Villains: Or How I Learned To Stop Thinking And Just Hate The Bad Guy

5 October, 2011

So I finally got around to watching both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I'm not a big fan of comic-book movies for a number of reasons, but my man crush for Christian Bale along with Inception were plenty enough motivation for me to see what I was missing.


Cool Shit/Plot
Christopher Nolan makes pretty soulless films that are way more about plot points and "cool" things than they are really about characters. I mean, honestly he never lets two chracters stay in a scene and just talk for more than 20 seconds. They never start to feel like people to me. That's okay, it can work, just as long as you pack in enough cool shit and awesome plot points.

There's no Cat button...Defrost?
So the whole microwave weapon in Batman Begins was just ridiculous. Maybe in a film where the cool shit wasn't the whole fucking idea could you get away with this. Basically the bad guy has pumped a chemical into the whole water supply that makes you go fucking crazy, BUT you have to inhale it, drinking it won't do. So it's in the water supply...I don't get it. And neither does Batman, until PLOT TWIST!, the bad guys manage to steal a microwave weapon that will vaporize watery things for miles around. Basically it's an inside-out microwave oven. Hey, wait a second, aren't people mostly made of water? Shouldn't this just nuke the shit out of everyone? No? Oh okay, I guess your plot points don't need logic. Why don't they just rent a plane and spray the shit over the city? Seems a lot easier than infiltrating the water supply then stealing a secret military weapon and then microwaving the whole city...

In The Dark Knight, Batman takes a bullet hole in a wall, not even the shattered bits of the bullet, then takes this hole and runs computer simulations to reconstruct what the bullet was like that created the hole. I suppose this could work to determine what kind of bullet or gun caused it, but no. Batman's computer model gives him a fingerprint on the bullet. That's right, he finds a hole in a wall and his computer back-engineers that into a fingerprint that was on the bullet. Do I need to explain how completely non-sensical this is. I thought the whole idea was that this was supposed to be the gritty-realistic Batman...Not bad CSI Batman. It's supposed to be just an awesome technology. Batman has several of these and they make sense, none of them are magic, they have a grounding in reality. But this idea that you could take a bullet hole and recreate a finger print that was on the shattered bullet is ridiculous and will never be possible.

Physics Lesson
Batman saves Maggie Gyllenhall from falling to her death by grabbing her and holding her as they both slam into a parked car. I guess Batman's suit spreads the forces out over his body and that somehow cushions the blow. It doesnt' really make a lot of sense, but fine. However, Maggie is just landing on him landing on a car. Think about it this way, how are the forces acting on her any different if he's holding her or not. Either way she's decellerating from free fall speed to stopped. Either way it's like running into a brick wall at 60 mph, are you telling me Batman's moobs act like airbags?

This is one example of an epidemic in Hollywood, the magic grabbing/holding effect. Falling a huge distance is fine as long as someone holds on to you. How often do we see Spiderman or Superman or other super heroes chase after someone who is falling, only to bring them to a dead stop by grabbing them just shy of slamming into concrete. Phew. Wait a second...Why is it bad to crash into pavement at 100 mph? Because you stop suddenly. It's the acceleration that hurts, not the fact that it's concrete. So when superman grabs you and stops you just inches from the ground, you're telling the audience that his arms are somehow super cushiony. If he really did it, it'd be like jumping fifteen stories onto steel girders shaped like arms. Bet they'll catch you all cushiony.

Or how about in The Matrix Reloaded, where Morpheus and the Key Maker are on the back of the semi truck as it is about to crash head first into another semitruck. Morpheus is all like, hey Neo, come on and save us. So the trucks crash together and the worst thing that will happen is they will fly over the crashed trucks at about 70-80 mph, then land on pavement and slide to a stop (or be blasted by the truck explosion). Instead of that, Neo flies in at hundreds if not thousands of miles per hour, grabs them and carries them to safety. Imagine standing on the street, minding your own business, when an airplane flies by and yanks you by your shirt collar and you instantly go from zero to 500 mph. More likely, you're head would snap back so hard it'd fall off. This is what Neo does to Morpheus rather than let him skid to a stop from 70 on pavement, he yanks him to an instant 500 mph.

The Over-the-top Bad Guy
When creating a villian, there are three main ideas.

