Great villains don’t see themselves as villains. This moral blind spot not only enables their bad ass ways but also dangles a nuanced humanity–accessible actions that have us believing in their potential for redemption–that makes them so downright scary.
Great villains have:
- Focus and purpose—they are on a mission, even if we don’t agree with it.
- Leadership and fierce intellect—while there are many lone villains out there, I like those that come as part of a pack. Their ability to motivate their people, care for them even if that care is twisted reveals that nuanced humanity.
- Beauty and Seductiveness—their words, mannerisms, looks, intellect, all would be drop dead sexy if their bad wasn’t so truly bad. They tempt us using our weaknesses as bait.
I’ve got two favorites—one male, one female. Let’s start with Hans Gruber, played to perfection by Alan Rickman, in the film Die Hard.
When he glides off the elevator in a custom-tailored, Savile Row suit, followed by a horde of to-die-for bad boys masquerading as terrorists to execute the ultimate burglary, Hans had me at: “I could talk about men’s fashion and industrialization all day but I’m afraid work must intrude .” The British accent upped him on the hot scale, and had him serving up dialogue in a way that made me swoon.
Witty, sophisticated, brilliant, I’d have gone for him big time if he didn’t have a ruthless penchant for killing innocent people. Although he radiated heartlessness, he wrangled his pack as a true leader, stayed firm to his goals, perverse as they might be, and maintained a veneer of politeness when dealing with the hostages (even though he did ultimately plan on killing them all). Not a hair or etiquette out of place.
What really made Hans accessible was Alan Rickman’s performance. In Rickman’s own words, Hans was not a villain. And that is why he nailed the character—he kept him human.
My favorite female bad ass is the Borg Queen (BQ) from Star Trek, played by Alice Krige in the movie First Contact and Susanna Thompson in the Star Trek Voyager series. BQ slinks into our world with the swagger of a seductress, catching Lt. Commander Data in her claws. Take a peak:
BQ: “Are you familiar with physical forms of pleasure?”
Data: “If you are referring to sexuality, I am fully functional, programmed in multiple techniques.”
BQ: “ How long since you’ve used them?”
Data: “Eight years, seven months, 16 days, four minutes, 22—“
BQ: “Far too long.”
If you haven’t seen the movie, yes, she kisses him and he kisses her back. In addition to temptress, the Borg leader prowls with the protectiveness of a mother tigress shielding her young. Here’s a snippet from Endgame with Seven of Nine, a former Borg drone returned to humanity by Janeway and the Star Trek Voyager crew:
BQ: “Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01. It’s been too long.”
Seven: “What do you want?”
BQ: “Do I need a reason to visit a friend?”
Seven: “We’re not friends.”
BQ: “No. We’re more than that. We’re family.”
She may not be human, but the humanity in that demeanor cannot be denied. With an emotional vein, not present in the drones she leads, she can be hated. The Borg drones are victims, and can only elicit only our pity.
The Borg Queen as mother brings us closer to her and separates us from her entirely. To protect her collective, her family, is to terminate us. What I love most about her villainy is that while Picard and Data defeated her, only Captain Janeway, another mother guarding her family, could destroy her. Like Ellen Ripley and the Alien Queen, it takes a mother to outmaneuver a mother. An interesting twist when dealing with female baddies.
It’s that need for family and loyalty to achieve defined objectives that makes these villains great, and gives us a way to understand them even as we hate them. That nuance haunts us because it reminds us that but for fate, we are not that far away from villainy as we sometimes like to think.
I’d love to hear from you. What characteristics make up a great villain? Do they differ between male and female baddies?