As a society we are obsessed with villains in films. The creation of a good villain can make or break a film, and they are often people’s favourite character. It’s strange to think that the opposition to the hero, the obstacle which the hero inevitably must defeat, can be the best part of the film for some viewers. There are so many possible reasons for this, there are so many reasons why viewers gravitate towards certain characters, and they will be different for everyone.
As long as I can remember, one of my favourite characters from a film was Scar from The Lion King. He was by far the most interesting character in the whole film; while Simba was open about what his motives were and what was happening in his head, Scar’s history was always shrouded in this layer of mystery. It was easy to understand why Simba was on the side of good, whereas, the reasons why Scar resented his brother seemed to me at least to me far more complex. The hero figure in films and TV usually has the same formula: the hero has power and responsibility thrown at them, and they either embrace it, or they try to push it away in favour of being ‘normal’. They then continue on their fight against the villain, more often than not overcoming obstacles which make them question if it is all worthwhile.
The villain’s journey, however, is more varied – there are different reasons which lead them to the choices they make, and they tend to enjoy the power they have. In the case of the TV show One Tree Hill, in the early series Dan Scott relishes in the destruction and pain he causes, whereas his sons, Lucas and Nathan, whine about how much they hate him, and while the audience knows that what Dan is doing is wrong, it is far more interesting watching a character who enjoys what they do, than constantly moaning about how they are the only one who can stop them, which at times can be incredibly irritating.
In addition to this, the villain plays the part of wish-fulfilment for the audience. The character allows them to escape the mundane world and live vicariously through them, a chance to pretend to be someone they are not. In a society where we are told as children that we need to follow the rules and behave, and be like other people, seeing someone who doesn’t conform to society’s expectations of them can be a good experience. Again, in television, Buffy’s Spike does anything he can to break the rules, big or small, and for the audience it is a relief to have a character who is the complete opposite to Buffy, even if it is just petty rules he is breaking. This type of villain allows the audience to experience what would happen if we gave into the impulse to do whatever we wanted, without actually having to do it.
There’s also the fact that the film and television industry seems to like casting conventionally attractive actors in key roles. Tom Hiddleston as Loki springs to mind here. By turning characters into superficial beings they can target another demographic, turning evil into something sexy. And this, to an extent, has an appeal – while arguably it is not the best reason to like a character, it is something that will inevitably be a key factor to some viewers. Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin is another example of this. Uma Thurman transforms into an irresistible and powerful villain, is this because there is an attraction in powerful people, or simply just shallowness?
Villains often also have the best lines, comebacks, songs, and are usually very witty. Harry Potter’s Snape is an audience favourite because even when he is seen as the villain, he is always funny. His line “Obviously” is one of the most memorable lines in the whole franchise because it is such so clever and sharp. These memorable moments make us love villains, since they say the things we wish we could, and it’s easier to say things when you don’t care what people think of you, and so audiences can experience a character who feels free to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences through them.
Furthermore, films and television help to bring a sense of stability and order to a world which is progressively feeling like it is spinning out of control. I think villains appeal to us in this respect as they are obstacles which we know will definitely be defeated, and so we are allowed to like them, since deep down we know that they will never triumph. It is comforting to think that the people who scare us and threaten the status quo in real life will be stopped, and so we appreciate these characters in films since they provide a safe environment to experience them, knowing that by the end everything will turn out to be okay and back to normality.