There have been a lot of complaints about the MCU‘s lack of really interesting villains. The only one with any real depth is Loki, and that’s because Loki has had the most exposure. Due to the blockbuster convention, nearly all other villains have been summarily terminated. That’s a pity too because with comic book adaptations especially, villains should be allowed to return. There are exceptions, of course, in which the story requires the villain to be terminated (Jessica Jones is one). So, then, what makes for a compelling villain?
First, it is important to remember that a villain and antagonist are not necessarily the same, just as a hero and protagonist are not the same (at least not to me). In most comic book stories that is the case. To me, though, the difference between a protagonist and hero (and antagonist and villain) is that the stakes are between good and evil. Broadly taken, I suppose, that could apply in say, a mystery novel in which the detective is the hero and the murderer is the villain. But in general that is not how I’m using the terms.
I’ve written before on how badly written villains will sink comic book movie adaptations like the Titanic hitting an iceberg. I’ve also written about how a “cartoon villain” isn’t necessarily a badly written villain. So, then, what does make for a good villain?
Goal – The goal of the villain is an important aspect of a well-rounded villain, but not the only one. Some villains are after money, some after revenge, some after world domination, and some are villains just for the evulz. I don’t think a villain that does evil for the sake of evil is necessarily an uninteresting villain. In the Marvel universe, Mephisto is the incarnation of Evil in the universe (at least most of the time), so by definition all of his schemes are done because he is literally evil.
The scale of the goal doesn’t necessarily make for a more interesting villain either. World domination is about as grand a goal as a villain can aspire to and yet that alone doesn’t make the scheme to get there or the villain compelling. As a contrast, in Jessica Jones, Kilgrave’s only goal was to make Jessica love him. That’s hardly a grand goal but Kilgrave was still incredibly compelling.
How does the goal contribute to a well-rounded villain then? Well, the goal does inform the audience about the villain’s personality. For example, a villain out for world domination is most likely a megalomaniac and highly egotistical. A villain that just wants money is likely to be more grounded. A villain that wants revenge is probably nursing an unhealthy obsession.
Motivation – This is of course what propels the villain to his/her goal. In the case of revenge, the motivation and the goal are one and the same. But the motivation for other goals is less straightforward. For example, it may seem that the motivation behind world domination is pretty limited. Yes, the villain wants power, but that’s simplistic. In the case of Dr. Doom (in general), he wants to rule the world because he thinks everyone else in power is screwing it up and he’s the only one who can actually bring about world peace. In Doom’s mind, he’s the hero of the story. In the case of Kingpin from the Daredevil series, he has much the same motivation (until the end anyway) – to save Hell’s Kitchen. He’s just willing to use any means necessary. But Apocalypse isn’t out to rule the world for its own sake; he wants to rule the world to advance his agenda of the strong destroying the weak (so him taking over the world proves his point, and makes his agenda easier to advance).
For a well-written villain, his/her motivation can’t just be lip service. That is, the villain can’t go around saying, “I’m evil!” without some action to back that assertion up (likewise a well-written hero doesn’t proclaim to be aligned with good and then behave like a total [expletive] to everyone). Most villains probably wouldn’t declare that they are evil anyway, but the point stands. A villain doesn’t have to be good at evil but in this case the thought counts as long as that thought leads to some kind of action.
Back story – Sometimes I think audiences sympathize too much with the villains. This manifests itself in comic books that focus on the villain, or writers insisting on turning villains into heroes (with mixed results; I don’t object to that in general but often that heel face turn is not done well). Villain back stories don’t tend to be as tragic as hero back stories, but sometimes they are. Often villain back stories have privilege and power. The exact back stories, whether tragic or entitled, do not matter in regard to how well-written the villain is. The key element of the back story is the same one for a hero – choice. There must be some element of choice in which the villain chooses the path of villainy. Sometimes a villain may set upon that path and not realize it, but when dealing with villains as such I think that’s seldom the case. If it is the case, when the villain is enlightened as to the true nature of his/her path, s/he still makes the choice on whether to stay the path of evil or reform. A tragic back story is not enough, to me, to excuse the villain’s ultimate choice to do evil.
I will admit this criterion of choice is less clear when the villains are mentally ill. This most often comes up with Batman‘s rogue’s gallery (obviously). However, I don’t think a villain with a mental illness gets a pass for his/her actions. I think the best writing in Batman shows that. The villains know what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Yes, they may be driven by compulsions or psychoses, but there is no question their schemes cause pain and misery. The audience’s sympathy is tempered by the fact they still do horrible things. Perhaps that’s not enough to justify putting the mentally ill villain on death row, but it’s certain enough to justify life in a mental institution. If rehabilitation is out of the question, then at least locking them up should prevent them from hurting other people (good triumphing over evil doesn’t mean that the result is perfect).
Personality – If personality is important to a hero, it’s more important to a villain. There has to be something about the villain that intrigues the audience otherwise they won’t get invested in the conflict. One thing is certain – unapologetic megalomaniacs are intensely compelling (and that is all I’m going to say about the state of U.S. politics at this time…). Many villains have followers. Indeed, it would be difficult to recruit henchmen if there wasn’t something compelling about following the leader (see Harley Quinn). And most large-scale villains are megalomaniacs (Darkseid, Thanos, etc.). Of course, not all villains have such out-sized personalities. Masterminds certainly do, but henchmen level villains do not always have notable personalities. A lot of Spider-man’s rogues are kind of flat, actually. Rhino, for example, has about the same personality as an actual rhinoceros, which may be why he’s usually written as an obstacle rather a character.
However, I will note that there are some villains who really don’t have much going for them in the personality department, but their motivation/goal is so compelling as to make up for that. For example, Apocalypse. A living example of the “what it says on the tin” trope, he believes in survival of the fittest and will bring the end of the world for everyone who isn’t fit. His personality isn’t that compelling, at least not to me. Sure, he’s had a long history but for all that, he’s pretty much the same as he was 5,000 years ago. However, the idea of a villain so obsessed with one goal and having so much power to achieve that goal makes Apocalypse a credible threat and to me makes up for his lack of personality.
Consistency – Consistency doesn’t mean stagnant and it doesn’t mean simple. A villain, like a hero, should be a complex, fully realized character and should change with events as they unfold. Again, I’m not against a heel face turn, if it makes sense, but too many writers use the heel face turn (or face heel turn) so often on certain characters it’s dizzying just trying to keep up. Motivations, personality, goals, etc., may change but if so those changes should be gradual. I posit, however, that the core of the villain needs to remain the same (just as the core of a hero). For example, Dr. Doom is completely self-confident. There is no doubt in his mind that he is right now, always was right, and always will be right. The “Dr. Doom” of the latest “Fantastic Four” movie sulking in his man-cave obviously lacked that total self-confidence and was obviously a very poor adaptation of the character.
More than the Sum – It’s a combination of all these things that make a great villain. Sometimes it’s easy to hit a home run. Sometimes it takes the right writer to make a mediocre or even ridiculous villain into a true menace (what Bendis did with Purple Man, for example). Some villains are great only in certain stories and some are great nearly every time they show up. Time is a valuable commodity to establishing a great villain (or hero). There are a lot of media in which there is simply not enough time spent on the villain. Without the time to establish goals, motivations, back story, and personality, the result is a cardboard villain who is more of a plot point than an actual character, and that is a pity because such a poorly written villain can bring down the whole story. But the reverse is also true – a well-written villain can bring up a whole story. Sadly, that is less common.