s movie-verse has displayed consistent mastery of witty banter and quotable quips. I, for one, would happily watch a whole feature-length film done à la Parks & Recreation set at the Avengers facility and featuring an ensemble cast of MCU characters. The stakes wouldn’t need to be any higher than who-ate-my-last-yogurt type domestics. I’m sure there’s fan fiction out there—scratch that, I’m sure there are hundreds, if not literal thousands, of fanfics out there—that demonstrate that I am not alone in feeling this way.
However, if I only get to see all my favorite good-to-neutral characters together when Evil McVillainFace #25 decides to take over and/or destroy the world, then so be it. The “Big Bad” might be more accurately called “Big Bore,” but like most holidays, he’s just an excuse to throw a party. Does that mean Marvel movies wouldn’t benefit from more villains with a bit more bite? Of course not. There’s nothing in storytelling quite like a well-developed, well-written, truly fearsome villain—a Hannibal Lecter, an Anton Chigurh, a Joker (Ledger or Nicholson, if you insist but for the love of Batman, not Leto)—but it’s really not an easy thing to pull off.
Motive is a very common stumbling block, which is why it’s exactly what I’m talking about today. Villains are like magic tricks in that it’s easy to impress with the “trick” part—villains often have at least have some time earlier on in the narrative to be mysteriously threatening (say a few catching throwaway lines, kill as many redshirts as the shooting schedule and budget allows to establish their street cred)—but when you pull back the curtain and actually see what’s going on, 99.99% of the time it’s disappointing. However, unlike magicians, villains are more or less expected to pull back the curtain. After all, the award for Most Likely To Give A Speech goes to The Bad Guy in Just About Every Movie Ever.
There’s no magic recipe for a good movie villain or a good movie villain motive, but the following thirteen motives explored in the list below seem to be the ingredients of which the vast majority of villains, from the best to the worst to all the mediocre ones in between, seem to be made. Some villains are exclusively one, others practically have a pinch of everything.
When deciding what exemplary villains would go under what motive, I used my best judgment to decide what should be deemed their primary driving influence (but still, YMMV on some of these). For example, while Ramsay Bolton clearly has some Daddy Issues, one imagines that even if he was raised as a legitimate son in as stable and healthy an environment as is possible when Roose Bolton is your dad, he would still have grown into a sadistic bastard. (And on that note, while the focus is on movies, some television did sneak in here, because I am the author and I do what I want.)
The Handy-Dandy Guide To Villainous Motives
“I am a villain…”
To Protect a Significant Other/Spouse/Family
Case Studies: Adrian Toomes (Spider-Man: Homecoming), John Harrison/Khan (Star Trek Into Darkness)
A lot of villains have dependents—partners/spouses, kids, employees—whom they care about. Sometimes they can’t take care of those they care about and be law-abiding citizens at the same time. Sometimes, in this scenario, they don’t choose to respect the law. Or maybe they need to keep their family safe from some danger by staying in the good books of some dangerous folks. No matter what, they’re doing whatever evil things they’re doing because they care about people.
To Avenge a Significant Other/Spouse/Family
Case Studies: Lee Woo-jin (Oldboy, 2003), Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War), Slade (Arrow), Sweeney Todd (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Holes)
In this case, the villain had a significant other, maybe even a spouse and a couple of kids. Hell, maybe they even had a perfectly manicured lawn and a white picket fence. But then the quiet life and the people he loved—and this villain is a “he” nineteen times out of twenty, as Meg Shields and I wrote last week, Avenge-The-Woman Murder-Quest is practically a sub-genre at this point—are violently ripped away from him, marking his start down a Path of Evil. Of course there can be a lot of little twists or divergences from this general blueprint I’ve laid out, but that’s the basic gist of it.
Because of Mommy/Daddy Issues (or other Family Problems)
Case Studies: Loki (Thor, The Avengers), Norman Bates (Psycho), Talia al Ghul (The Dark Knight Rises), Kylo Ren (Star Wars)
Maybe his mother was a controlling she-devil. Maybe she could never get her father’s approval, no matter how hard she tried. Maybe he grew up always being seen as second to his arrogant elder brother. When writers are particularly heavy-handed with this motive, it comes across that the individual in question never stood a damn chance of growing into a healthy, well-adjusted adult.
For Love (Including Jealousy)
Case Studies: Judge Turpin and Mrs. Lovett (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Amy Elliot-Dunne (Gone Girl), Bane (The Dark Knight Rises), Inspector Campbell (Peaky Blinders)
They say love makes people do stupid things. Sometimes it also makes them do evil things. Sometimes in an attempt to attract/keep the desired individual, sometimes as vengeance for a rebuff or other slight, real or perceived. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” types go here.
