In the tradition of Disney villains, comic book rogues, and Dark Lords, we have lived with a demonic concept about evil that is personified in a way that really brushes into people’s faces how good and remorseless it is to be evil.
So far, Voldemort has been the most recently popular image of pure evil that repeats the same cliches that have been identified with supervillains and Dark Lords; he’s the kind of guy who says “Once I kill you, I win”, “You will join me or die”, and “No one will stop me now”. As popular as he is with the massive fan base, it’s hard to see him as a villain that can really haunt our thoughts and our dreams because he’s a very hard man to relate to anyone in the modern world. Ralph Fiennes didn’t take the same haunting approach to this character as he did with Amon Goeth and Francis Dolarhyde, which I feel has made his performance as You-Know-Who as less memorable as Goeth, which earned him his first Oscar nomination and is praised as the role he should have won the award for. Scenes like the “pardon” moment with the boy and the basement seduction of Helen really brought out a man who was taking a chance at showing his humanity and kept losing himself to his rage and his impatience. That made him a very rich and original kind of person to play for someone who really existed and it made him very memorable as a person isn’t just committing horrible deeds against humanity, but is also talking about his problems and wanting to take them out on others. You don’t see that with Voldemort much because he doesn’t have any original catchphrases or very personal scenes to follow that make him very distinguished for a villain, which is probably why Fiennes tends to act very humble about playing the character.
In addition, we’ve already had The Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Tommy DeVito, Hans Landa, and Anton Chigurh as apart of way more talk than Voldy, especially when the respective actors won a dozen or so awards for those roles. To make them more effective at conveying their villainy is to not explain their plans or their reasons or count their chickens before they hatch. They express their evil through their cold-blooded deeds and lack of remorse, but they catch our attention with their intelligent conversations, their jokes, their riddles, their unpredictability, and their very own catchphrases. These are the kinds of people you would have to stay silent in front of, listen to what they have to say, and think carefully about talking back to them because they expect there to be an intelligent conversation in regards to what topic they are addressing, otherwise they’re not going to talk to you and want you gone. They’re as intimidating as the people in real life that you have to make a good impression in front of and get the gist of their jokes in order to beat them.
If the heavy is just laughing with glee, gloating about his accomplishments, insulting the memory of a lost loved one, and declaring their intentions to kill you, then they’re really asking for a fight too soon and need to be beaten too soon before they can repeat themselves even more. I feel that most respected veteran actors don’t express a great deal of pride about portraying the idea of evil, it’s just one of those roles they take at the behest of others, to satisfy market value, and to appeal to younger moviegoers.
I feel that most respected veteran actors don’t express a great deal of pride about portraying the idea of evil, it’s just one of those roles they take at the behest of others, to satisfy market value, and to appeal to younger moviegoers.
I think playing a villain and portraying the idea of evil are not necessarily the same thing. In any event, my sense is that actors (or some of them) relish playing villains. I’ve heard some talk about how fun it is.
Btw, what do you think the idea of evil is starting to fade? And what do you mean by that?
Hollywood loves the idea of evil. Hollywood, Dubya and imperialists need evil to indulge in their violence and money-making. Simple black and white is their trade; guns, explosions, blood, shock and awe their friends, maturity, sensitivity, balance, humanity, delicacy their enemy. They are, ironically, part of the axis of evil, and have a lot more in common with some of their “terrorist” enemies, who also deal in vicious absolutes, than they realise. These opponents feed off each other- The Power of Nightmares is an excellent documentary on the subject, rarely seen in the US. Hollywood, as part of a voracious, money-obsessed media machine, colonises the world with its macho nonsense.
I’ll be interested to see if this tendency to good v evil in films, is slackening as this thread suggests. Voldemort, the devil, serial killers, Arab terrorists, they can all make for lip-smacking entertainment. In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is to be relished, his interactions with Foster may be creepy but he somehow is on the right side, actually much less the baddie than the kidnapper and the devious cop.
As an evil person myself I have noticed a declining relevance from the heroes of the world – they just don’t seem to care anymore. I am considering retirement.
Good point Junderhump – without evil what has a hero to do?
