Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Pyramid of Villainy!

There are only three types of villain in movies and comic books.

Let me clarify that by defining what I mean by "villain". Every movie has protagonists and antagonists. Protagonists are your main characters: The guy you root for and who - in Hollywood at least - wins at the end. Antagonists are the guys who don't win. The ones who try to stop the protagonist achieving his goals. They're usually dead by the time the final credits roll and they have many different motivations, depending on the plot of the movie. But not all protagonists are Heroes and not all antagonists are Villains.

Defining a Hero (big H) is easy. There's a million books, articles and epic ballads about heroes, and about what being a hero means. There's even a feature length CGI-film that was released a few years ago, with Ray Winstone playing Sean Bean playing Beowulf, that addresses the concept of "Being a Hero" in some depth.

But what makes a Villain? How can you tell when you're dealing with a Villain, rather than a common-or-garden antagonist? Is everyone who goes up against a Hero (big H) a Villain (big V), or just a villain (little v)?

Well, I'm glad you asked.

In "Unbreakable", one character talks about how Super-Heroes have two types of Villain: those who fight the Hero with their body, and those who fight them with their mind. I admit, that analysis holds some weight, but misses the defining factor: Motivation. Motivation divides our Villains into three tiers.

I believe there are not two, but three, types of Villain. And I'm not just talking about super-heroes and comic books here. I first noticed this when reading Robin Hood stories, oh so many years ago. He only had three regular opponents, and they each filled very separate roles in his life.

Tier 1: The Id

That's not I.D., people, that's Id, as Freud defined it. Freud had a lot of wacky ideas, many incorrect, absurd and disproved, but the man sure knew his comic book villains.

The IdVillains want to beat the Hero because of who he is. In the case of Robin Hood, his IdVilllain is Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Gisbourne, usually a bounty-hunter or minor nobleman, first decides to bring Robin to justice for cash, or simply because he is told to do so by his superiors. After their first encounter, his motivation tends to switch to revenge, or retaliation for his wounded pride. In the early swashbuckling movies, he is a rival suitor to Maid Marian and fights Robin out of jealousy and to secure his future nuptials.

Every Hero has his IdVillains. As the base tier of The Pyramid of Villainy, they're the most common. Batman has Bane and Killer-Croc. Superman has Bizarro and Doomsday. Spider-Man has Carnage and Kraven. The list goes on. Their motives are base and animalistic; almost always money, revenge, or some combination of the two.

Generally, they can be dealt with by beating them up and putting them in prison.

Tier 2: The Ego

EgoVillains are where the fun stuff happens. Their relationship to our Hero is deeper than the IdVillains, often personal, and they're not so much trying to destroy the Hero, as trying to destroy what the Hero represents.

Robin Hood had the Sheriff of Nottingham. For more than seven hundred years, this duo have warred in our stories and folklore. Free-loving thief vs. tyrannical law-enforcer. Lovable chortling man-of-the-people vs. scowling growling tax-enforcer. They're so well-matched, you simply can't have one without the other (unless you are making The New Adventures of Robin Hood, and let's not talk about that show ever again)

Pretty much every Arch-Nemesis you can imagine is an EgoVillain. IdVillains want to kill the Hero; EgoVillains want to beat them. IdVillains are angry when they hear someone else has killed the Hero before they could do it; EgoVillains are disappointed. Superman has Lex Luthor, Batman's rogues' gallery is chock full of them. Even Doctor Who has The Master.

EgoVillains generally have a plan or a scheme in motion. Even if you take them out, or put them in jail, it will never be enough: Their doomsday weapon is still counting down to fire; their assassin is already in place, and you don't know who it is; Maid Marian is still scheduled to hang at noon. It's never enough to put them out of action, you have to disarm their threat and destroy their plan as well.

Tier 3: The SuperEgo

The big dog. The Supreme Power. The Numero Uno. Le Grand Fromage. The person you do not mess with unless you have an army behind you, God on your side, and a life insurance policy that pays out even if your body is never found.

Robin Hood's SuperEgoVillain is Prince John. You see, Prince John doesn't care about Robin; he's too busy trying to usurp his brother's crown. For that, he needs the noblemens' support. To win them over, he needs gold to bribe the cowardly ones, and more gold to pay his armies to fight the rest. To get gold, he needs to collect taxes. To collect taxes, he needs Robin to stop fucking with his tax collectors. That's all. Robin is messing with one small link in a very long and important chain. Robin is the spanner in his works, the fly in his ointment, the ill-trained monkey in his nuclear reactor. If Robin were to hang up his tights and retire to a life of pig farming, Prince John would celebrate for five minutes, and then promptly forget about him.

The SuperEgoVillains don't have a plan, they are the plan. As Freud defined the superego to be that part of a man which seeks higher goals, the SuperEgoVillains are identified by their goal, which is almost always about power. IdVillains don't have a plan that extends beyond causing death, destruction or their own personal gratification. EgoVillains have different goals and plans every week. SuperEgoVillains tend to have one goal, and that goal never changes.

Ra's Al Ghul. Brainiac. The Mayor of Sunnydale. Darkseid. Galactus. Sargeras. Sauron. Ozymandias. A SuperEgoVillain is the rarest of all types, and will almost never be killed. Those that are killed are usually done so at the very end of the story (Emperor Palpatine, being the most famous example)

Tier X: The Leftovers

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the Villains who manage to cross the divide between the tiers and who are doubtless the rarest of all.

Magneto is the best example of this schizophrenic bunch. He's both Ego and SuperEgo. Venom from Spider-Man is both Ego and Id.

And as for The Joker? I could probably do an entire post about just him, and not even scratch the grease-paint.

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