What makes a successful film villain?

Jamie Flook 16 June 2022

From Michael Myers to Hannibal Lecter, it is often the villains who make the most memorable characters. So what makes an unforgettable onscreen villain?

Twenty-five years ago this month, John Malkovich commandeered a prisoner transport plane as Cyrus The Virus and flooded our cinema screens with a shedload of dastardly villains in Con Air. Nicolas Cage was the leading man, and all credit to him, but it was the well-crafted villains who really stole the show. Villains are some of the most memorable characters in film, but when we think of the greatest villains, they don’t all possess the same character traits.  

In Star Wars, Emperor Palpatine is seemingly incapable of empathy. The same cannot be said of Darth Vader—yet they are both clearly successful villains, neither of which you would invite to dinner (mainly because of their penchant for killing on a whim). The differences between these two begs the question: what makes a successful film villain? 

"Villains are some of the most memorable characters in film"

You don’t need to be Dr Frankenstein to create a villain, but you might want the following recipe.

A dynamic back story

A cracking back story that tells us why a villain behaves the way they do sets up the essential credibility needed for us to fear or respect the character, depending on the context. Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson both played brilliant and  memorable versions of The Joker in the Batman films. However, when the back story came to the foreground and became the basis for an entire film (Joker, 2019), a whole new layer of creepiness echoed through our screens every time Joaquin Phoenix's Joker laughed. A comic character had become dramatic and disturbing.

A striking image

A terrifying or mysterious personal image can help to create a sense of distrust and fear. This can be achieved in many different ways. Martin Scorsese’s gangsters usually wear expensive suits while murdering and robbing people, which encourages us to believe in their fear-inducing respectability as high-ranking members of the mafia.  

via GIPHY

More elaborate costumes, make-up and masks can create a feeling of foreboding before a villain even opens their mouth. Think of the masked serial killer Michael Myers from the Halloween films—he doesn’t even need to speak, the mask itself induces fear. Interestingly, the Michael Myers mask is a real-life mould of William Shatner’s face as it was originally made as a death mask for Star Trek. After it was made famous in Halloween, Shatner bought one and wore it while trick or treating with his daughters.

Some kind of motivation

It’s not enough for a villain to simply be bad for the sake of it. To become memorable and achieve a lasting place in cinematic history, a villain needs to be motivated. They need to have a cunning plan. In Misery, the nurse Annie Wilkes keeps her favourite writer, Paul Sheldon, prisoner. The motivation? She wants him to rewrite his next manuscript as she is unhappy with his latest work. It was important that Stephen King gave her a motivation because it allowed for the story to move forward, and lent Wilkes more leverage to use and abuse her power over Sheldon. Kathy Bates thoroughly deserved her Best Actress Oscar for this performance. 

"It’s not enough for a villain to simply be bad for the sake of it"

Sometimes a character’s motivation might be more uncertain. Take the case of fictional SS officer Hans Landa. For Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino crafted Landa into a truly ruthless Nazi and then hired probably the best person possible to carry it off: Christoph Waltz. Initially, it seems like Landa is motivated by Nazi ideology. As the film develops, some might argue that the motivation becomes more personal and less political. Either way, Waltz was a fabulous choice to play the villain. 

Connection with the audience

The most thrilling actors and writers will imbue their villain with a creative persona that connects in some way with the audience. Vincent Price could probably have livened up the most boring weather forecast with his crispy gothic graveyard voice, which immediately elevated the spookiness of any villain he happened to be playing.  

via GIPHY

The relaxed intellectual gravitas that Anthony Hopkins brought to the role of Hannibal Lecter contrasted perfectly with the bloodthirsty sadistic nature of the character. It allowed us to see more than just a killer and made us ponder what might be going through Lecter’s mind. It made us connect with the character and be invested in his fate. 

Tough to beat

An effective villain has to test any heroes in the story; they can’t just be defeated easily. The aggressive jazz teacher in Whiplash played by J K Simmons never gave any margin for error, and punished any mistakes mercilessly. Heck, he punished people even when they didn’t make a mistake! Miles Teller played Andrew, a student jazz dummer whose resolve was tested severely by having to face such an intimidating foe. He couldn’t have it easy or there would have been no Whiplash

"An effective villain has to test any heroes in the story"

Next time you find yourself watching a villain onscreen, see which of these ingredients have been used to make them particularly memorable!

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