1. The Completely Evil Bad Guy
Give him an evil sounding name and have his goals simply be super evil. He has no depth, and his name sounds something like Modkrod, Sauron, Voldemort, Vader, Sidious, General Grievous, Captian Bone-to-pick, or Admiral I'm a bad guy.

2. A villain that has different goals from the main character, but also isn't just evil for evil's sake, they see things differently. Sometimes they're simply a competitor who selfishly wants the same thing the MC is after. Other times their different world views are the source of their differences. For example, In the Matrix, Agent Smith sees humans as a virus or a disease, as an AI, he sees things differently. Although what his goals really are is kind of up in the air, so that makes him more like a Category 1 bad guy. Another example would be Se7en, where the bad guy is a sort of religious nut who thinks that he's going to put the fear of god back into people and make them live more piously, and thus he thinks he's probably saving souls by doing the evil things he is doing. See how much better that is than Sauron or Voldemort simply being evil looking,sounding guys that want power..

3. The Villain with the same goals as the MC.
If the Villain and the MC want the same things, suddenly there's a lot more depth here. The real disagreement isn't over the goal, it's about how far you're willing to go to accomplish it. The Bad guys are of the "The ends justifies the means" crowd, while the MC has some super-moral code they adhere to and will fight against their own goal because the bad guy is willing to go to far to get it.

In Minority Report, the bad guy is willing to kill in order to keep Pre-Crime running, because on the whole, it saves many more lives. The Main Character thinks murder is always wrong and ultimately fights to dismantle pre-crime. So at the end of the film, Pre-Crime is ended...thus returning us to a world with murder...Thanks Tom Cruise for getting rid of future-seeing cops that stop murders before they happen.

Another example, is the film Surrogates. In this world, everyone is a fat-ass shut-in who lives vicariously through a robot that looks like a super sexy version of them that goes out in the world. Bruce Willis is a cop who uses a surrogate at the beginning but is sick of the things and wants to live in the real world again, his wife however is obsessed with her perfect image and doesn't want to return to being an imperfect meatbag. The bad guy is James Cromwell, the guy who invented surrogates in the first place. He decides that his invention has ruined society and turned all of the users into people that are dead inside. So his plan is to unleash a virus that kills everyone using a surrogate, thus returning the world to normal. So Bruce Willis and James Cromwell both want people to return to the real world and abandon these perfect robot surrogates. So at the end, the virus is downloading that will kill all people attached to a surrogate. Bruce Willis is trying to stop it, and he stops it, keeping everyone alive, but then he has to press another button to stop the virus from destroying the surrogates (but without killing the people attached to them) he decides to let the virus go and blow up the surrogates. So then we cut to the street where all the surrogates suddenly go limp. And the world returns to normal thanks to Bruce Willis not stopping the virus totally. The End.

But wait...If Bruce Willis modified the virus from something that kills billions of people, into one that just destroys surrogates and doesn't harm a single person with a few keystrokes...couldn't Cromwell have just made a virus that didn't kill everyone in the first place. See what I'm getting at. The bad guy wants to stop people from using surrogates. He's also the president of the surrogate company. He has the power to destroy all surrogates, and stop building new ones, thus stopping the use of surrogates. INSTEAD of doing that, he tries to kill billions of people and writes it off as "they're already dead." Oh okay. Thanks for giving us an ethical dillemma by being completely over the top evil.

When the MC and Antagonist only disagree on how far you should go to accomplish your goal, you need to make both of their views make sense in order to create an actual ethical dillemma. In Minority Report, the bad guy actually seems to be in the right, because the ends seems to really justify the means. Killing one or a few people in order to prevent thousands of murders seems like a fair trade. So that leaves the main character as making a stupid stand to destroy something good because they can't see the big picture. OR they go the other way and make the villain just go completely over the top in how far they are willing to go.

So in Batman Begins, Liam Neeson and Batman both want justice and to punish bad guys. Batman thinks you should do this by enforcing the law, let the courts and prisons do the punishment, he's no executioner. So you'd think the counter point would be another vigilante who will just kill bad guys and not bother with the justice system, the problem is that there's no oversight, how do you know you're killing really bad guys for sure? no trial, no jury, etc. It creates a real ethical dilemma. Maybe Liam accidentally kills a handful of innocent people, and Batman then has a dillemma: do you allow Liam Neeson to keep being a vigilante who enforces justice but also makes mistakes sometimes? Instead of that, Liam Neeson wants to give everyone in the city crazy juice and then let all the bad guys out of jail in order to create total chaos and destroy the city so that it becomes a symbol or something.

