Growing up, I was always the kid who rooted for the villain. I wanted to watch those scenery chewing foils get away with their nefarious deeds, only to see them defeated by the hero time and again. The iconic baddies filled the screen regularly, but the more I watch modern movies the more I see a lack of them.
Growing up, Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, and other nefarious individuals filled our imaginations, but for some reason all of the newer villains are softer and lack the devilishness of the past. There are far fewer miscreants and scoundrels that are memorable on celluloid.
Darth Vader loomed large in the 1970s and 1980s. He wasn’t just a bad guy, he was everywhere in pop culture. Even after his redemption in Return of the Jedi, his presence continued to reverberate. When a cartoonist wants to compare something to evil, the de facto image is Darth Vader. Now we are in the midst of a new Star Wars trilogy and our major villain is Kylo Ren – child of Han Solo and Princess Leia and as threatening as a wet paper towel, regardless of his terminating a fan favorite character.
Fans don’t want to root for Kylo Ren. There are parallels between Ren and Vader – both torture a girl for a map, participate in the destruction of a planet, and killing a major character – but Ren doesn’t have the looming presence that Vader does, and removing his mask to reveal that he is human lessens his impact even more. When Han dies, it feels almost as if Han has to do it for Ren, rather than an evil deed by the devil in black armor.
Of course, there are still horror movies, but the indestructible monsters have been replaced by the supernatural and more grounded killers. Freddy, Jason, and the other strong images of the unstoppable juggernaut of destruction don’t exist any more, outside of the remakes of the older horror films.
The most recent example of a memorable villain I could think of was Loki. The half brother of Thor, who has been in comic books since the 1960s and movies since 2011. A schemer who is as charming as he is evil, but he doesn’t have the looming presence of the older demons of our imagination. He may have the desire to subjugate humanity, but he does it through subterfuge rather than through a menacing persona.
The Joker desires to bring chaos and destruction to Gotham. The shark in Jaws wants to tear through the people of Amity because he is a shark. Hannibal Lechter wants to eat your liver with a nice chianti. Lord Voldemort wants to control the world through the power of his magic. Hans Gruber was an international terrorist who was able to take over Nakatomi Plaza in order to steal bearer bonds. All of these names create strong imagery with just the mention of their names, but where is this generation’s villains? Will we see new ones again or are will we be forced to visit the past any time we want to see those of ill repute who are memorable?