Analysis of Villainy

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while.  There’s been a lot of things going on in my personal life lately (surgeries and other health related concerns).  I do have a backlog of posts to help out, so you’ll be seeing some things soon.  I’m also trying to have more non-recipe posts.  Like the following:

What makes a good villain?

Andrew and I consume a lot of media, mostly from the ‘net. One of the sites that we visit often is TGWTG. We don’t watch everyone on there; everyone has their favorites. But one of the things we really like is the interesting discussions that the site can provoke. This gets us thinking about lots of things in different ways. Like this comic, one of many jokes following the news that Disney bought Lucasarts.

Why is Maleficent considered the baddest bad of Disney villains? Not just in this comic, but in Disney canon! The first Kingdom Hearts game has her as the leader of the villains. What about her makes her the most appealing, above all the others? Let’s focus on Disney villains here, just for an apples to apples comparison.

Now, I’m not saying that the other villains aren’t memorable. Scar from Lion King and Jafar from Aladdin are icons from when I was a kid. And they are very similar in their storylines. They’re not bad villains. So why don’t we hold them the same way that we do Maleficent? What’s the difference?

The conclusion that Andrew and I came to is that Maleficent (and our other examples of this, Sheir Khan from Jungle Book and the poacher from Rescuers Down Under) start on top. They are scary because they already hold all the power in their encounters. The battle is theirs to lose. And in a sense, that makes the victory for our heroes all the great when the villain does lose. As adults, we know the heroes will win, but the result is all the sweeter when it’s not just handed to them. (The original Star Wars movies are similar in this, now that I think about it.)

Villains like Scar and Jafar are trying to get the power. They have to scheme and plan, and they get power in the story, but they don’t start with it. In the end, the story just restores the status quo. (More examples: Ursula from Little Mermaid, Ratagan from Great Mouse Detective, Hades from Hercules) Other villains, like the Queen from Snow White and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, are merely reacting to the actions of the heroes, or the fact that our heroes exist. They’re not actively trying to be villains necessarily, they’re just doing villainous things on the way to their goal. And they are, in a real sense, controlled in their scope of power.

Andrew’s example: The Queen in Snow White theoretically has more power than our hero. She’s a queen after all. But, she doesn’t just have Snow White disinherited, or do a public execution, or contrive to have her beheaded for treason. No, she sends someone else to take her out into the woods, away from the castle, away from the city, away from where anyone can see, and kill her there. Why? Other than the fact that we wouldn’t have a story otherwise, the implication is that the Queen can’t kill Snow White publicly because she is too beloved. The Queen is limited in her actions by Snow White.

Maleficent, on the other hand, has no such limits. You didn’t invite me to your baby’s christening? Well, I’ll curse her. A curse so strong that the three next strongest magical beings in the land can only modify it. Oh, and when it looks like there’s going to be a true love fix, I’m going to capture the prince. And imprison him. Who’s going to stop me?

See the difference? Maleficent is just much more intimidating in her actions, and that’s why she’s awesome as a villain. That’s why Disney keeps bringing her out as a major bad guy in their mashups.

Side note: A villain who holds all the cards but doesn’t use them smartly does not a good villain make. If you have the entire city at your feet, you don’t just stand around doing nothing while the hero gets his act together.

Again, I like a lot of the other Disney villains. Sometimes the inner conflict of Frolo in Hunchback of Notre Dame is compelling. Scheming is great. Relatable villains are also great. (2D villains, not so great. I’m looking at you, Mulan.) But if you want a symbol, someone to hold up as a true villain, you can’t beat Maleficent. Or Darth Vader (before Return of the Jedi, or any of the prequels).

Thoughts? Counter-arguments/examples? Villains from other series that meet this criteria (or bunk it)?