In a memorable scene from Whit Stillman’s film, The Last Days of Disco, one character explains a theory of what fuelled contemporary environmentalism to another. He semi-flippantly tells her that the re-release of Bambi in the fifties, the era of the “Baby Boom” Generation, galvanized contemporary environmentalism because no one wants to identify with the nefarious hunters who kill Bambi’s mother. In essence, he explains that cartoon villains imbued baby boomers with genuine contempt for anyone or thing that assails nature or wildlife. Perhaps that theory is nothing more than a whimsical divagation in a film full of whimsical divagations. However, if taken at face value, the character’s theory attests to the unusual power of on-screen villains to repulse, embitter, and, in turn, unite us.
As the film industry inundates its viewers with villain after villain, it can be difficult to winnow out the qualities of a truly iniquitous and indelible villain. In most narratives, a villain is like a moral compass pointing in the wrong direction. Morally resplendent protagonists often stand in complete opposition to these foes, espousing an ethic of peace, all-inclusiveness, and freedom for all. Especially in American cinema, where contentious ideologies often get filtered through film narratives and characters, villains often embody fascism and authoritarianism. These villainous qualities seemingly never fail to foster the audience’s contempt. Some evil characters, however, represent amorality as opposed to immorality—a notable example of which is The Joker from Batman. The Joker’s evil is his lack of belief in any moral template, and the world to him is less of a structure and more of a playground in which to wreak havoc. The Joker is evil because his victims—and by extension, us as viewers—care. Whether immoral or amoral, though, evil characters tend to assail the audience’s notion of righteousness, and they are the quintessence of what the audience collectively finds reprehensible. As such, villains are windows into society’s fears—both conscious and unconscious.
Certain villains muddle this simple equation of righteous and unrighteous. Before he admits to being Luke’s father, Darth Vader is the classic villain, a merciless, virulent evil that crushes everything in its path. But Darth Vader’s admission that he is Luke’s father creates an existential crisis for Luke and the audience. The line separating good and evil is not as stark as it was before Vader’s disclosure. The line of questioning shifts from “How do we stop this villain?” to “How much of the villain is inside us?” Indeed, Vader’s villainy is twofold: not only does he represent the corrosive social evil that society wishes to vanquish, but he leads the audience down the murky and unforgiving road of introspection and self-doubt. Villains like Vader amplify their iniquity by unsettling the line that separates good from evil.
This list thus looks at ten classic villains in film. These villains all stand in opposition to their narratives’ respective protagonist. Whether immoral or amoral, wholly evil or once-good evil, these characters are bad. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please feel free to respond with your list of classic villains in the comments section.
10 Nurse Ratched—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
9 Amon Goeth—Schindler’s List (1993)
8 Roy Batty—Blade Runner (1982)
7 The Alien—Alien (1979)
6 Keyser Soze—The Usual Suspects (1995)
5 Jack Torrance—The Shining
4 Al Capone—The Untouchables (1987)
3 The Wicked Witch of the West—The Wizard of Oz (1939)
2 The Joker—Batman (multiple films)
1 Darth Vader—Star Wars (1977)
Darth Vader is perhaps the most recognizable villain in American cinematic history. He shows his subjects no mercy and no forgiveness. He disparages Obi-Wan Kenobi’s adherence to the ancient Jedi code and stops at nothing to squash the Rebel Alliance. His shocking admission that he is Luke’s father complicates Vader’s villainy in that it highlights that good and evil are cut from the same cloth. His dying words to Luke in Return of the Jedi do little to soften his nefariousness.
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