Writing Villains (Part One)
**Warning: contains some spoilers for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and both Thor movies**
This post has been percolating in my head ever since I saw the new Jack Ryan movie. You see, Kenneth Branagh is the big bad in the movie and he’s a ruthless Russian gangster trying to engineer a terrorist attack on US soil while simultaneously working to bankrupt the US by screwing with our money. He’s played in the film as a major menace, big time scary.
Well, one he’s played the by the very short and somewhat nebbish-y Kenneth Branagh–
But that’s not the real problem!
So what is?
The character is bloody incompetent is what. He already suspects that Jack Ryan is a CIA operative. He suspected it so much he sent someone to kill Jack as soon as he got off the goddamn plane. And yet, when he and Ryan go out to dinner the Russian baddie, Viktor, is so oblivious that he lets Ryan wander off without a tail, without suspicion while he, the bad guy, makes googly eyes at Keira Knightley. Meanwhile, Jack’s all up in Viktor’s secret office stealing his super sekrit files, foiling his plots.
The script tried to play this off as a fatal flaw in the Viktor character, even going so far as to have another character basically say: “oh, Viktor, you and your women. It is your fatal flaw.” (Thanks, screenwriters, we missed that. Do you have anything else you’d like to beat us over the head with?)
But I call bullshit. It wasn’t a fatal flaw, it was sloppy writing.
But, Beth, you say. The villain can’t be too smart or the hero will never beat him! How can we get a happy ending if they’re too smart?
To which I say: well, isn’t the ending more satisfying when our intrepid hero has to really work for it? And isn’t it kind of boring when everything comes too easily?
If you think about some of the great stories of our time, they have awesome villains. Complex villains. Smart villains. Think about the original Star Wars trilogy: Darth Vader and how he knows exactly how to touch Luke on the raw, provoking him to fight, drawing him closer to the Dark Side. Emperor Palpatine and his sweet Dark Side manipulations. And wasn’t a strong, active central villain one of the big lacks in the Star Wars prequels?
Think about Loki, arguably the most popular villain to come along in a great while. And I think it’s useful to look at him next because he also started his screen life in a Kenneth Branagh-helmed film. How did Branagh get Loki so right and Viktor so wrong?
I think we can all agree that Loki’s the smartest damn person in both Thor films. And somehow Thor has to beat him, and he has to grow as a character to do it.
In the first film, Thor is used to easy victories; he’s never in over his head and he’s never really met a problem he can’t just brute force his way through. But to beat Loki he has to think, and, ultimately he has to sacrifice. Yes, he smashes the Bifrost bridge, but he also thinks it through and realizes that is how he can stop the destruction (he tried the brute force yank the staff out first and that doesn’t work so he tries something else). Also, Thor has to pay a high price to win: losing his chance to ever see Jane again. His victory over Loki isn’t easy and that is what it makes it really great to watch.
One of the things I loved in the Thor sequel was the character growth for Thor where he is starting to use his brain, to try and out-think Loki. (A+ for character development, Marvel guys.) I think the Thor films are elevated by having such a strong, smart villain as Loki. And how much less satisfying would it be if Loki got distracted from his diabolical plans every time Lady Sif walked into the room? Or if Thor just kept using Thor-Smash to solve all his problems?
In the second film, Thor actually uses his reputation for brute force tactics to his advantage, custom crafting a bulldozer sort of misdirection that allows him to break Loki out of jail. And then he and Loki actually work together on a complicated ruse to outsmart the baddies.
I know, Loki, I’m excited too!
Smart, capable villains by their nature create smarter, more capable heroes, and when that happens everybody wins! (Well, except the villain…)
Part Two coming in a few days
because this post is already too long where I’ll obsess over discuss the villains in Speed and Die Hard.