There are plenty of movies that feature strong villains, and many where the villain just steals the show. But there are even more villains who are just plain dumb (what exactly is your plan again Lex, build a giant ugly un-even island of krypton-rocks to sell as prime real estate, I’m not sure anyone will buy that), or outrageously boring (does anyone remember anything the Red Skull said, literally anything?). This makes me get a little more invested when a film takes the time to create a bad guy who is also a nuanced character, one that has desires and emotions and quirks of their own, without simply being a punching bag for the heroes.
For me the best villains are the ones that have a reason to do what they do (even if that reason is, like with the Joker, just for the hell of it), and that are good at what they do. Strangely there are some films that whilst an utter shambles overall still manage to pull this rare feat off.
Prince Nuada – Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
Prince Nuada is royalty without a kingdom, his homeland has been overrun by humanity and the old ways of magic and wonder have been replaced by the chaos, pollution, and destruction that accompanies mankind.
One of the many problems in Hellboy 2 is that there are no sympathetic characters for us to root for; Hellboy, Liz and Abe are by turns grumpy, selfish, and aloof, and with Myers gone humanity’s sole representative is the cowardly and untrustworthy Manning. Even the humans that Hellboy saves in the city seem mean-spirited and ungrateful. The heroes are all doing what needs to be done because someone somewhere dictated that it should be – they don’t believe in what they are doing and they don’t value the world and people they fight to save.
Nuada on the other hand is dedicated, passionate, and logical. He has seen his civilisation almost wiped out by the unrestrained march of human progress, progress that doesn’t even care for the world that gives us life. “The humans have forgotten the gods, destroyed the earth, and for what? Parking lots? Shopping malls? Greed had burned a hole in their hearts that will never be filled! They will never have enough!” says Nauda, and the film offers no counter to this point of view. There is no human character who represents the good in mankind, or that can point to the benefits of technological innovation. Why are the humans of Hellboy’s world actually worth saving (Hellboy and gang even abandon humanity at the end of the film!). Nuada is merciless, but he acts with a heavy heart – the desecration of his people has driven him to take the violent steps he considers necessary, and he is willing to sacrifice a great deal to restore the world to balance. Luke Goss plays Nuada as someone filled with sorrow but whose resolve remains unbroken despite the tragedy he has lived through. Oh, and he is very good with a giant knife.
Gabriel – Constantine
Truth be told I don’t think Constantine is an out-and-out ‘bad’ film, it is just mostly average. An incredible premise and a potentially visually arresting universe are rendered in a pretty pedestrian fashion and the plot is fairly standard sub-noirish thriller with overt religious trappings. Everyone does serviceable work and there are a few nice moments, but ultimately this film isn’t a big success.
But although having very little screen time to work with Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel is a memorable and intriguing bad guy. Swinton’s elfin appearance and otherworldly presence give Gabriel a palpable strangeness – it is easy to understand how the angels of Constantine’s world get things so wrong as they are so very different to us. The costume design and effects are also a compelling choice. Gabriel is first introduced in a very fine bespoke double-breasted suit; even when appearing human Gabriel is an elitist. When revealed in full angelic form Gabriel possesses grand and expansive wings but wears understated simple contemporary clothing.
Gabriel wants to fix this world but lacks the compassion and understanding to do so. There is an attempt to do good at the heart of Gabriel’s plot, but it is obscured by the lowly pragmatism and devilry that she engages in. Gabriel wants mankind to be worthy of God’s love (and there is a bit of jealousy in their too), but she will burn the world to the ground to make us prove it. A great visual is when with no effort at all Gabriel uses angelic strength (and breath) to pin Constantine to the ground and fling him all over the place despite his best efforts.
Bane – The Dark Knight Rises
I don’t know if this is controversial or not, but I didn’t enjoy much of The Dark Knight Rises. The film seemed to be a rushed and illogical mess full of huge character inconsistencies (why would Bruce quit Batman immediately after The Joker’s massive crime spree? Oh and ALL crime was eradicated by one unspecified law?!). But one thing I loved about the film was Bane. Well, for most of the movie at least.
The politics of TDKR are all over the place, this is a film asking a hundred questions (is capitalism bad, are the police adequately prepared, are poor people to be feared, are the rich self-indulgent fools, is vigilantism good) and offering no answers, but the beauty of Bane as a villain is that he has no politics. Bane wants only to destroy the Dark Knight, both physically and emotionally, so his plan is relatively simple – break the Batman, and then reduce the city he protects to ruin. The intricacies of this plan make literally no sense as Nolan doesn’t seem to care about logic by this point (what is the deal with that bomb, just blow the place up already), and there are loads of arbitrarily weird things going on (the US government is just gonna sit this one out, ok Bats), but Tom Hardy does a yeoman’s job of making it work most of the time.
Hardy’s Bane is playful without descending into camp, he is physically threatening, and mentally imposing, I believe he could take on the Dark Knight in every way. His first fight with Batman is truly excellent, and his speeches are magnetic, it’s just a shame that by the end of the movie he can barely throw a punch and is revealed to have been working on someone else’s orders the whole time.
I should also note that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is way better than this film too.
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