From HAL 9000 To Harley Quinn, Screen Villains Sow Chaos Because They Can

Jul 28, 2016
Originally published on July 28, 2016 2:59 pm

Here's how Alfred explains villainy to Batman in The Dark Knight: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Movie audiences have a long history with onscreen malefactors who would happily fan the flames if the world ever caught fire, the imprisoned super-villains in the movie Suicide Squad being the latest incarnation. These bad guys are often the grabber that gets us to head for the multiplex — more so, at least, than to see the latest iteration of heroic resolve, however spandexed s/he may be.

A villain, after all, is shorthand. Is there evil in the world? The villain personifies it, makes it easier to deal with. Though you can't actually vanquish evil in the world, it is possible — even easy — to vanquish a villain. Just drop a house on her, as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz.

This sort of narrative shorthand is useful to movie makers, who today have about two hours to tell their stories. In early silent films, they barely had a few minutes, so silent villains twirled mustaches while demanding the rent or tying the heroine to the tracks. In Westerns, they wore black hats. There was no question they were bad guys, or that the hero would ultimately beat them up.

As film narratives became more sophisticated, villains did too. Which is not to suggest there aren't still plenty of miscreants today who announce their villainy in no uncertain terms: Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, Darth Vader, Cruella de Vil, the denizens of Mordor, that HAL 9000 computer that refused to open the pod-bay doors for Dave.

Arguably, these scoundrels are the ones who have the real charisma in their respective movies, because as much as we don't like to admit it, heroes are boring. Sure, heroes are good. They do good. They think good thoughts. But goodness, in itself, does not make them compelling. Villains are where the fascination lies for audiences.

Every actor who's ever played Shakespeare's noble Othello has been upstaged by the double-dealing Iago who's whispering in his ear. Othello's motivations are clear: He thinks his wife has been unfaithful. And his torment is engaging on a certain level. But our eye goes regularly to his lieutenant who is so intent on falsely convincing him he should mistrust his wife. What does Iago get out of doing so? Nothing. Iago's just nasty — the Elizabethan equivalent of a mean girl in high school. He sows chaos because he can.

Other villains do it because they must, because it's hard-wired, and they're predators, whether they're Terminators or aliens or great white sharks.

We tend to judge villains by the havoc they wreak. But villains — when they're not just operating on autopilot, as great whites are — judge themselves by other standards: by how much they've suffered, by how no one listens to them. Often, bad guys are convinced that they're really good guys, and that it's the rest of the world that's got things backward.

Take the military trial movie A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessup is a monster — aloof, arrogant, calling the shots for his men with little regard for rules when they conflict with his own sense of what's necessary — but as an attorney (played by Tom Cruise) goes in for the kill in the courtroom, Jessup's the one who feels aggrieved.

"I want the truth," Cruise demands.

"You can't handle the truth," Nicholson bellows.

It's no accident that the soliloquy that follows is regarded as a classic. As often happens, the bad guy gets the best speech. And Nicholson delivers it furiously, making it as creepily persuasive as it is monstrous. He is, remember, aiming to justify the killing of an innocent soldier for the greater good:

"Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. ... My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty ... as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it."

His belief that he's right does not make him right. But it does make him enormously compelling — one of those rare instances when a putative villain becomes more than a narrative convenience.

His fall doesn't just wrap up A Few Good Men with a melodramatic flourish. It has weight. It means something in the real world. And his fate — self-inflicted, harrowing in its moral implications — haunts you on the way out of the theater.

The Greeks had a word for that: They called it tragedy.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We always seem to fall for the bad guys in the movies. Here's how Michael Caine describes evil in "The Dark Knight."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred) Some men aren't looking for anything logical like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

MCEVERS: NPR critic Bob Mondello has been thinking about his all-time favorite villains and why a really good bad guy can make a movie so good.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A villain is shorthand. Is there evil in the world? The villain personifies it, makes it easier to deal with. You can't actually vanquish evil in the world, but you can vanquish a villain. Just drop a house on her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

MARGARET HAMILTON: (As The Wicked Witch of the West) I'll get you my pretty and your little dog, too (laughter).

