In this blog post, we’re going to talk about the role of the villain, and what makes a good one. At what is now probably the desperate pleading of one of our interns, we’re going to use the new Fantastic Beasts movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald as our prime example.
All villains have one main purpose in a narrative – to drive the tension and provide a dark mirror to the protagonist. They’re usually big, they’re usually very bad and they usually end up defeated at the hands of the hero, so that the hero fulfils some kind of destiny and takes the spotlight. However, the difference between a villain and a good villain is that a good villain will make the audience question the motives of the hero. To do this, let’s look at one of the biggest, baddest villains in literary history; Sauron.
For those who don’t know, Sauron is the main antagonist of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he’s pretty damn evil. He raised armies of orcs and trolls and corrupted entire races of men in order to wage war against the free races (the humans, dwarves, elves and hobbits) and destroy them. He manages to corrupt the Ringwraiths, deceive the elves and drive the dwarves into a lust for riches, so his influence is felt almost everywhere across Middle Earth, and he left a wake of terror and destruction from the other continents that don’t play a serious role in the Lord of the Rings series. Sauron is the ultimate ancient evil; he is indisputably bad and to this day he is one of the most well-known villains.
On the flip side to this big bad evil, though, is the smaller villain. The villain that, if you look far enough back, has similar motives to the hero but with a different way of execution. This is where Grindelwald comes in. The Fantastic Beasts movie sets Grindelwald up as an obvious villain; he’s being held in custody, he’s so seductive his tongue is cut out, he murders a whole bunch of people in his escape. Sounds horrible, no? But once he’s out and working on his evil schemes, they seem to become a lot less evil. He wants freedom. He wants wizards to be able to do as they please, without the close monitoring of the Ministry of Magic. He wants to stop a human war that will leave the world, both magical and non-magical, reeling. And at what cost? The dismantling of a world government and the death of a few wizards and humans. Okay, that last bit isn’t all that appealing, but the reasons for his striking out against the wizarding government make a lot of logical sense, which appeals to a lot of characters. One of my favourite parts of that movie was when an Auror killed one of the bystanders in Grindelwald’s speech, and he plays it out as if it is the Aurors who are the real threat to the wizarding world. It took a very modern take on police brutality and, although almost immediately contradicted, really did make me pause and think about what was really good and evil. Grindelwald is what a good villain should be, painted in shades of grey. You don’t know if he’s actually good or actually evil, because his characteristics fluctuate between the two and sit somewhere right in the middle.
On a similar note, I was thinking throughout the whole Fantastic Beasts movie that Grindelwald reminded me of Loki. He was well-spoken, deceiving and just a hint violent. But as I was walking out of the theatre I knew who he reminded me more of; Amon, from The Legend of Korra. Amon was the leader of the Equalists, a group of non-benders who were fighting for equal rights and bending violence to stop. His influence stemmed from his ability to seemingly remove a person’s ability to bend the elements permanently. Similarly to Grindelwald, he uses violence of the group in power as a way of influencing the masses; it is them that is a threat to us, so we should depose them. His story arc was written so convincingly that, for a while, I believed the Equalists to be more good than evil. Of course, they were using violence and going against the protagonist so they were definitely evil, but even the protagonist succumbed to their worldview for a bit, and Amon is a recurring figure of doubt throughout the series. Once again, it shows that a good villain can really take over the story and, once they do, it’s a matter of redemption for the hero to take them down which makes the moment all the more glorious.
In all, villains are really what makes a narrative. They move it along, they provide something for the hero to go against and, if done right, can derail the narrative for the audience and get them on the villain’s side, making the hero’s arc all the more powerful.
Also, I’m taking the time to say I love that Grindelwald is now a gay icon and they included a reference to Paris Is Burning in the most literal way. The nuances of The Crimes of Grindelwald really made a lot of the movie for me, even though I’m not a massive fan of the Harry Potter franchise.