This past month, Entertainment Weekly came out with their list of Best Pop Culture villains. There was the usual collection of good, bad and "huh?" choices but it got me to thinking... what makes a good villain? As with any discussions of villains, my thoughts immediately turn to my gold standard of movie villainy: Hans Gruber. Now old Hans did make EW's list, but not nearly as high as he should have. Why is he my favorite movie villain? The answer is as easy as it is indefinable: He's cool!
I firmly believe the best villains are the ones you love to hate. My villains have to have some style, some panache, and hopefully a slight sense of humor. Take my favorite Disney villains: you've got Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, who is pure evil - she has a bad ass costume, an evil laugh, hell - she even has horns! Then there's Ursula from The Little Mermaid who has nothing if not presence. If you've created your villain correctly, your audience should be at least half-hoping that they succeed. (Unfortunately, Thomas Harris took this a little far and gave us the extremely ill-conceived Hannibal. Ugh!)
A calm, cool and collected presence helps, too. Other-the-top villainy doesn't work for me. I like Anton Chigurgh a lot better than Jack Torrence. Nurse Ratched... The Operative from Serenity ... Hannibal Lecter... these are people whose feathers don't ruffle easily and it makes them seem downright unbeatable. What more can you want in a villain?
Villains are also best when they don't have overly complicated motivations. Which was scarier, the original "Jaws" or "Jaws 4... this time it's personal" where Jaws' mother went on a revenge rampage? OK, maybe that's not a fair comparison, I mean who likes anything about Jaws 4, but let me ask you this: which is the better Batman villain, the bad ass Joker or Mr. Freeze, who has to be bad in order to save his dying wife? Or the Penguin who was horribly abused and abandoned as a child? The less you know about your villain's back story, the better. I'll take my villains' motives like Nicky Holiday's in The Great Muppet Caper: "Why am I doing this? I'm a villain! It's pure and simple." How can you argue with that?
So here's my advice: Don't work so hard at making your villain scary, or brutal, or "complicated," just make them memorable, stylish, and cool. They may not win, but everyone will be secretly wishing they did!