Anatomy of a Villain

Anatomy of a Villain

It’s Villains Week here at CG Magazine. A joyous time to say the least. Thinking about all the best baddies who have titillated our imaginations can’t help but bring a smile to one’s face. But it also makes one wonder—what makes a villain truly memorable? There are hundreds who have wreaked havoc in comic books and movies over the decades. But what makes certain villains stick in our collective consciousness more than others? What qualities ensure some a place in popular culture, woven into the fabric of generations of people while others just fall by the wayside? When we delve deeper, there are a number of elements that all top tiered villains need. This is the villain’s anatomy.

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The Look

Delving into comics and movies, the first iconic piece every major baddie needs is the look. Whether it’s the purple clad, green haired, white-faced Joker or the stoic, hulking pitch-black suit of Darth Vader, to become an icon of villainy it doesn’t hurt to have a magnetic appearance. It’s something the audience can’t take their eyes off. The look can’t be corny or laughable, but it needs to stand out, to raise the villain above the rest of the rabble. When we think of top baddies, further examples abound. Doctor Doom covered in grey, rivet filled armour draped in his green hood and cape. The hulking grey mass known as Doomsday (from the comic), with his long white hair and bony spikes protruding from his body. A burnt man wearing an old, tattered leather glove layered with razor sharp knives…Freddy Kruger anyone? A massive, sleek alien with two mouths dripping of acid or a green skinned wicked witch, with a pointy nose and even pointier black hat.

You get the point.

For some villains, their look has become as iconic as the characters or stories themselves.

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The Talent

Anatomy of a Villain 3One thing is clear: the artists that create a villain—whether they are an illustrator, a writer or an actor— have a monumental impact on iconic potential of a super-baddie. Look no further than Anthony Hopkins. His portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs won him an Oscar but it also cemented him in the minds of people the world over as one of the most terrifying villains in film history. And the best part was, he stands behind bars for most of the film. It’s his acting that gives him legendary status, the subtleties, the complexities of his performance as he taunts Jodie Foster. He resonates with audiences, chilling them to their bones.  Need a few more examples? How about James Earl Jones’s deep and powerful voice as Darth Vader. Add the heavy breathing and you have an instant icon. Who can forget Ricardo Montalban as the megalomaniacal Khan in Star Trek II. His performance masterfully walked that fine line between being just a hair over-the-top, yet not going too far making him cheesy. It was the perfect balance and audiences loved him for it.

As well, a slight alteration to a character’s appearance can further his iconic status. While the Joker was always present in the minds of comic book lovers from the 40’s to the 60’s, it wasn’t until Neal Adams began drawing the Crown Prince of Crime that he found his psychotic roots. Adams drew the Joker in such a way that his villainy and madness leapt off each panel. Adams’s talent and interpretation enhanced the Joker’s iconic look and cemented him as a top tier super villain.

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The Coolness Factor

Being cool is something you can’t fake. You either have it, or you don’t. This stands as true in everyday life as it does in the world of make-believe. This intangible quality is something all iconic villains have that you can’t really put your finger on. Who can forget the scene aboard the star destroyer Executor in The Empire Strikes Back? The various other bounty hunters stand side-by-side, receiving instructions from Darth Vader. Each had their own unique brand of cool, but the coolest of them all became an icon among Star Wars fans: Boba Fett. The more screen time this bounty hunter received, the cooler he became. He was a true bad ass, hunting down our beloved Han Solo. Everything about him was cool from his battered mask and outfit, raspy voice (in the original theatrical release) and his uniquely shaped ship Slave 1. You didn’t want this bounty hunter chasing you, but fans loved watching him hunting down someone else.

Anatomy of a Villain 5Vampires especially have always had an immediate coolness factor. Whether they are the crew led by Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys or the puffy shirt wearing Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire, vampires have always been the rock stars of monster movies. Starting with Bela Legosi in 1931 in Dracula, these creatures of the night have always had the ‘it’ factor – balancing their thirst for blood with elements cool sexuality and a suave demeanor.

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Likeability

Finally, audiences must like the villain. Many villains aren’t redeemable, and they don’t have to be.  All that is required is something audiences can connect to, something they like. That could be the pure fun of watching Jack Nicholson chase Shelley Duvall through a hotel with a knife in The Shining or Heath Ledger’s Joker torturing our beloved Caped Crusader in The Dark Knight. There must be some joy the audience takes from watching these madmen do their worst. It could be as simple as their sparkling personality: Alan Rickman will always be remembered for his twisted yet likable portrayal of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Agent Smith, played terrifically by Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Trilogy, offers audiences another memorable baddie—a likeable suit offering a deadpan delivery and lots of exposed teeth when jostling with Keau Reeves.

Anatomy of a Villain 7Some villains don’t have much of a personality, yet they are tied to our hearts regardless. In this case, it helps if you wear a mask—think Michael Myers in Halloween or Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13

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movies. They say nothing, but their presence alone has caused audiences to fall in love with their evil ways for decades.

With Suicide Squad presently shattering records for August movie openings, it proves once again that audiences love the bad guys. One scoundrel from the film has the potential to emerge as a classic villain in popular culture. Margot Robbie nails her performance as Harley Quinn and will almost certainly return in the DCEU movies. And just wait until Halloween, Harley Quinn outfits will dominate sales from pre-teens to adults—and once you’re a costume, you’re a now member of society’s fabric and only an inch or two away from becoming an icon of villainy.

Remembering The Great Cartoon Villains of the Eighties

Remembering The Great Cartoon Villains of the Eighties

Remember Saturday mornings in the 1980s? For me they involved eating C-3PO cereal while sitting on shag carpet, too close to the old wood cabinet Quasar TV. The family cat hovered nearby, looking to steal the leftover milk. Saturday morning cartoons were the only things that overpowered the lure of the Atari or the Sega consoles, which was saying a lot, since I thought Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Wonder Boy and Altered Beast were pretty much the greatest things ever.