MONDELLO: Narrative shorthand is useful in movies which today have about two hours to tell their stories. In early silent films, they barely had a few minutes, so villains twirled their mustaches while demanding the rent or tying the heroine to the tracks. In Westerns, they wore black hats. There was no question they were bad guys, no question the hero would beat them up. As film narratives became more sophisticated, villains did, too, but there are still plenty of villains today who announce themselves in no uncertain terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Dr. Hannibal Lecter) I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY")

KEIR DULLEA: (As Dr. Dave Bowman) Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.

DOUGLAS RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHINING")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As Jack Torrance) Here's Johnny.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "101 DALMATIANS")

LISA DAVIS: (As Anita) Cruella, isn't that a new fur coat?

BETTY LOU GERSON: (As Cruella De Vil) My only true love, Darling.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNGER GAMES")

DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As President Snow) Happy Hunger Games. May the odds ever be in your favor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")

HEATH LEDGER: (As Joker) Why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOMMIE DEAREST")

LEDGER: (As Joan Crawford) I told you no wire hangers ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS SONG, "THE IMPERIAL MARCH")

MONDELLO: You probably recognize most of those and can vouch for the fact that they've got the real charisma in their respective movies because much as we don't like to admit it, heroes are boring. They're good. They do good. They think good thoughts. But that in itself does not make them compelling.

Villains are where the fascination lies. Every actor who's ever played Shakespeare's noble Othello has been upstaged by the double-dealing Iago who's whispering in his ear. Othello's motivations are clear. He thinks his wife's been unfaithful. But what does his lieutenant get out of tricking him?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Iago) So will I turn her virtue...

MONDELLO: Iago gains nothing by making Othello mistrust his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OTHELLO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Iago) ...Into pitch and out of her own goodness make the net that shall enmesh them all?

MONDELLO: He is just nasty, a sower of chaos, the Elizabethan equivalent of a mean girl in high school doing it because he can. Other villains do it because they must. It's hard wired. They're predators, whether they're terminators or aliens or great whites.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JAWS")

ROBERT SHAW: (As Quint) You know the thing about a shark? He's got lifeless eyes, black eyes like a doll's eyes. When he comes at you, he don't seem to be living until he bites you. Those black eyes roll over white, and then - oh, and you hear that terrible, high-pitched screaming. The ocean turns red.

MONDELLO: We judge villains by the havoc they wreak, but villains, when they're not just operating on autopilot as great whites are, judge themselves by other standards, by how much they've suffered, by how no one listens to them. Often bad guys are convinced that they're really the good guys, that everyone else has things backwards.

In the military trial movie "A Few Good Men," Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup is a monster. But as Tom Cruise goes in for the kill in the courtroom, Jessup is the one who feels aggrieved.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FEW GOOD MEN")

NICHOLSON: (As Col. Nathan R. Jessup) You want answers.

TOM CRUISE: (As Lt. Daniel Kaffee) I think I'm entitled.

NICHOLSON: (As Col. Nathan R. Jessup) You want answers.

CRUISE: (As Lt. Daniel Kaffee) I want the truth.

NICHOLSON: (As Col. Nathan R. Jessup) You can't handle the truth. Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's going to do it, you? You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.

MONDELLO: It's no accident that this scene is regarded as a classic. As often happens in movies, the bad guy gets the best speech. It is as creepily persuasive as it is monstrous, seeming to justify the killing of an innocent soldier for the greater good.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FEW GOOD MEN")

NICHOLSON: (As Col. Nathan R. Jessup) We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

MONDELLO: His belief that he's right does not make him right, but it does make him fascinating, one of those rare instances when a putative villain becomes more than a narrative convenience. His fall doesn't just wrap up "A Few Good Men" with a melodramatic flourish. It has a weight. It means something in the real world. And his fate, self-inflicted, harrowing in its moral implications, haunts you on the way out of the theater. The Greeks had a word for that. They called it tragedy. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.