One possibility is out-of-work heroes and villains appearing in CCC…..
Hitler was voted in by large numbers of Germans. We dehumanise him at our peril. Noone is Evil.
evil is simply the other
usually rich (anyone without money should hate the rich) republicans
You know whose dreams Voldemort haunts? 10-year-old kids. To them, he’s one scary motherfucker because they are who the makers of the Harry Potter films are trying to scare. Of course Nazis and serial killers are going to be more disturbing to adults because we know there’s nothing hiding under are beds, but there are/were maniacs who slaughter people either individually or en mass. So the portrayal of evil is alive and well in films (despite Kenji’s hope that it be replaced by self flagellating geo-political analysis sponsored by the U.N. no doubt), but one should not hold villains geared toward kids to adult standards.
I don’t mean it’s fading in its popularity with Hollywood, I just mean its losing its touch with trying anything different to provide us with in seeing the nature of evil. Hollywood enjoys the Satanic macabre evil way more than the regular human who is capable of his own ruthlessness and doesn’t have to have an world-conquering agenda, he’s just driven by his own depravity to do wrong.
Probably the last best character who followed the idea of evil would be Palpatine/Darth Sidious, someone who was very good at putting on the facade of a decent man and a benevolent politician to earn sympathy and provide certain logical thinking into people’s ears that was right (e.g. “Good is a point of view”, “If one is to discover the great mystery, one must study all its aspects”). Once he was exposed for who he really was, he became the loathsome crone-like cackling Emperor that defined how fun it was to be evil without having to hide behind a mask because it was too late for anyone to stop him once he had the whole Senate in his pocket, the clone troopers programmed to carry out Order 66, and Anakin drawn to his promise of more power. By playing the villain, he had all the back-up from the beginning and would let nothing slip until it was too late. So in that way, he proved cleverer than Voldemort, who was more of a deformed gang leader who mainly gained power by preaching his hatred of Muggles and Mudbloods and terrorizing with his dark magic. For Palpatine, it was going to take more than his powers in the Dark Side to win, it also required his intelligence and his mask of righteousness, as opposed to just be a gloating forceful punk like Voldemort. Palpatine doesn’t have to be forceful, he takes his time with seeing how Luke will turn to the Dark Side just by seeing into his mind and waiting for his anger to build up. Only when Luke finally refuses and puts the Emperor in his place does the old man finally lose his cool and unleash all his power on the young Jedi, before the redeemed Darth Vader has to come and cast him to his death.
Lately, the more interesting villains I’ve seen would be Magneto in X-Men: First Class, Loki in The Avengers, and Bernie Rose in Drive, because they’re not gloating the whole time of what it means to do evil, but manage to show a human side to show how driven and desperate they are to get as ruthless as they can be. It’s also not that simple to just kill off the villain, as Batman can’t ever bring himself to kill The Joker, regardless of how evil he is, because he knows that that act will ruin what his whole crime-fighting agenda was about from the beginning. Voldemort of course is another of those villains that has to be killed off without mercy and without remorse because he is the bringer of all evil – and he killed Harry’s parents, so it’s an act of revenge – , but usually in these days, people do have to think hard about how helpful the death penalty is for murderers and how it could have been handled differently with Bin Laden if he was taken alive and tried for his crimes. There isn’t a source of all evil in this world that can be thrown down in cold blood and relieve the world of evil because there will always be evil everywhere in different forms, it can’t always take the form of a devilish figure.
Don’t forget Sauron.
I think by the time people become adults they’ve generally gotten bored with the idea of a character who’s evil just because he’s evil. Usually the most popular ‘evil’ characters are the ones capable of engaging in repartee, like the ones you listed in your initial post.
It’s also true, the idea of pure, unforgivable evil has kind of faded with the advent of psychoanalysis and the secularism that some confuse with moral relativism. The general idea right now is that if somebody is doing something evil, they are doing so for a reason: Because of some kind of trauma in their past, or because somebody else has done something to cause it.
Contrarily we get characters like Dexter, who are pure evil fighting for the cause of good, and people accept his evil acts and root for them on the grounds that his victims aren’t such nice people.
