Creating a good villain is a difficult task. Many villains don’t have much character and are villains for the evulz, which isn’t very interesting. Villains need character as much or more than heroes. A complaint of some villains is that they are “cartoon villains.” That generally means a flat, uninteresting villain who is evil because, well, someone has to be. Cartoon villains also occasionally have the problem of coming across as a credible threat and instead come across as a buffoon. But is that really a fair way to describe poorly-written villains? So I sat down and consulted the parts of my memory dedicated to cartoons (rather than something useful like, say, math) to find the answer.
The Bad (but not in the good way):
1) Skeletor – the evil sorcerer in He-man, whom I remember mostly for throwing temper tantrums when his plans were inevitably thwarted. His minions were all incompetent, except for Evil-Lyn, and I was got the impression she was just waiting for the right moment to usurp Skeletor.
2) Hordak – She-ra‘s counterpart to Skeletor, only he was a cyborg and used technology to rule. Granted, he was already in charge much of Etheria, which made him slightly more of a threat, but that snorting laugh made him less scary and he also threw temper tantrums when his plans were inevitably thwarted.
3) Cobra Commander – in the comic books, he was a deadly and ruthless villain who actually killed people, including the Joes. But in the cartoon, well, I mostly remember him throwing temper tantrums when his plans were inevitably thwarted and ticking off Destro for no good reason.
4) Shredder – again, in the comic books, quite dangerous. But in the cartoon, not so much. Oh, he came across as more of a threat than Be-bop or Rocksteady, but the fact he kept relying on those two idiots only made him look worse. Sure, he tried other minions and other plans, but all his minions were equally incompetent.
5) Dr. Drakken – I love Shego, but Dr. Drakken was really incompetent. In fact, Ron made a better villain than Drakken when he went bad (Shego even said so). Hell, Drakken’s cousin Motor Ed was a more credible villain.
So, I concluded that yes, in some instances, “cartoon villain” is a fair way to describe poorly-written villains. This is because many cartoon villains are in media meant for children, and parents are worried about scaring their children, so the villains are not really that scary. Or they are incompetent. Either way, there’s little doubt the hero will triumph. But…
The Good (in the bad way):
1) Batman: The Animated Series – This show had a very fine line to walk. Batman’s villains are on the surface pretty absurd, which would lend to a young audience, but they also committed horrific crimes, which does not lend to a young audience. But this show managed to make the villains credible threats and build tension on how Batman was going to defeat them without getting into the gory details.
2) X-men: The Animated Series – the original on Fox. Again, this show had a fine line to walk. Comic book villains do terrible things, but I thought the villains were presented well. I still think Mr. Sinister and Apocalypse are super-creepy, and kudos to the creative team from not toning that down too too much.
3) Darkwing Duck – I sense some readers may be surprised. This show was supposed to be something of a parody of Batman, so the absurdity of Batman’s rogue’s gallery is heightened and in theory the evil/darkness should be downplayed. In my opinion, not always. Quackerjack (kind of a cross between the Joker and Toyman) creeped me out with his catchphrase and doll he talked to. And of course, there was Negaduck. Now, Negaduck’s motivation was for the evulz, but damn he excelled at it. He had no powers but all the other superpowered villains were frightened of him. And he actually tried to kill Goslyn as Quiverwing Quack fully aware she was just a child. That is cold.
4) Avatar: The Last Airbender – Wow. Just, wow. The villains’ motivations and arcs were as clearly played out as the heroes. The villains even won more than a few battles which did leave viewers wondering how in the world Aang could possibly triumph. The Firelord and Azula were just terrifying.
Conclusion – “Cartoon villain” isn’t really a fair way to describe poorly-written villains. Yes, many cartoons do have poorly-written villains. But some villains in cartoons are some of the best villains I’ve ever seen (and I didn’t even get into the Pixar movies). Heck, sometimes the villains are much more interesting than the heroes. Now, I will concede that villains in cartoons tend to be over-the-top, but I don’t think that’s the same as poorly-written. An over-the-top villain can be well-written. A flair for the dramatic doesn’t mean poorly-written. Dull villains can be poorly-written too. And cartoon villains can be well-written villains.