Drawn to the Dark Side
Reading Time: 2 minutes
Most movies aim to create a villain the audience loves to hate, a character so despicable they make you want to chuck your popcorn at the screen or storm out of the room. It’s hard not to get invested in this—from the perspective of the protagonist and audience, the “bad guy” is usually just an obstacle in the way of inevitable victory. However, there are antagonists who transcend their role as a plot device, become characters whose complex writing elevates the story and allow audiences to potentially gain an affinity for them.
One way to achieve this goal is by creating an antagonist who opens a film to greater narrative depth. The Joker (Heath Ledger) from “The Dark Knight” (2008) serves as a perfect example of this, as his reign of terror is supported by his own enjoyment and chaotic intent, making the plot as wild as the Joker’s own persona. He places his mission in front of his own life, swearing to test the limits of Batman (Christian Bale)—by torturing him on an emotional and physical level—by any means possible. The Joker’s appeal stems from the fact that the audience knows virtually nothing about his psyche. It's the sheer malleability and mystery of his character that fuel the film’s engaging story and make the Joker appealing to his viewers.
Aside from establishing an engaging audience-villain relationship, creating an enjoyable antagonist can be catalyzed through complex and emotionally impactful backstories to incite empathy from the audience. Often, much more thought is put into fleshing out protagonists, giving them the humanity they need to become “fan favorites,” with antagonists becoming an afterthought, acting as an anthropomorphic representation of evil. Establishing that the antagonist’s goals and motivations are rooted in some amount of truth makes them seem more reasonable, and as a result, more likable. This is seen in “The Rock” (1996), in which Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) fights to compensate the grieving families of deceased undercover marines. The audience is presented with a situation in which Hummel’s murderous actions are morally wrong, yet his motives are entirely selfless. This humanizes Hummel and creates a heartbreaking story in which the audience empathizes for his noble intentions.
Such morally grey characters have become increasingly prevalent within the movie industry, where neither antagonists nor protagonists are ever absolutely good or evil. This ensures dynamic storytelling, as even if audiences are naturally drawn to the protagonist, they can still have sympathy and respect for the antagonist. Pitting morally ambiguous characters against each other also ensures greater suspense for the ending, because viewers know that the “good” side will prevail. However, it’s often not clear who has the purer intentions.
This industry has also begun to accommodate for many more complex antagonists in mainstream cinema. For example, Thanos (Josh Brolin) from “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) continues to be the subject of heated debate. Villains like Thanos, whose goals are complicated and deep, keep audiences engaged with their character as the parallels between their actions and rationale create a space for fascinating conversation. This allows both the film and the character to remain memorable for years after its release.
It’s still easy for filmmakers to fall short of these expectations, and even with a solid sob story and motivation to avenge a tragic loss, some antagonists miss the mark and become background characters to the protagonist’s glory. However, if there exists an equilibrium of morality, entertaining ambitions, and humanity—combined with some excellent writing—antagonists have the ability to become the most notable and beloved element of any film.