Good Bad Guys

I recently re-watched Bourne Identity. Bourne Supremacy is still my favorite of the three Bournes, but Bourne Identity has one huge factor in its favor: Chris Cooper.

I've been a fan of Chris Cooper since Matewan. His role in Bourne Identity as Conklin is much smaller than the roles of the CIA members in Supremacy. However, he stands alone as a strong behind-the-scenes protagonist to Bourne.

The scene I like best, though, is when Bourne confronts Conklin in Paris. I like it because Conklin isn't afraid of Bourne. Here is this agent who can kill him a thousand different ways with just his hands, and Conklin faces him down. He ends up dead, but he faces Bourne down. He is fearless.

This is the first quality of a good bad guy: fearlessness. A bad guy who begs for mercy may be pitiable or realistic or, even, funny, but it doesn't make for watchable entertainment. Besides, fearlessness in and of itself is frightening since it isn't completely normal or understandable.

This is why the Joker makes a good bad guy. I happen to dislike the Joker intensely (as a character), and I tend to avoid movies, cartoon episodes, and comics which use the Joker. I prefer my bad guys to have invested interests (see below). The point of the Joker is that he doesn't; he is random, amoral, anarchical.

But he makes a good bad guy--even if I can't watch him. Heath Ledger was correctly (posthumously) awarded an Oscar for that role in Dark Knight (even if I will probably never watch the movie again).

The second quality of a good bad guy is wittiness--and for what are probably sub-sub-subconscious reasons buried in the American psyche, it helps if the bad guy has a British accent. (In fact, whenever I see books or articles about how unfairly Hollywood has treated a particular race/nationality, I always think, "Yeah, and what about all those poor British men?")

One of my favorite examples is Shere Khan in the Disney animated version of Jungle Book: here's this tiger strolling through the jungle, uttering lines in this bored, drawling BBC accent. And let's not forget the unforgettable (and very sexy) Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves brings us to the next quality: quirkiness.

I mentioned that I dislike watching the Joker: insane villains don't interest me. Quirkiness isn't insane, just unexpected. For example, for reasons best understood by folklorists, the Sheriff of Nottingham is often displayed as just a tad off-kilter. Here are some examples:
Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Q in "Qpid" (Star Trek: TNG)
Keith Allen in the recent Robin Hood television series
Roger Rees (very amusingly) in Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Quirkiness is one reason I like over-the-top villains: Lex Luthor (John Shea) in Lois and Clark and (again) Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) in Smallville are good examples. And, naturally, Bruce Campbell in, oh, just about anything where he plays a villain. And I mustn't leave out the mayor (Buffy: Season 3)!

The Lex Luthors also, usually, have very narrow motives; the fourth quality of a good bad guy is an invested interest in something real. Yes, there's a place on the villain's pantheon for the Joker, but usually (99.9% of the time), the villain needs to care about something definite.

This is one reason Stargate is so successful a television series: both the Goa'uld and the Wraith are intense villains with narrow, understandable (if deplorable) interests: survival of the species in terms of procreation and food. King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) in Prince Caspian (the movie) makes a good villain because he has a narrow definable (and from the viewpoint of European history) defendable position (he makes a good villain in the book too).

This is also why the villain of Bones: Season 3 (Gormogon) was a dead loss. There was no "there" there--no real purpose behind his actions or, for that matter, Zach's. 99.9% of conspiracies are a dead-loss in terms of long-term interest. House, for example, almost always produces GREAT villains, mostly because the villains (or antagonists) are so darn human and specific in their desires.

On the other hand, I do prefer the no-nonsense villain to the villain who suddenly, pesto chango, becomes a terrific human being--give me early Vadar versus later Vadar any day. Still, it helps if the no-nonsense villain has a focus (Princess Leia or, for bad Angel, Buffy), and it also helps if the no-nonsense villain has a less villainous, more quirky sidekick like Spike.

Last but not least, the good bad guy needs to have charisma. Now, this quality is problematic because the bad guy's charisma needs to balance the good guy's charisma: the good guy needs a worthwhile antagonist but shouldn't be overshadowed by said antagonist (the snake should not get all the lines). This is terrifically hard to do.

I think charisma is balanced in these instances:
  • Ari (against Gibbs and the team) in NCIS: charismatic but completely untrustworthy; besides, he kills the wonderful Kate.
  • Q in Star Trek: TNG. Patrick Stewart can hold his own against John de Lancie--barely. (Q ends up being more ambiguous than bad in any case.)
  • The bad prince (against our intrepid heroes) in Princess Bride: he's just so icky smarmy: icky smarmy helps to undercut expansive charisma.
  • Liam Neeson as the bad mentor guy in Batman Begins (although I think his character misses on all other points except for witty with a British accent: one of my favorite villain lines comes from him: "You took my advice about theatricality a bit literally.").
  • Hugo Weaving (all by himself really) in the Matrix.
Of course, few villains meet all the aforementioned criteria. But then, few heroes can match all the aforementioned criteria in terms of fearlessness, wit (with a British accent), quirkiness, invested interest, and charisma.

And the winner villain (today) is . . .

Nicole Wallace (Olivia D'Abo) from Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

I happen to think Law & Order: Criminal Intent falls to pieces after Season 2. Nicole Wallace is a terrific villain though. AND she meets all the criteria.

1. She is fearless. Goren cannot overwhelm or outmaneuver Nicole as he does so many of the other villains on Law & Order: CI.

2. She has that British accent!

3. She is quirky. She's just as messed up as Goren which makes her a good mirror for him.

4. She has an invested interest: namely, Nicole Wallace. Her interests are very narrow and very self-serving--even when she's bent on revenge.

5. She is charismatic. She's also a Star Trek alumni!



Cari Hislop said...

I love how you break things down! It has never occured to me (even as a writer) to disect what makes a good bad guy. My baddies usually walk onto the page and I just let them get on with being nasty, but I love your list of good bad guy attributes. I'll write them down and keep a check on my bad guys to make sure they're good bad guys not damp squibs. I totally agree with you on the Joker. I love Batman, but I just don't like this latest series. I watched the first movie and I left the theatre feeling slimed and creeped out. The second one was also visually stunning, but I won't watch it again. Heath's joker really was truly disturbing, but for some reason I find Bale's Batman almost more disturbing because he's supposed to be the good guy, but I don't get the feeling that Bale's Batman was being good to be good. Bale somehow makes the good guy feel like being a different kind of bad guy.

Your blog always reminds me just how much I don't think or question. Thinking is good...

Kate Woodbury said...

I think Batman definitely falls into the category of anti-hero. He is an interesting dark shadow to Superman. While Superman restrains his powers in order to protect truth and justice (the process), Batman uses his cunning (no super powers) to circumvent a process that he considers mostly corrupt. (Frank Miller explores this contrast in his graphic novels: Dark Knight Returns and Dark Knight Strikes Again; the second recent Batman movie has a very Frank Miller feel.)

Consequently, most Batman stories tend to occupy a fine line between action and ultra-Ultra-ULTRA-angst. I quite like Batman Begins and the cartoons, but I admit, when I want upbeat and entertaining, I go for my Lois & Clark (Superman) DVDs!