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Understanding Villains


Thanos, the Mad Titan and overarching main antagonist of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The word "villain" is derived from the Latin root 'villa', meaning a luxurious residence or estate, commonly in European countries, especially in the Mediterranean. Another contributor to our modern understanding of the word would be 'vilein' of Old French terminology, which means a peasant or serf bound to farmland belonging to a feudal lord.

The Joker, arch-nemesis of the superhero Batman

Synonyms of 'villain' include knave, rascal, scamp, troublemaker, criminal, and of course, the ever vague label: "bad guy". What TRULY makes a villain, however? In our ancient and contemporary histories, we can point fingers at obvious examples of villains: Caligula, the vicious and insane Roman Emperor, Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warlord who tore Asia into tatters and shreds. Perhaps Adolf Hitler, the mad German dictator and architect of one of Earth's most racist and evil regimes. Stalin, the godfather of secret police and governmental tyranny, an example and template of which numerous despots follow faithfully. Whatever the case, all these men have one common element that binds their place in our textbooks together. They controlled empires. Had thousands of followers, and droves of loyal minions ready to act on their each and every whim.

Western societies, especially American, have picked up and adopted the visage of an 'ideal' villain. Monsters in men's flesh, either outcasts that were banished from free, vibrant, and culturally enriched civilizations, or leaders of a destitute, morally bankrupt, and socially decaying power structure.

Scar from 'The Lion King' is the ostracised and jealous brother of King Mufasa. Desiring control of the Pridelands for himself, Scar became leader of the Hyenas, a degenerate and outcast race of vicious and spiteful mongrels, and initiated a devastating coup. Throughout Lion King, especially during the infamous musical number 'Be Prepared', Nazi imagery is utilised copiously to depict Scar and his Hyenas as a faceless, dictatorial regime of killers. Scar's rule is ruinous, draining the Pridelands of its abundant natural resources and disenfranchising all the citizens.

However, much like many other Disney antagonists, Scar holds an actual motivation and justification for his crimes. That being his apparent familial troubles, which costed him title of 'King', and never feeling equal to Mufasa.

That's where the best villains originate from. Understandable reasoning for their actions. While antagonists that are driven by some incomprehensible or natural need for death and destruction (Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Chernobog from Anatasia, etcetera) remain a necessity, the requirement for them has exponentially decreased in the more modern eras of films and television. Characters that commit heinous and horrendous acts for evil's sake alone, or for some primitive desire or hateful emotion, are requirements for fiction. Those types of villains, powered by greed, jealousy, or sheer and pure hate, are a required contrast to heroes of pure good. And archetypal characters that are naturally heroic or villainous are still required for a litany of reasons, of which I shall divulge in a later post.

However, one cannot say with a straight face they found Thanos from Marvel: Infinity War less engaging and agreeable than Cruella de Ville from One Hundred and one Dalmatians. The Mad Titan holds legitimate concern about overpopulation and finite resources, while Cruella wants to skin puppies to create fur coats... Oh, and Cruella doesn't utilise magic stones. Magic stones are cool!

Back on track, villains can also be a muddle of both naturally evil and interesting character-wise. The greatest and most niche example of this tiny category of antagonist would most certainly be Heath Ledger's Joker from Batman: The Dark Knight. This vivid and terrifying portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime embodies the highest echelon of villainy and antagonism, a template for which every superhero movie screenwriter is inclined to follow when constructing their own malevolent force to battle the hero.

Joker's insanity and clear knack for violence and torture indicate that his psychological processing and ability have been warped into machines of death. However, his reasoning and speaking skills echoed throughout the film, especially during the interrogation scene in which he exposed the Gotham City Police for using Batman as a mere tool. Joker masterfully connects himself to Batman, making himself the Bat's polar opposite, yet most necessary requirement. He toys with the vigilante's seemingly unbreakable mentality, and twists his very visions and understandings of reality.

In conclusion, villains are timeless and permanent, necessary pieces of fiction to antagonize and demoralise our protagonists, and their origins may be far more interesting then you think. Keep all this in mind next time you watch a movie.