Every hero needs a villain (that’s not strictly true, in the narrative sense, but let’s go with it). Heroes usually have pretty clear goals: “I want to stop Darth Vader.” “I want to free
America Pandora from colonialism space marines.” “I just want my kids back.”
Villains usually have clear goals, too. Darth Vader wants to rule the galaxy.
Halliburton The Resources Development Administration wants unobtainium. Child Services wants to protect children from scruffy, charming, alcoholic parents. (But they’re such dicks about it).
Some villains, though, do not have clear goals. Since they’re antagonists, and the plot hangs on the hero thwarting them or opposing them, villains can get away with not having much in the way of development. Bond villains just want to fire a huge moon laser into the earth. Don’t ask why. They’re evil. But since most writers want to think they’re writing deep, meaningful stories with deep, meaningful characters, sometimes they go out of their way to give a villain depth. So much depth that it’s impossible to tell what they’re actually all about.
Here’s a fun test you can do at home. Can you, on your own, without consulting the internet, articulate what these 5 characters were trying to accomplish? Because I sure as hell can’t. Take the first one… you’d need a freaking PhD dissertation to delve into what was going on with…
Ben Linus, Lost
Ah, Ben. I remember when he first made his way onto Lost, lying through his teeth about crashing on the island in a hot air balloon or something. Turns out, he was one of the Others. No, wait, that’s wrong. (I’m also adhering to the challenge and not consulting the internet for this one, just my terrible, terrible brain.) I think he was actually Charles Widmore’s business partner or something. Or he was sort of like the Island’s custodian? I remember Ben saying “I lied” a lot, so maybe he was lying about that. I think he wanted to save the island from the smoke monster. Uh, hang on, that doesn’t sound right. I definitely remember him trying to kill Jacob at one point, at the urging of the smoke monster/Locke… ah, screw it.
Mainly he was a terrific actor and you never know where he stood. So he was certainly compelling, and fun to watch, but if you try to piece together a narrative of his life, I’m not convinced it makes any kind of sense.
What his goal was: Successfully manipulate every human being on the Earth into doing something they were opposed to in the first place.
Cavil, Battlestar Galactica
Now here’s a guy who pulled off Affable Evil very, very well. And as he went from kindly old Grandpa Cylon to onmicidal maniac, I think I lost the thread of what exactly he was trying to accomplish. I remember his general disdain for humanity: he had kind of a reverse-Pinocchio thing going on. I remember his rant – which should spell out his goals quite clearly, about how absurd it was that he had to communicate with spoken language and see through gelatinous orbs. He was really, really into being a machine. More power to him. But he also lobotomized all the Centurions that were, in theory, a lot less human than the numbered “skinjob” Cylons. And he waged a pretty spiteful, genocidal war against humanity (and more importantly, his creators). Maybe he did want to be a Real Machine. He just didn’t spend a whole lot of time, you know, actually doing it.
As the series went on, his petty feud with his “mom” and his selfishness in general kind of consumed any real character there. Maybe in the end he was all too human – we’re not exactly famous for having our goals and our actions line up.
What his goal was: To pull off the most brutal and complex iteration of an Oedipus Complex in this history of fiction.
Irina Derevko, Alias
Now I’m just picking on J.J. Abrams. Truth be told, I enjoyed 70% of both Lost and Alias. He’s got a knack for creating compelling situations. Situations, but not complete stories. I mean, the Sydney / Jack / Irina dynamic alone is enough to waste 500 words trying to explain, but like all good fiction, it takes the extreme situation and bends it all the way around into relatable. The excellent Season 2 two-part episode “Passage” is a highlight of the show for me.
Bear in mind that in this scene, the dynamic between the three of them is at least the fact that all three are spies, and Irina was a deep cover operative who seduced Jack and married him and had Sydney as part of her cover, and at this point she’s a captive of the CIA, and only allowed outside because of a huge threat that they’re racing to save and their cover was blown and they’ll probably all die… and all that is the subtext of this scene:
Anyway. For such a layered character – you never really knew how much she cared about Sydney and Jack – you always had the feeling that she was going to double cross the CIA (which she inevitably did) but also that she was secretly working on something that actually aligned with her family’s interests.
What she really wanted: How sad was it when we found out, in the last season, that, whoops, nope, she’s a Bond Villian who wants to destroy the world to bring about the “plan” of a dead techno-prophet or something. Jesus.
*Just talking about the film version here. I’m not equipped to discuss the comic book version; no judgment, just not really my cup of tea
OK, I got this one. He wants mutants to be the master race. Boom, easy. No, wait, hang on, he’s Jewish and didn’t his mom die in one of the camps? I definitely remember that scene with the gate. You’d think he’d have figured out that promoting a master race is a bad idea. Well, okay, maybe that’s his goal anyway. Promoting mutantkind. Except… I have this odd feeling that he’s responsible for killing quite a few mutants. I know, I know, omelets and eggs. He’s an extremist. Whatever It Takes to make sure mutants are okay. Including killing a bunch of mutants. He definitely wasn’t shy about sending all those “lesser” mutants off as cannon fodder in X-3. Is it possible that…
What he really wanted: … he was just a jerk with delusions of grandeur?
The Umbrella Corporation, Resident Evil
Welcome, fellow executives. I present to you the result of our $3 trillion investment in underground city technology / cutting edge biological research, which is run by a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence –
Did you say artificial intelligence?
Yeah. She’s a computer who runs the whole lab and makes decisions and talks to you like a person.
Could we just stop right there? We could probably sell that to, uh, anyone, for quite a bit –
We can’t do that; she wouldn’t like it.
She? I suppose you made the avatar a nice looking, pleasant woman, somewhat like Sandra Bullock?
No, she’s a laser-red hologram of a creepy British child.
Oh, right, of course. Carry on.
Right, so when we created the T-Virus, we thought, ‘how are we going to introduce this to the market,’ and we thought –
Turns everyone into zombies; would probably destroy the world if it ever got out.
Ah, perfect. And if everyone were zombies…
That’s right. We’d finally take down Google, because Google would be zombies. We’d be on top of the NASDAQ. Our shareholders would love us.
We wouldn’t even have to pay out shareholder dividends! All our shareholders would be zombies. They don’t care about dividends.