CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

Villains (2017 edition)

Just as my previous post saw many changes to my favourite heroic characters, my opinion of ficticious villains has also changed over the past few years. What is a villain? When we think of antagonists in fiction, we might think of the obvious ones like Lord Voldemort and Sauron, or the evil mutated scientist from that computer game/movie/TV series with all the zombies… But I’m not really interested in the stereotypical ‘dark lord’ figure—a character who appears to be in the hero’s way simply as a plot mechanism. These villains are often two-dimensional, lacking depth and real motivations. And while I love the Harry Potter series to bits, I’m still not quite sure why Lord Voldemort didn’t just go into politics instead of plunging the whole wizarding world into war. Twice.

So here we go again. The following characters are the villains who have had great personalities, true motiviations or have made me stop to wonder: who are the real villains here? My original villains post can be viewed here, but like I said, I don’t entirely agree with it anymore.

DISCLAIMER: There will be plot-related spoilers referring to the characters I have chosen.

Pe Ell—The Heritage of Shannara series

Death frightened most people, but not Pe Ell.

The first time I read The Heritage of Shannara was also the first time I read a book (or part of a book) from an antagonist’s point of view. This was an unexpected but pleasant surprise because I loved reading the thoughts of the assassin who was planning to kill one of the other main characters. It’s great to read a thoroughly developed antagonist with his own thoughts and feelings, motives, doubts and fears.

The best part about him was that, at the end, he decides he doesn’t actually want to kill his target. There’s also an element of tragedy here for Pe Ell because, while his character arc was very powerful, he was manipulated into killing his target anyway, so the other characters in the story continued to think ill of him and are not sorry to find that he had been killed (by an invisible plot device/monster thing that, to this day, I think was a really cheap move). This left me feeling very hurt, and stories that can do that are rare and wonderful things.

Kingpin/Wilson Fisk—Daredevil

‘I realised that this city was a part of me, that it was in my blood, and I would do anything to make it a better place for people like you.’

Hell’s Kitchen is the setting for Marvel’s Netflix series Daredevil in which a (slightly bland) blind lawyer dons a mask and beats up bad guys by night and shuffles papers by day. The best thing about this series (apart from its production quality and acting, that is) is the character of Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. About as much time is given to fleshing out the villain as is given to the hero, making him a believable and, frankly, likeable man. True, he does kill a lot of people and his plans for Hell’s Kitchen upsets many more, but his intentions are good. His methods are what make him the bad guy here.

How did he become such a powerful crime lord? We see him struggling through his childhood, being bullied at school and then being forced to violent revenge by his father. He killed his father to protect his mother and the two of them cut up and hid the body. After piecing together such a tragic figure, it’s no wonder that, when we see him later as an older man, we’re glad he’s apparently risen above such a traumatic childhood. Problem is, he hasn’t. His present is shaped by his past, he can’t escape the man he has become, and it’s the vulnerabilities in his character that make him so relatable.

When he clashes with Daredevil, we know we should be rooting for the perfect, blind, Catholic, lawyer superhero standing up for the little guy—but whenever Fisk gets away, we can’t help but cheer. Maybe don’t smash that guy’s head repeatedly in your car door? No? No. Okay…

The Joker—Batman

‘I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.’

Very dangerous, a total nutter, unpredictable, cunning, ruthless and wild, the Joker is Batman’s greatest nemesis. Though the Joker has many origin stories, the most common in the canon is that he falls into a tank of chemical waste, which causes him to lose his mind. This accident also turns his hair green, his skin bleached-white and his lips an unnatural red. This is the Joker we see portrayed by Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto. The origins of Heath Ledger’s Joker (and almost all of Mark Hamill’s renditions), however, is a complete mystery.

Why do I like the Joker so much? He isn’t your usual ‘I want to take over the world and look down upon you from my throne made of cash’ sort of bad guy. He also doesn’t concoct stupidly complicated traps to capture or torture Batman, like a villain from the Bond universe might do. In fact, he’s arguably not interested in killing Batman at all. He simply enjoys the thrill of the chase, the challenge and the mayhem. The fact that he’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic is the reason why he’s so interesting—you never know what he might do next, and he probably doesn’t even know himself, or why.

The Shadow—A Wizard of Earthsea

Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.

