August 01, 2011

The Big Bad

The problem I have with LOTR is the same one I have with the Star Wars sequels, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, even Narnia: I don't care about the bad guy. His goals and motives are incomprehensible, or he goes about achieving them in the dumbest way possible, or conversely, he's omnipotent—except when he isn't for purposes of plot.

Not caring about the bad guy, it's hard to care about the conflict challenging the good guys. What would Sauron do if he got the ring? Bad things! Um, what bad things? No idea, but it'd probably be more interesting than this movie!

The first Stars Wars is instructive in this regard. Darth Vader is a cog in a machine. His ostensible superiors disrespect him to his face. We get that he's defending a fading way of life in an efficiently managed Empire where the galactic trains all run on time. (It's not clear what the rebels bring to the table as a viable political platform.)

Then Lucas got all preachy and Manichean and perversely tried to "humanize" Vader, revealing that he had no idea what motivates anybody to do anything, except that we again see a disturbingly common pattern in all these movies: bad people are really ugly.

And incredibly dim and ineffective. Rowling (more ugly) has conveniently summed up everything she doesn't understand about villainy in her own arch-villain:

That which Voldemort does not value he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.

Voldemort was steeped in that culture. He couldn't not understand it. Nobody that clueless could gather around him the best and the brightest, and then almost pull off a successful coup d'état. The great villains of history have always had a finger planted firmly on the pulse of the popular will and the governing zeitgeist.

There's a basic confusion here about the means by which people rise to power, and the ways in which they exercise it once it has corrupted them absolutely.

If anything, Voldemort is a carbon copy of Joss Whedon's first Big Bad, the "Master" from season one of Buffy. Whedon's villains improved considerably after that, reaching the epitome of cool, calculating evil in the person of Sunnydale Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener).

And the coolest, most calculating thing about Mayor Wilkins? He got elected. Compared to him, Voldemort is a cardboard cutout.

Which is not to say there aren't good uses for cardboard villains. Where would James Bond be without them? But they have short half-lives. Take the (ugly) villains of Independence Day. They serve the purpose well for two hours. Any longer and their unfathomable stupidity would become intolerable.

Similarly, the one redeeming characteristic of "Evil Angel" was that he was a two-hundred proof nihilist. But two-hundred proof nihilism gets boring fast, which is what prompts Spike's famous monologue:

We like to talk big, vampires do. "I'm going to destroy the world." It's just tough guy talk. Strut round with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is I like this world. You've got dog racing. Manchester United. And you've got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It's all right here.

Both Buffy and Angel eventually succumbed to too many Big Bads destroying the world too many times. Though to give credit where it's due, Whedon did come up with another real bad beauty, the law firm of Wolfram & Hart. Okay, "evil lawyer" is playing to stereotypes, but good art doesn't dispense with stereotypes; it fully fleshes them out.

Destroying the world is easy and dull. Corrupting it using the kind of enlightened people who contribute to PBS and wouldn't be caught dead (or living dead) at McDonald's or Walmart and earnestly believe they're doing the right thing for the greater good (and for your own good) is a much more rewarding challenge.

Related posts

Oh yeah, we're baaad
Apocalypse not now
No way to wage a war
It's not about the bad guys

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# posted by Anonymous Wm
8/01/2011 11:03 AM   
Wolfram & Hart is a brilliant big bad. I think both Holz and Jasmine are very good big bads as well. I know most Whedon fans love Buffy, but I think Seasons 1.5 through 5 of Angel are fantastic.
# posted by Blogger Joe
8/01/2011 12:14 PM   
In the real world, the powerful, both goodies and baddies, are almost always obsessed with minutia.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
8/03/2011 3:12 PM   
I love Joe's proverb:

In the real world, the powerful, both goodies and baddies, are almost always obsessed with minutia.

In terms of Harry Potter and LOTR, however, I would argue that the LOTR books shouldn't be judged by the same rubric as the Harry Potter books. In the LOTR books, Sauron is pure myth. He's just evil, and Tolkien doesn't much care about him one way or the other. Sauron's minions are altogether human and comprehensible (Saruman, various kings, Saruman's henchman), but Sauron himself is just the darkness behind the darkness, and Tolkien doesn't ever try to make him into something else.

I think the Master in Buffy, Season 1, is the same. In both cases, the big bad is less important than the scoobies.

But Rowlings complicated the picture by bringing up the issue of motives. By making the final issue Harry v. Voldemort, Voldemort as a human-alternative to Harry became necessary and, frankly, writing good bad guys who stay bad while still being "understood" is terribly difficult. (And, my bias showing, only C.S. Lewis seemed capable of writing good guys who behave badly, repent, and don't excuse themselves afterwards.)