His way of creating justice is to DESTROY AN ENTIRE CITY. How logical.

To make the villian with similar goals work, you need to set up both of their positions as logical, that way there is actually a dilemma to be had.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden serves as a mentor for Ed Norton in teaching him to not care about material possessions or his job, to free him from this empty consumerist lifestyle. Then Tyler creates Project Mayhem and starts freeing others. They both are in agreement about the fact that this modern life is empty, meaningless, misleading, and needs to be stopped. At the end Tyler wants to blow up the buildings of credit card companies, thus erasing the debt record and putting everyone back to zero, thus enabling millions of others to join them in this movement. Ed Norton tries to stop them, first off he objects to the fact that they would be killing people, but Tyler points out that all of the people in the buildings are their people, so nobody will be killed. Ed Norton still wants to stop it. So here's the difference between them. Honestly I gotta say I'm with Tyler on this one, but the difference between their positions isn't nearly as far apart as in Surrogates. This way you don't see either of them as being irrational, but holding equal positions. Thus it's a real dilemma for the characters, and for the audience as well.

In Apocalypse Now, the real conflict is about whether a war should be fought according to rules, with R&R, barbecues, rules of engagement, etc. OR if you should just go ahead and do whatever it takes to win and end the thing. Kurtz thinks if you're going to fight a war, then take the gloves off and actually fight it. The main character is on the side of the Army, who wants to keep the public image good to keep the war going, so they want to stop Kurtz. The Army gives Willard the assignment to stop Kurtz. So here's Willard's dilemma. Do you assassinate Kurtz, the guy who the Army says is going too far, but in accomplishing your goal you will have yourself actually gone beyond what people in the Army are supposed to do. OR do you join him in his quest to actually win the war? Again, it's a real dilemma, it's something that the MC has to think about and so does the audience.

In The Dark Knight, rather than trying the Villain with similar goals, they go back to Villain #1, General Mayhem, I mean, The Joker, who is so evil that he even burns money! Gasp! A villain that destroys money!? How do you understand someone like that, they can't be understood they are just pure evil! The problem with this kind of villain is that they have no depth, they're just really bad. What's the Joker's goal? To just watch the world burn? Really? That's all we got? And to make him even more like a real person, let's give him the magical power to plan ahead incredibly. There's the egg-timer window thing, which would require such precise timing to make it work that it's nearly impossible. Then the whole chase thing where he actually wanted to get captured. I.E. the nonsensical plot twist. He just has planned fifteen steps ahead and whenever he's in a jam he's happened to have planted a bomb in the perfect place to get him out of a jam. Basically this is a Wizard or a character from Fantasy that can make shit up to get out of a jam, but instead of saying he has some magic power or something, there is no explanation, he's just that bad...Cool, thanks.

Batman's Voice
So whenever Bruce puts the suit on, he talks in a super deep scary voice. That's fine, he's masking his voice so people can't figure out who he is. Makes sense. Up until he starts interacting with people who know his real identity, but he keeps using that voice anyway. Suddenly he's talking to the girl and dressed as a bat and talking in a fake deep voice. At this point he just looks like an idiot.

Closing Thoughts
I enjoyed these films as a gritty more realistic take on the superhero film, but I feel like sometimes they go to far in trying to make cool things, and when it comes to villains have avoided subtlety at all costs. If they want the series to really go anywhere, they better come up with a villain that isn't so ridiculous. Apparently Liam Neeson is coming back as the villain for The Dark Knight Rises, even though he died at the end of Batman Begins. Supposedly he's Ra's al Ghul, which wikipedia tells me is a sort of immortal assassin whose goal is to save the planet from evil human pollution. Rather than going all Al Gore on everybody and trying to spread awareness and invent green technology, his method is to kill lots of people as a way of reducing our carbon footprint. Sounds like we're gonna have a real ethical dillema on our hands with this guy...

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