Often, a villain reveals something about the hero, about which the hero was previously unaware. The Shadow is one of these villains. While not actually being much of a ‘character’ per se, it first appears when main character and wizard Sparrowhawk is naughtily looking through an advanced book of magic in his master’s collection. He wants to impress a girl he’s just met and so chooses a spell that turns out to be too powerful for him to control. It goes terribly wrong and the Shadow is born.

Despite being banished for a short time by his master, it becomes evident later on that this strange entity is linked to Sparrowhawk in a way he doesn’t initially understand. No other wizard can tackle this terrible beast except Sparrowhawk himself because, as we discover later, the Shadow is a part of him. At first, he tries to run, but in doing so, the Shadow kills one of his friends, making him realise that he is just delaying the inevitable. He is going to have to face this thing alone. The Shadow makes you look within yourself and think about your darker side and how best to tackle it. The decision for Sparrowhawk to leave the safety of Roke takes great courage, knowing full well what lies out there somewhere… waiting for him.

The Phantom—The Phantom of the Opera

‘Can you even dare to look, or bear to think of me—this loathesome gargoyle who burns in hell, but secretly yearns for heaven…’

The Phantom was a misshapen child who broke free of a circus and went to live in the bowels of an opera house in Paris. He became an architect, inventor, musician, composer and tutor and would have been famous for it had it not been for his deformity. Society shunned him and so he hated the world, until a grieving child—Christine—was brought to his opera house. From then on, he made it his life’s goal to train Christine to sing and used his knowledge to write, design and compose an opera in which she would star.

Living in the dark for years in seclusion did nothing to improve his opinion of the outside world and the people in it, so when the members of the opera house turned against him (out of fear of him), he reacted in the only way he knew how, through violence and cunning. His character is so well developed that you pity him and understand how he feels and why he does what he does. Also who couldn’t love a mysterious guy in a cape who lives by an underground lake, plays music to you while you sleep, writes melodies for you by the light of numerous candelabra and has a shrine of you in his bedroom topped with a life-size model of you in a wedding dress…? He also gets the best songs in the musical.

GlaDOS—Portal

‘Despite your violent behaviour, the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart.’

Mean, witty and malicious, the main antagonist from the extremely clever game Portal actually goes unseen for about 95% of the story. As you make your way through the seemingly endless test levels in the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, GlaDOS’s voice instructs and guides you, as well as pokes fun at you before giving way to simply threatening you (comically) with various methods of death because you didn’t die, as planned. But GlaDOS isn’t simply an artificial intelligence that doesn’t like the fact you’ve outwitted her.

In Portal 2, her character is fleshed out, as it were, and you discover what she truly is—that she was once the thing she despises most: a human. This initiates a character arc in which GlaDOS aids you in your struggle against an even greater adversary, and your second chance at freedom from Aperture Science.

Magneto—X-Men

‘Better that we die on our feet than live on our knees!’

None of the above examples better demonstrates the Shakespearean idea that there is no good or evil, that only thinking makes it so. The reason why Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr/Max Eisenhardt/all the other names he’s had) inspires such a following in the X-Men universe is that, while he does have questionable methods most of the time, his overall goal is a noble one. One of the most powerful ‘mutants’ ever born, Magneto believes that he and his brethren are not actually ‘mutants’ at all, but rather the next step in human’s evolution: “homo superior”—and he’s probably right. He’s sick of how he and his kind have been treated by common humans—experimented upon, used, abused, discriminated against and murdered—and makes it his life’s mission to encourage this evolution, by forcefully putting homo superior on top.

His fight ignites the “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” argument, and indeed, he is truly fighting for the freedom and advancement of his own people, but he chooses the path of violence, making him a villain in the eyes of most. And that is why he is such a great antagonist—you can understand his motivations. He is not just a man out for power, glory or wealth—he is fighting for the freedom of many from cruel suppression in a world where he and his kind are feared and mistrusted.

Other notable villainous characters

Francisco Scaramanga—The Man with the Golden Gun
Darth Vader—Star Wars
Saren—Mass Effect
Heathcliffe—Wuthering Heights
Mr Hyde—The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Dolores Umbridge—Harry Potter
God—The Bible
Illusive Man—Mass Effect

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