And, of course, Kevin, who was hostile, manipulative and hateful from infancy.
We need to be careful not to extend moral relativism too far. Hitler not evil? Murdering defenseless people is evil, no matter what your reason or upbringing. But, then again, not every person who put on a Nazi uniform should be said to be evil. The way Hitler operated, most of them didn’t know what they were getting into and by the end had no power to change anything. That also gets to the ‘Axis of evil’ stuff. A few people in charge of a country are evil, therefore the entire country is evil. Yet, just fifty years ago, it was far easier for the leaders of a country to sell that argument and make entire countries ‘evil’ without seeming like manipulative jackasses. Before it was ‘If your country’s interests oppose my country’s interests, you’re evil’. Now it’s become far more individualist, and people are a lot more willing to see Sadam Hussein as evil while still being horrified at the number of innocent civilians that were killed to get to him.
“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
The real powerful effect I see in Sauron though for someone who embodies evil is that he’s not a physical form of evil, more of a shadow and a nightmare in people’s thoughts than an actual nemesis that the hero confronts face to face. It’s really hard to picture how Sauron could have looked and behaved in his villainy if he took actual form, even though we only get to see him in that dark armor in The Fellowship of the Ring. What I heard in an interview from a Tolkien expert named Jude Fisher was that, “instead of describing in minute detail some monstrous beast that they were fighting, that to leave Sauron in corporeal was actually more terrifying”.
he only figures that take form in Sauron’s place are the Witch-King and the Mouth of Sauron, who are both terrifying and evil to behold, which makes it all the more hard to picture how their master could flaunt it. His flaming eye, his dark voice, and his massive armies are enough to provide an intimidating edge to this villain without showing him in person. I guess when he’s finally destroyed in the end, we may never know what this shadowy character was, which makes him more interesting in how he was used to personify evil.
For the adult audience, this was the kind of villain they were going to have to accept and he seems acceptable given that he’s not the flashy supervillain that kids get obsessed with. Most of the time, the characters that go on the journey in LOTR have to fight their own frailties and vices in order to win, not simply by doing mortal combat with the big villain.
Oh yeah. I always get those confused.
Me too !
Some superb films with villains:
Nosferatu, Thief of Bagdad (1940), Kind Hearts and Coronets (our protagonist a charming mass murderer, doesn’t feel like a villain), Casque d’Or, Sansho the Bailiff, Night of the Hunter, North by Northwest, Blue Velvet
the last chilling villain I saw on screen ( though villain is too quaintly benign to be applied) was the guy in Snowtown
maybe I’m ready for Wolf Creek?
at least he’s a made up guy (is that a recommendation Robert?:):)
“Contrarily we get characters like Dexter, who are pure evil fighting for the cause of good, and people accept his evil acts and root for them on the grounds that his victims aren’t such nice people.”
I couldn’t get fired up for Dexter on the strength of revenge, it all felt so toxic to me I couldn’t watch it
Dexter’s a great show. He’s not evil—what he does makes society a better place. It’s just illegal.
He’s not evil—what he does makes society a better place.
Dexter kills people without due process. This does not make society a better place.
I agree. Recently there has been a trend of making the villains a little more grey than completely dark or black to the core. While we still have great evils like Sauron or Marsians. There have been a rise of the kind of film or plots where we can understand and relate to the villains and see where they went wrong along the way.
I think this change in trends is most visible in the vampire genre and they do mirror the film industry in general through out the years.
First we have Nosferatu and Dracula, the typical evil villains, soulless beings who just wants to drink their victims blood and spread the curse along with the bite. They do evil and we see no reason to believe that they are misunderstood or that they regret what they’ve done. They are simple just bad people, the typical antagonist for our protagonists and heroes to vanquish. The good conquers the evil. The end.
Moving almost 100 years ahead we still have vampires, but instead of being soulless they have become normal people when they are bitten. And the bite and circumstances of their new source of food gives them no choice but to kill people and lose their humanity or to end their own unlife themselves. Suddenly the bad guy has become the hero or anti-hero.
