By Scott Warner


Fictional antagonists are simply any rivals who oppose the hero. The antagonist can act with morally ethical decency or stoop to brutally criminal acts. The traditional interpretation for a villainous character is any particularly cruel, pernicious or wicked antagonist. Webster's Dictionary defines "villain" as scoundrel or criminal while "villainy" is categorized as depravity. Monsters are only concerned with mayhem for any reason such as self-survival, sustenance or ingrained cruelty. They can even be employed simply for plot advancement or shock value. When reduced to the lowest comic book level, characters like Snidely Whiplash, Boris Badenough, Lex Luthor and Dr. Doom purportedly epitomize the classic backstabbing villain. However this description contains a hidden assumption: with these characters, WYSIWYG. Their allegiance is never in doubt. Aren't the likes of Brutus and Iago truer villains? It is my contention that to be classed as a true villain, an antagonist needs to meet an extra specification with finer distinction.

To be considered a true villain, the character needs to profess camaraderie with the protagonist while secretly plotting his subversive demise. If the protagonist already knows that his rival will savage him at any opportunity, then this character should not be classed as a villain. Therefore the foremost trait of true villainy is deceitful betrayal. And the slimier, more dastardly the deception the better! For a character to engineer a seditious conspiracy against a reputed companion, the power of comprehensible speech is necessary. From this perspective, some surprising dichotomies emerge. Smaug in The Hobbit is a case in point. It killed almost indiscriminately out of greed and it had the power of speech yet it never connived against alleged allies. So Smaug should not be classed as villain nor monster, simply as a foe no matter how awe inspiring. Frankenstein, the Mummy and King Kong cannot be considered villains because they could not speak.

The list of antagonists who don't meet the specifications for villain is nearly infinite. As dastardly as she was, the Wicked Witch of the West never secretly conspired against an ally in The Wizard of Oz. Emperor Ming and Princess Ardala were compulsive about underhanded scheming but their motivations were apparent from the beginning (and while they were adequate antagonists, their overly vaudevillian fakery negates their consideration as classic examples). Likewise, Sauron cannot be regarded as a villain, he was already a renowned demon and his onscreen time was minimal. HAL 9000 plotted the deliberate elimination of the men he was programmed to protect and thus deserves consideration as villain but ED 209 was just a killing machine. Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark never expressed nor implied allegiance to Indiana Jones. The implacable hostility of the original Terminator for Sarah Connors never wavered but was surpassed by the cunning of T-1000. Dennis Hopper in Waterworld had only one guiding principal at all times and any situations: himself. The commitment of Agent Smith in the Matrix films was never a sham even when he became an independent sentient virus. Arnie Saknusson in Journey to the Center of the Earth made no pretense about his aspirations.

SF + F movie history is certainly replete with true villains, they are a frequent mainstay of plot structure. The question is who are the elite of this category? According to my definition, Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine in the prequel episodes were spectacular examples of true villainy, concocting monstrous lies to hide their true intentions. However, in Episodes IV, V and VI, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine were simply antagonists, not villains, since their dedication to the Dark Side was overtly apparent! Ronnie Cox's portrayal of the OCP kingpin in Robocop was exemplary (same villainous type of character reprised in Total Recall and the Stargate TV series). Due to Frodo's mercy towards him, part of Gollum's psyche truly wished to commit to a rapport with Frodo. However the psychoneurotic power of the Ring proved too strong and the schizoid Gollum was forced to betray Frodo. Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter films also met the criteria of classic villain. "Voldemort" on the other hand did not! Paul Reiser in Aliens is a surprisingly good representation but the Alien Queen doesn't qualify. Captain Barbossa in Curse of the Black Pearl would sell out his own mother but he takes a backseat to Lord Beckett in At World�s End. Homicidal Wall Street trader Carl Bruner in Ghost and sadistic prison guard Percy Wetmore in Green Mile are also good examples.

As noted above, comedy movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean are just as good a medium for villains as drama. So Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future movies is a special case. Biff Tannen and Griff Tannen should be classified as simply high school bullies while gunslinger Buford Tannen was a pathological killer. However, crime lord Biff Tannen in 1985-Mark II pretended to be an honorable father to the Marty McFly of that time variation, then tried to murder the "newer version" of him. Zorg in Fifth Element is another interesting case. He professed allegiance to mankind by providing economic prospects yet sold them down the river without remorse at the first opportunity. He pretended to honor a mercenary contract with the Mangalores but handed them a booby trapped weapon. He claimed to be an independent operative but was an involuntary minion of "Mr. Shadow" from the beginning. I guess one would have to catalogue him as a demi-villain albeit dastardly artful and humorous. There is another aspect of this taxonomy that should be considered. Minor characters in minor films have less chance of being noticed but when a character actor who specializes in villains gives a good performance, this should be mentioned with the best-in-show. Donald Pleasance in Fantastic Voyage should therefore take a well earned bow.

One is tempted to select Baron Harkonnen as the classic SFF movie villain. Frank Herbert crafted such an artfully vengeful villain that only an overweening weenie like David Lynch could screw it up. However Baron Harkonnen does not qualify using the proposed definition. No one in the Dune saga ever trusted Baron Harkonnen, not his family, friends or closest allies. They were always aware that the Baron could turn on them at any point. Dune also contained another fine example of antagonist, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohaim. The character of Cypher portrayed by Joe Pantoliano in the Matrix films was a classic backstabbing role which he rendered with aplomb and distinction. Cypher's sacrifice of the last shred of free humanity to a tyranical machine intelligence purely for his own pleasure (a T-bone steak!) is truly heinous. However there is one final candidate that surpasses this scale. The #1 All-Time Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Villain is Tolkien's Saruman. His capitulation to the dream of sharing power with the unholy Sauron was irrationally inexcusable. The continuing captivation of SF + F fans for Tolkien's classic ignoble backstabbing villain is testamen to his perfection.