Case Studies: John Doe (Se7en), Melisandre (Game of Thrones), Margaret White (Carrie)
For your religious zealot, cult leader types. If they say “God wills it,” they fit in here. Pairs well and often with “…To Cleanse The World,” listed below.
To Cleanse The World
Case Studies: Magneto (X-Men), Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York), Ra’s al Ghul (Batman Begins), Richmond Valentine (Kingsman: The Secret Service)
Like just about every major group of racists and bigots that have ever walked the earth, this villain sees their Undesirables—whether that be a particular demographic (the poor, mutants, non-mutants, etc.) or literally all humans—as pathogens/infections/parasites sucking the life out of society and/or the planet. So what do they plan to do? Cure the disease by wiping out the source. There’s a good chance of a Villain Speech with an extended pseudo-medical metaphor that could bring a grown medical professional to tears. Frequently found here: Social Darwinists, Nazis and other pro-Eugenics types.
For Power (Including $$)
Case Studies: Sauron (The Lord of the Rings), Darth Sidious and Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hans Landa (Inglorious Basterds), Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter)
Now, a lot of villains have power, want power, are looking to destroy the power of others, or some combination thereof. What I’m talking about here is not all of those villains—only the ones who want power primarily for power’s sake. They don’t want the power to keep their families safe, or “fix” the world. Sometimes they’ll describe more specific aims in their “Reasons I’m Evil” speeches—desire to defeat/overcome/cheat death is a particularly large sub-category—but whether or not they do, the bottom line is basically this: they want the power to be powerful. For those of you objecting my inclusion of everybody’s favorite plot-twist dad in a galaxy far, far away, I am of the personal opinion that Anakin went too fast from I’m-going-Dark-side-for-Padmé to force-choking Padmé for that to have ever been the true driving force (geddit? because… you know what, never mind) behind that particular life choice.
Because I Am Brainwashed/Hopelessly Corrupted
Case Study: Gollum (Lord of the Rings)
This is like the sad-sack version of “For Power”. For some added sympathy/”alas poor dumbass” points, these villains are sometimes depicted as would-be power-seekers who end up being controlled by what they sought to control. Quite often addicts of some kind.
Because It’s In My Programming [Or: Here There Be Monsters… and Robots]
Case Studies: Zombies (28 Days Later), The Alien (Alien)
For all those villains who are not portrayed as having advanced, independent thought. Maybe because they are creatures not capable of higher reasoning or a slave to instinct for some other reason, foot soldiers of a hive-mind, computers at the mercy of their programming… you get the gist. This is where your zombies, animals, and mob-creatures go.
Because I Used To Be The Little Guy
Case Studies: Petyr Baelish (Game of Thrones), Magneto (X-Men: First Class), Syndrome (The Incredibles)
Once upon a time, these villains were small and at the mercy of those bigger than them. They survived this torment, and things have changed. Maybe they’re physically bigger and stronger than they used to be, or maybe they’re now powerful in other ways. Either way, they’re back with a chip on their shoulders.
Because The Voices In My Head Told Me To Be
Case Studies: Hans Beckert (M), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
Proceed with caution with this one. Repeated overuse has turned the insanity-as-motive thing into sort of a joke, which is particularly problematic as mental health is a real and serious thing, and real life individuals affected by the conditions that have most frequently served as narrative crutches in this respect—schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder—are no more likely to prove dangerous to others as those not afflicted. Mental illness has been implied or blatantly shown in several of the most iconic villains to grace the silver screen, but maybe we should cool it for a little bit until we get better about portraying people with these conditions in roles other than serial killers (…just, you know, a thought).
For Entertainment/Because I’m Bored
Case Studies: Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones), Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter), Jim Moriarty (Sherlock)
These villains are the last word in sadism. Sometimes they have a master plan, sometimes they don’t, but either way, they get their kicks out of causing other people pain. Often times they are incredibly clever, but even when they are not they tend to be (un)fortunately creative. And, of course, they are always extremely dangerous.
Case Studies: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
This one is the Holy Grail of villainy. It is the double black-diamond on steroids of evil character development. If it goes poorly—as it very, very often does—it just seems like the writers were too lazy and/or rushed to figure out a motive. But on that rare occasion, it works, you’ve got a Hall of Fame villain, a spine-chilling force of nature. There truly is no in between. This is when you get the men who just want to watch the world burn when you get the villains best described as Hannibal Lecter describes himself: “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened.” And, when it’s done well enough to be convincing, damn if it isn’t the scariest case of all.