I’ve never been one for heroes. I don’t root against the hero, but I often find traditional good guys to be boring, simple-minded brutes who end up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (and that’s the best case scenario). Nearly every hero appears to me as imbecilic as Futurama‘s Zapp Brannigan. I still love a good hero, and we’ve been really lucky to live during a time when what is good and what is evil is confronted as the amazingly complicated and engaging concept it is. Not just in literature (though there could always be more serious literature) but in film, television, comics, cartoons, and song. There aren’t just white hats and black hats. Although, I most certainly want to be a black hat.
My point is simple: storytelling has evolved over the last thirty years in ways none of us could have imagined, and as it’s changed, so has how we seen ourselves and the world around us. How we see ourselves is dependent and affected by the stories we tell, take in, and ponder. For this reason, I decided to take a brief survey of the movie villains I was not just drawn to as a youth but also who affected how I craft my own life narrative.
The Black Hole
Dr. Hans Reinhardt the villain of The Black Hole was probably one of the first bad guys that I utterly admired. He was batshit crazy yet utterly brilliant. He has managed to keep his space ship on the cusp of a black hole, unable and unwilling to try to escape it. This entire movie takes place after all the interesting stuff of the story. It’s as though there was at least two stories before this one we never get to see–the ship getting caught by the black hole and Reinhardt’s descent into madness.
What drew me to Reinhardt as a child of seven or eight was how he had kept what little sanity he had by creating robots as his companions. Robots that masked the horrific things he had done to survive. The red enforcer robot Maximilian became his emotionless core. At the film’s end, Maximilian ‘rescues’ Reinhardt by melding with him and we see that the two have ‘passed through’ the black hole and seemingly enslaved a new planet. The scientist’s external representation becoming his exoskeleton, the scientist being literally consumed by his creation to live in some new hell, that was terrifying. It fascinated me.
I soon discovered watching movies that the main antagonist wasn’t always the most interesting villain. It was the over the top space opera Flash Gordon that really hit this home for me. Ming the Merciless wasn’t interesting to me, in the movie he’s nothing more than a cartoon-y megomaniac dictator even though Max von Sydow plays him as well as anyone could. The villain that drew me was Klytus, Ming’s right-hand.
I suppose it could be argued that Klytus was nothing more than a high henchman. But it’s clear throughout the movie that he’s the one that keeps the Ming empire in line. His even, sophisticated tone of voice makes his menacing as his mask and outfit is stunningly cool. It was his relationship with General Kala that kindle in me the realization that villains could be sexual creatures. Darkly arousing. The scene of Klytus and Kala torturing MIng’s daughter was incredibly disturbing to me at the time (I watched this flick a lot in fourth and fifth grade). Unnerving because it was revealing something to me about sexuality, a thing I was just coming to understand and deal with as a quality of existence. Klytus and Kala were more brutal, more evil than the watered-down villain power couple I had known up until this point–Destro and The Baroness from GI Joe.
Klytus has nothing but contempt for those beneath him and around him. His only concern is his own dominance, something that can best be sated by being the second to the most powerful man in the galaxy (until he can arrange his own ascension). In perhaps the most underwhelming demise in geekdom (though one of the most fun to see), Klytus meets his end almost casually due to his own hubris. This villain showed me the limits not of greed but of contempt. He also demonstrated that to secure power one has to be endlessly devious and being so is so very exhausting that it twists you into a monster.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
When I was a kid, cable was a new thing. We couldn’t afford cable television. But eventually through acute nagging, my sister and I were granted the Disney Channel. Now this wasn’t the Disney Channel of the 90s or of today. This was when it was brand new and didn’t know what to do with itself. I saw animation documentaries, a series of PSAs involving Goofy, and an endless cycle of Disney produced movies (they still played Song of the South for fuckssake).
This film version of Jules Verne’s story of Captain Nemo starring James Mason blew me away. As a kid who only encountered sci-fi and fantasy as some well removed from lived experience, seeing this Victorian era, proto-steampunk movie suddenly grounded me. There were natural wonders out there, unknown but not unknowable, and we could exercise our intellect and ingenuity to create artificial wonders to experience them. This was Nemo’s obsession.
It’s too easy to write off Nemo as a mad scientist or a villain motivated by revenge. Nemo is an idealist. For him, the natural awe of the sea fills him up, and he knows deep in his being that it is greater than himself. The human world around him only views the sea as something to take advantage of, a endless resource for its own selfish needs. His idealism is frustrated to such a degree that he comes to hate humanity. He only makes room in his worldview for those who share his own (tragically mirroring the society he so loathes), which is what turns him into a villain. Unlike your stereotypical hero who does right for the wrong reasons, Nemo always has the right reasons but does wrong. Nemo is one of the ultimate misanthropes.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
There perhaps is no better sci-fi villain out there than Star Trek II‘s Khan Noonien Singh. He is truly ruthless, though not malevolent. Khan’s adamant faith in his own superiority both physically and intellectually means that every action he takes by default pits him against all. The world into which Khan was born was literally a scenario of all against all. As such, invariably a Hobbesian solution is rendered. Khan didn’t just happen. He was genetically engineered to be one of those who put an end to the endless conflict. Khan was Leviathan.
Soon, Khan internalized this purpose. He saw the world as it was, every man for himself, and decided that he was not unlike a god. It wasn’t unfounded. He was physically stronger, he was mentally better. However, he glossed over the question: are you morally superior? To Khan this didn’t matter. The world is one of everyman for himself and God against all; that god is, of course, Khan.
But none of that aggrandizement was strictly true. Khan allowed cruelty to not just seep into his being but to imbue it. However, there never was a time when he didn’t cloak his motivations in some kind of notion of the greater good. There are equal times where this is obviously merely an excuse and where it is sincerely and deeply felt. Look especially to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in the Star Trek reboot. My Khan will always be Ricardo Montalban who brought the character to life as the embodiment of Hobbes’ Leviathan through the lens of a future Captain Ahab. Khan’s myopia, his fanatical obsession with revenge, made him one a supremely dangerous force that refused defeat even in the face of death. There aren’t many villains that can compare to Khan; he is terror and inspiration, respect and contempt all in one.
Speaking of a supremely dangerous force, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. All of the prior villains I’ve listed here I was exposed to as an elementary school kid. Apocalypse Now I saw for the first time as a middle schooler and it utterly destroyed me. I was astonished by it. It was the film that finally triggered the need to go to the source material (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). In seventh grade I was going through a dark phase. Obsessively reading and re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 and devouring Melville’s Moby-Dick (realizing that it was the inspiration for Wrath of Khan), listening to too much Metallica and Slayer, and only really finding calm in endlessly replaying Empire Strikes Back. I was on my way to becoming an insufferable teen.
Kurtz became a villain because he could no longer stand the guilt and hypocrisy that had formed him. So revolted by what he had done (and done well), he turned in on himself getting lost in a psychological maze of anger and frustration. Pushing the world away and making his own was his only coping mechanism. But even then Kurtz couldn’t escape what he was–a horror. What he sees in himself, he mistakenly believes to be the core of all. Thus, it must all be cleansed. He is the ultimate military mind and weapon. This is perhaps the only villain out of all those that I found myself obsessed with or admiring, whom I was truly disgusted by. But my revulsion at Kurtz is much like Willard’s; it is an existential loathing at seeing what is (or what could be) in one’s self.
So, that’s it, my black hats. The villains who made me who I am. They are role models and cautionary tales. I would imagine that each has a hero counterpart, but that is a topic for a later post…
Some honorable mentions