With movies like “Interview with the Vampire”, “Thirst” and “Let the right one in” the bad guys are more human than before, at least in the way how they have to cope with themselves and trying to deal with the life they’ve gotten themselves in to, which often happens to be against their own will. They have suddenly become victims who is simply trying to cope with their new won existence, craving for blood and sex while trying to survive their “human” counterparts.
Why this change happened for a simple reason:
To make it possible for the audience to relate to the villain by humanizing and making him/her more realisticly grey in the way how no one starts of bad or good. Instead of the character just being a scripted antagonist the character seems more alive, that its the choices or turn of events that made him who he is. So instead of just rooting and cheering for the good guy, now we have a second character which we can relate to. We now have two for the price of one in a way, serving as a two way moral compass for ourselves as viewers. :)
is that a recommendation Robert?
Everyone is ready for Wolf Creek. – I’m not a fan of the genre, so it didn’t do much for me.
The most scary kind of evil are those characters which are apparently ‘motiveless’ – i.e Iago, Raskalnikov.
If the origins of the evil acts are obscure and we are unsure where the idea comes from the it is all the more frightening. Perhaps it is too early in the morning to speak coherently. I will get coffee.
I think mediated portrayal of evil is fascinating to look at both at how tastes change as, yes, you get older and more mature, and also as one of those sociological methods of looking at how people are doing from era to era. Historical narrative developing much like personal taste, we tend to move from simplistic and even cartoonish villains toward the more elaborate and gray area villains. During times of conflict or war, it’s very easy to characterize pure evils as a reactionary trend, see Kenji’s post and its ironic “Hollywood, Dubya and imperialists” (ooo, shivers and thrills). It’s really remarkable when you find a children’s movie like Princess Mononoke, for instance, which has basically zero villains whatsoever (only a lot of cross-interests), but yeah, to my knowledge Voldemort has never really interested Harry Potter fans nearly as much as Harry Potter’s own character development (portrayed better in the books than movies, of course).
IRL there are such things as sociopaths but sociopathy itself is so difficult to determine that it can be contentious. It would be difficult, I think, to say that ‘the idea of evil is fading’ or that we have any more or less representations of gray-area villains today than yesterday but I would say over the longer view, we’re coming up with more advanced villains and that may even be one of the reasons why filmmakers are choosing to make villains that seem unexplainable — because we’ve hit this postmodern era of ‘the banality of the banality of evil’ where some artists just don’t want their villains pigeon-holed into some simple moral-of-the-story, so they remove the villain’s ‘reason’ and in some cases successfully make the villain scary. It requires a skillful touch, however, else you fall far from Dark Knight or No Country for Old Men and closer to, well, Seed. (If you don’t know what that reference means, good for you! Don’t follow up).
Then you have Tony Soprano. He’s a sneaky kind of evil: He compartmentalizes his evil. So he’s kind and sociable when you meet him on the street, then he instantly switches to psycho-murderer mode when it suits his business interest. You realize after a while that this compartmentalization is completely external. Family man Tony and gangster Tony are the same person, but he portrays them through different masks that he tries his damndest not to let people mix up. Dr Melfi spends six years feeling like she’s on the verge of fixing him, only to realize the whole time he was manipulating her to think so because he just enjoyed the ritual of talking to her.
I found that woman in Princess Mononoke pretty evil. She just happened to have a change of heart at the very end.
But she also takes care of and clearly cares for the ill and derelict. She sees her work as a community thing and doesn’t really lord over it with a desire for power. She just simply refuses to see how damaging her work is to the local environment.
ahh Tony. what a stroke of genius to humanise a ruthless killer by giving him a panicked response to desertion by a family of ducks right at the outset
You know James Gandolfini’s favorite episode is the episode where Tony is driving Meadow around to colleges, and he happens to see a famous rat from decades ago, and tries to continue driving her around to colleges while plotting to murder him?
That episode ends with Tony staring at a Hawthorne quote which I don’t remember exactly but is along the lines of “No man can show one face to himself and one face to the world without being confused about which is real.”
It’s my favorite episode too.
And the one I used to hook my 57 year old violence-averse mother on the show.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is to be relished
Brian Cox’s Lecter in Manhunter is even more relishable.