Do you know what the biggest problem with modern popular culture is? Lack of villains.
Okay, that’s not true, there are lots of villains, but no truly great ones, not recently.
I’ve been thinking this for a while, but it came to focus recently on watching the BBC’s The Musketeers (2014 – 2016). In season it had a fantastically complex villain in the form of Peter Capaldi’s Cardinal Richelieu, who could chew the scenery with the best of them, but was also in his way charismatic and patriotic. The dreadful things he did come across as being for the betterment of France, but insofar as his vision of France extends. The result was an extended fencing duel between Captain Treville and his three/four Musketeers, and the Cardinal Richelieu and his conspirators. The king is swaying in between the parties, almost as a marker of the progress of the fight.
Then in season two it the Comte de Rochfort, who was pretty one dimensional. The only cleverness is how long he Rochfort can hide his true intents. There is no real rhythm to it. Rochfort, though played well by Marc Warren, merely is evil, and he knows it – his only real goal is to capture or kill the Queen, he doesn’t see himself as the hero, he is a madman parading as the king’s confidant.
I’m only just watching season three now, and I’ve high hopes for Rupert Everrett as the Governor of Paris, I’ll take a guess that he’s plotting for the throne somehow, but the season seems to be a battle for the soul of Paris, and that’s okay it is a Musketeer story.
You know me and my love of Alexandre Dumas’ stories.
I cite this as an example within one show that went from great to weak villain. Generally, though, villains are weaker now. However, there are other examples of great villains, modern books, comics, TV and films are incredibly focused on the heroes, the desire to give heroes arcs overrides the need for an excellent complex villain.
Here’s the thing though, I don’t think it is as necessary to have a good hero arc, as it is to have a good villain arc. Heroes are fine being paragons, sure they can struggle, have complexities – but let Superman be Superman, let Lex Luther plot and strive to take on a paragon.
Give the villain a great motivation, give them subtlety, make them overcome obstacles, they’re the ones that need to struggle and succeed, that way your paragon of a hero has a true struggle, a good fight to overcome. Your hero is greater for having a greater villain. Be specific too; they should aim for something specific, achievable, not just vague.
There’s a reason why I think Thanos is greater than Palpatine in the villain stakes, Palpatine’s motivation is to rule the galaxy, with no real reason to, while Thanos aims to improve the universe in the only way he sees that can be achieved.
Maybe I’m wrong; maybe I’m missing a lot of great villains out there. I can accept that. Feel free to suggest some books in the comment section; my reading lists can never be too long.