It’s a commonly known trope; Villains are Cool. The good guys are so blandly pure, they spend most of the time reacting to what the villains do, and they are honestly a bit conventional. In contrast, the bad guys are complex, active and surprising. The average audience member might not want to emulate Darth Vader in real life, but who wouldn’t want to show up to a party in that black cape and helmet? It’s no trouble to come up with other examples of this principle, from Hannibal Lecter to the Joker.
Given that Darth Vader was one of the greatest villains of all time, it was interesting to contrast him with Kylo Ren, villain of The Force Awakens. He’s certainly powerful and evil, but in every other sense, he is Vader’s opposite. Vader was cool and collected. He inspired awe because of how unflappable he was.
Kylo, in contrast, is a short-tempered, entitled little bully. You don’t want to dress up as Kylo. You want to watch that SNL sketch where he participates in Undercover Boss.For all that, he is still an effective bad guy. He is clearly a legitimate threat to our heroes, and you want to see him taken down. While Vader frightened because he was so totally in command of any situation. Kylo frightened us because of what can happen when someone so unhinged is given that much power.
I’ve noticed a number of other villains in the same class as Kylo. One of the most famous examples has to be Joffrey from Game of Thrones. He was an arrogant little shit who filled the world with joy when he died. Nobody wants to be Joffrey. Similarly, Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road was intimidating and theatrical, but I haven’t seem people getting excited over their Immortan Joe costume. Everybody wants to be Max, Nux or Furiosa. One more example I can think of is Kilgrave, from Netflix’s Jessica Jones. He is interesting because he isn’t as transparently unhinged as Joffrey, Kylo or Immortan Joe. He is a well-dressed man with an English accent, and feels like he should be lumped in with the Vaders, but unlike them he skips right past that stage of “I know you’re bad but damn, you’re just so cool” straight to an unfettered desire to see him dead, dead, DEAD.
There are a lot of theories on why villains can be so appealing, and many of them hinge on inherent advantages that bad guys have, but given all these detestable counterexamples, I have another theory. The villains we think of as cool have likable and sympathetic traits. Not necessarily moral ones, but likable ones. For example;
- Darth Vader has a collected authority. He is intelligent, perceptive and commanding. Furthermore, later movies establish that he could potentially be turned back to the good side, which is intriguing.
- Hannibal Lecter is sophisticated and eloquent. He is also resourceful and, again, intelligent. The contrast between his crimes and his aristocratic bearing makes for an interesting contrast. Furthermore, while he is evil he is mostly shown cooperating and even being kindly towards the protagonist.
- The Joker is damn funny. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Adding complexity to a character typically makes them more relatable, but it is possible to create a multi-dimensional villain who still lacks sympathetic traits. Joffrey’s complexity lies not in a hidden good side, but in the contrast between the kingly image he and his family work to maintain, and the cowardly sadist who lies beneath. The lies he tells himself about what kind of a person he is gives him realism, while adding “hypocrisy” and “self-delusional” to his list of faults. He does not need admirable traits like intelligence, restraint or resourcefulness; his privileged position makes him frightening enough.
Furthermore, how the story is told can have as much bearing on how much we like a character as what their raw psychological makeup actually is. I already gave some hints about how Hannibal and Vader’s stories set the audience up to like them, despite what they have done. That can work the other way too.
- Kilgrave has the power of mind control. He can compel anyone to do what he says with a word. This allows him to take on many of the trappings of a suave, manipulative bastard, but now there is no skill involved. The audience has no reason to admire his control, because he didn’t have to work for it, so we have no distractions from the pure horror of what he is willing to force people to do. This makes him utterly despicable.
- Immortan Joe might have needed to use resourcefulness and discipline to build his society. He might have had to combat difficult circumstances. Or maybe he just got very lucky. Because we are not given his backstory, we can focus not on how he got his power but what he does with it. Unlike Hannibal, who we see through the eyes of someone he has never wronged, we see Immortan Joe through the eyes of those he has kidnapped, raped and brainwashed.
This brings me back to Kylo Ren. What is his backstory? Essentially, it’s of one who bought into the Cool Villain trope too hard. We are told in the other films that the dark side is the quick and easy path to power. Kylo could have chosen a better way, in fact he sometimes even struggles with his choice. He is complex, but the film reminds us that he chose evil, and won’t absolve him of the responsibility. It shows us how pathetic that actually is, how even with his awesome strength with the force he is undisciplined and weak-willed. It puts his condescending attitude in the spotlight. I love these posts about how well he represents toxic masculinity and misogynistic trolls. Also, he reminds me of those so-called pick-up artists, who decide that if being a Nice Guy (TM) isn’t getting them laid they’ll just become a douche, never realizing that by making that choice they have proven themselves the most pathetic little monsters of all.
There are advantages to both kinds of storytelling. The cool villain is better when portraying a threat to a positive status quo; their intelligence and charisma is key to making that threat credible. The uncool villain is better when heroes are rebelling against an oppressive status quo. They need to be abusers of power who deserve to be overthrown. The cool villain can explore morally complex questions, make us wonder where evil comes from and remind us that our enemies are people too. The uncool villain reminds us that there comes a time when it is no longer productive to look at complexities and the two sides to every story. A tragic backstory will not heal their victim’s wounds.