At least, the greatest things other than Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Voltron, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and M.A.S.K. I wasn’t much into “girl shows”, though I did watch She-Ra with my sister, and I liked Jem and the Holograms… I think because it had just enough science-fiction elements for me to be interested. Back then, if something didn’t have an alien, a robot, or magic in it, I wasn’t interested. Fortunately, there was plenty of all of those things, both on Saturday mornings—The Real Ghostbusters was another favourite—but also thanks to after-school syndicated shows that ran five days a week. It was a golden age of cartoons for kids.
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Of course, these shows had villains that people still remember today: Skeletor, Hordak, Mumm-Ra, Pizzazz, Megatron, Cobra Commander, Destro, and… okay, M.A.S.K’s Miles Mayhem’s outfit was a straight up Cobra Commander rip off, but the real stars of M.A.S.K. were the vehicles.

If I didn’t name your favorite 1980s cartoon villain, don’t worry: there were plenty I left out for brevity. There were so many larger than life bad guys back then, they could fill a whole book. It was a great time to be a villain, and those villains were great to the kids who watched them. They powered some of the silliest, greatest, ongoing cartoon plots ever.

Remembering The Great Cartoon Villains of the Eighties 4I don’t think there’s any way to precisely zero in on what made these baddies special, but I think a large portion of it stemmed from Darth Vader. Vader was one part wizard, one part samurai, and one part “why does that guy have a bucket on his head?” Fortunately, back in those days, kids didn’t ask those sorts of questions. We just accepted the awesome and whacked each other with cardboard wrapping paper tubes we pretended were lightsabers.

I think the growing influence of Japanese media also had a part to play. This was very obvious with properties like Transformers and Voltron; Prince Lotor was way too pretty to be a western villain. With other franchises, the desire to be “not-Vader” caused toy companies to pull from everything from Conan the Barbarian to Speed Racer to separate their baddies from the Sith Apprentice. Of course, Star Wars itself was inspired by various films by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, so these two influences on 1980s cartoons overlap a lot.

The second-last major contributing factor, at least in my mind, was the goal of creating cheaply made cartoons with a lot of characters designed to sell toys. It was very different from the requirements on cartoon creators today: networks now want a much more limited cast of characters and absolutely no moral or educational relevance. Back in the eighties, new characters got introduced far more frequently, and villains like Skeletor were required to introduce horrendously stupid characters like Faker, Moss-Man, and Stinkor into episode plots.

Of course, I say “horrendously stupid” as a compliment. I still love Stinkor.

Remembering The Great Cartoon Villains of the EightiesYou could never make a character like Stinkor today. Some annoying network executive would ask some fun-killing question like “how do you create a skunk man?” Other fun killing questions may include “how does Skeletor speak without a soft palate or tongue?” and “should you really name your hero’s friends things like Fisto and Ram-Man?”

Never mind the ethical ramifications of a kid who with the physique of a well-muscled young cat man like Lion-O, or the fact that the Transformers worship an inherently virtuous set of computer code. Also, why are the Holograms okay with Jem never really hanging out with them outside of work?

We didn’t ask those questions back then, except in fun. We sort of understood, even as kids, that this stuff had an element that was dumb. By the eighties, kids had a few decades of comic book stories with those sorts of “don’t ask” elements, like Superman hiding his identity with a pair of glasses. Super Friends was also still running on TV, and the absurdity of Silver Age comics was a big part of what made them fun for kids. Back then, Dr. Doom, The Joker, and Lex Luthor weren’t scary. They were more like bad guy wrestlers… in those days, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling wasn’t referencing a sex tape.

Remembering The Great Cartoon Villains of the Eighties 3It’s surprisingly difficult to write a compelling villain who isn’t terrifying, and I think that eighties cartoon creators don’t get enough credit for that feat. Science fiction and fantasy creators don’t do that anymore, because the 1980s were also the decade when comic books went dark. In 1987, DC Comics published Watchmen, an anti-superhero limited series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. It changed comics, and comics inspired media, in ways that these men didn’t intend. Battles between good and evil became gritty and disturbing, superhero cartoons went the Batman: The Animated Series route, and kids programming lost its great original villains. The only immediately recognizable new cartoon TV villain I can think is the Ice King from Adventure Time. You can’t really call Squidworth from Spongebob Squarepants a villain; he’s just a grumpy boss.

I think this is a loss. You can’t have heroes without villains, and you can’t have cartoon villains that terrify kids. Some of the fondest memories I have are from when I was six years old, when my friend Vera Horseman and I beat the crap out of each other pretending to be Lion-O and Mumm-Ra. If it weren’t for Star Wars and DC and Marvel comic book characters created decades ago, kids today wouldn’t have that. As much as I like seeing kids pretending to be familiar superheroes, I think it’s sad that this generation of kids doesn’t have their own roster of Skeletors, Mumm-Ras and Cobra Commanders, because the older I get, the more I appreciate that zany, safe, “Curse you He-Man!” form of villainy.

Bad in Japan: Anime’s Most Memorable Villians

Bad in Japan: Anime's Most Memorable Villians

Anime is home to several iconic heroes: Goku, Monkey D. Luffy, and pretty much the entire Joestar family, to name but a few. On the opposite end of every hero is someone who challenges everything they stand for. Antagonists can make or break a narrative, and are just as crucial to a compelling series as an endearing cast of heroes.

Here are some of the most evil, most sinister, and all-around most captivating villains in anime history. Some spoilers abound, but villains who act as plot twists have been omitted from this list.

Read moreBad in Japan: Anime’s Most Memorable Villians