Before starting the proper ‘Imperial March’ craziness and talking about specific villains, it might be a good idea to start in a more general manner in the sense of ‘Why villains, and what are we doing here anyway?’
Yes, why indeed? To be brief: because they are amazing, awesome, horrifying, and appeal to our darkest desires. I mean, have you seen Loki and the awesomeness that he is?!
And to be more elaborate; and excuse my academics:
I’ve always been a fan of villains; strangely enough, I’ve always felt more intrigued by and more drawn to villain(ous) characters in any kind of media, much more than the typically less interesting ‘good characters’. When my studies gave me the opportunity to pursue these dynamics in a more academic manner, I simply had to seize it.
Again strangely enough, when I set out to do this I realised that not much research has been done on characters of villains at all. There are numerous works on heroes and protagonists and what-not, but in my research I have found only little (and mainly very recent) material on villains and the portrayal of evil in media as such. This surprised me, but didn’t discourage me from my research either; if there is no real ‘villain theory’, then someone has to start, right? In my first academic work on villains, which you can find here [link], I looked at the dynamics of male villains in adaptation studies (film and literature) and ended up with a villain categorisation that is, however, by no means perfect or finished. I’m sure that more research will lead to some refinement and possibly more categories, too. The preliminary categories that I have drawn up on the basis of seven villain character studies are:
The Emerging Villain
This type of villain is interesting because he** provides an in-depth insight into his development. More or less unusual circumstances bring about the transformation of the ‘average being’ (who is mostly good or, at the best, rather neutral) into a villain. Literature is probably the best medium to convey these changes, as they take place mainly on a mental level, but film has had its fair share of interesting emerging villains as well.
Examples: Michael Corleone (The Godfather), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)
The Core Villain
In my opinion, this is the most interesting villain type: the villain consists of pure, open evil. His background is mysterious in order to refuse the spectator’s understanding of his circumstances because the point is to not understand him. Mostly there is a conscious choice involved here: the villain chooses to be evil, fully aware of the binary concepts of good and evil. By assuming full responsibility of this choice, he challenges the spectator’s moral standards and worldview, and therefore becomes a character that can be very intriguing.
Examples: Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), Lestat (Interview with the Vampire), Darth Vader (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
The Philosophical Villain
This is probably the most difficult and most vague of the villain categories because it focuses not necessarily on the presentation of the villain, but on his primary function. Essentially, this type of villain is designed to investigate society and human nature, and other philosophical matters related to this. Therefore, the villain conveys a certain philosophical standpoint providing a deeper insight into human nature and dynamics of society. There may be some overlap between this category and the core villain, so the categorisation depends largely on what his main function is.
Examples: Joker (Batman comics; The Dark Knight), Jonathan Teatime (The Hogfather)
So why villains? Why are they, specifically, so fascinating to me?
Because in my opinion, they are an amazing vehicle of self-questioning. Examining villains means, to some extent, examining ourselves – what are our own dynamics, and what is our attitude to the whole good/evil binary opposition? Even if we do not agree with their views – and most often we do not really, even if we find them very interesting – the fact that they force us to re-examine ourselves establishes an undeniable personal connection. And I think this is what makes most villains such popular characters.
Of course there are also other types of villains that I have not focused on in that specific work, but in the next one. They are the kind of villains that are simply repellent – villains that are not intriguing, but so horrid that we instantly deny them any access to us; we simply don’t want to get involved, we don’t care what made them ‘monsters.’ According to my research, this is mostly connected to societal and cultural trauma, and of course also to personal trauma; when issues are addressed that make us so uncomfortable because we have to face them every day, either because they are still present in society or because they are still present in our memory. But that is a whole different point altogether.
* This post is part of the project ‘Imperial March’. You can read more about the project and its genesis here. This post is also in parts a summarised/simplified version of my ‘Conclusion’ chapter in my academic work ‘Reading Over to the Dark Side: The Complexity of the Male Villain in Film and Literature’, which you can find here.
** I have so far only focused on male villains in my theories. Future research may also include female villains as in my opinion the dynamics are quite different between male and female villains.