Joss Whedon (writer, producer, director) has said, “Every great villain is the hero of his own story.” I also submit that every great villain is the victim of his own story. While the protagonist works to overcome his victimization, the antagonist grovels in it. It becomes his excuse for everything thing he’s doing.
Think of all the famous villains we’ve seen in movies over the years.
- In Falling Down, Michael Douglas just wants to see his daughter on her birthday. He laments: "I'm the bad guy? How’d that happen?"
- In The Wizard of OZ, the Wicked Witch of the West is the victim of sibling rivalry. Rather than let the “good” sister get the shoes the Wicked Witch always wanted, she vows to kill the little girl wearing them. She is further justified because this same little girl just killed her favorite sister with a house.
- King Kong is kidnapped from his home, thrust into an unfamiliar environment and put on display.
- In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s backstory is revealed in episodes I, II, and III. Born a slave and separated from his mother at the age of nine, young Anakin Skywalker trains under Jedi masters, but eventually falls into the wrong crowd.
- I hate to admit it, but Thor’s foster brother, Loki is dear to my mother-heart. Found by Odin, he was raised alongside Odin’s son, Thor, but was an outcast because of his small stature. He didn’t have the strength and size of his brother, but he had the gift of sorcery. Because he never felt he belonged, he began to “act out.” And when gods act out, it can have major repercussions!
- In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum is the original owner of The One Ring, named so because it is the one ring to rule them all. When he lost it, he went mad.
My inspiration for this villainous article came when I recently watched the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. The character Zod intrigued me in this version of the Superman story. He seemed to have more purpose than a vigilante, still frightening, but I saw depth to him. In an interview with Port-Magazine.com, Michael Shannon, the actor who plays Zod, said, “Terence Stamp [Zod who played against Christopher Reeve] was like the Robert Plant [lead singer of the rock group, Led Zeppelin] version of General Zod. He’s like: I’m sexy, I’m badass, I’m gonna yell at you and tell you what to do. I’m more like the Woody Allen version of Zod: I’m worried, I’m upset, there’s bad things happening, what am I going to do? I’m trying to be threatening, but inside I have my doubts.” I saw this clearly as he battled the man of steel.
We must remember that Zod was, at one time, Krypton’s most dedicated and honored warrior. He was a programmed soldier, his only loyalty lying with his planet. And he became who he was because of this power. Toward the end of the movie, and the end of Zod’s time on earth, he has a heartfelt and painful monologue directed toward Kal-El (Superman, played by Henry Cavill.)
Zod: Look at this. [He holds out his hand letting earth’s dust slip through his fingers after all the destruction.] We could have built a new Krypton in this squalor. But you chose the humans over us. I exist only to protect Krypton. That was the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent, or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now, I have no people. My soul—that is what you have taken from me!
After pouring out his vulnerability, he briefly rallies and vows to make the people of earth suffer, taking them all from Kal-El one by one, as punishment.
This is how to portray a good villain. Give him purpose, give him identity, make him a victim, then allow him to implode on himself.