A“Lovable villain” is an antagonist that is so beloved by the audience that he ends up becoming equally or more popular than the hero.
Do you ever wonder why in some stories the lovable villain seems to be better than the hero? You might think: “Aren’t we supposed to hate the bad guy?”
Disney has a long history of lovable villains that stay in the memories of children long after the protagonist has faded away. Like Dr. Facilier in “The princess and the frog”. It doesn’t really matter if you like the movie or not, the song “Friends on the other side” will be stuck in your head for a week.
There are other cases of lovable villains in TV series too, like Moriarty in Sherlock, Zaheer in The legend of Korra, Cersei Lannister in Game of thrones. But isn’t the story supposed to be about the hero? Why do we enjoy watching those villains so much?
Here’s the truth:
bad hero + bad villain = terrible story
good hero + bad villain = mediocre story
bad hero + good villain = good story
good hero + good villain = mind-blowing story
The villain is not at the same level as “the sidekick” or “the master” or other secondary characters. It is 50% of the story, 50% of the fun, 50% of the tears and 50% of the laughter.
If you take away the funny sidekick from a story, you can still replace him with another one. The master can be replaced as well. But the villain? It will be way more difficult and it might require to change a little bit of the hero as well.
But what about the most iconic villain of the DC comics, the Joker? There is just one.
I don’t think that this is just a coincidence. All the Robins have really different personalities and abilities, sometimes they get along with the hero (Batman), sometimes they don’t. On the other hand, the Joker’s core attributes never change.
The reason for this is the conflict between the hero and the villain, which is the center of the story. The sidekick (Robin) is an addition to the story of Batman, therefore the writers can have fun changing him and giving him different personalities, backgrounds, and abilities.
Like this, they can “spice up” the relationship between hero and sidekick whenever they want because it doesn’t change the core value of the story.
The Joker doesn’t change because he is the opposite of Batman, as he should be. The values and abilities of the Joker are in direct conflict with the values and abilities of Batman.
This makes the Joker a lovable villain because his presence makes a good story great.
Let’s look at another supervillain – superhero relationship, this time the one in the first season of the Netflix’s series Jessica Jones.
Just by watching the trailer, you can see that the conflict between hero and villain is the most important thing. The whole plot of the season consists in Jessica trying to catch Kilgrave. Said like this it sounds boring, but the show is exciting and thrilling, why is that?
What makes this cat-and-mouse dynamic more suspenseful than a Tom and Jerry cartoon are those 3 elements:
Forces of antagonism
It’s not just the antagonist, it’s the sum of all the things, people, locations and even emotions that serve as an obstacle in the hero’s quest.
For Jessica, catching Kilgrave would be easy if it was just him, but there is much more. His power doesn’t provide his body with strength or immunity or special intelligence, it affects only the people around him.
All Kilgrave has to do is to use people as “weapons” against Jessica. He tells the cops to shoot her, he tells Simpson to kill Trish, he tells Malcolm and the others of the survivor group to kill themselves to stall Jessica while he runs away. Not just that, Jessica herself can become a weapon (or so she thinks).
Every hero has a weakness, and the lovable villain knows how to use it for his own gain. Jessica has two weaknesses:
- her sense of duty
Jessica is terrified by the idea of going back to be one of Kilgrave’s “weapons”. The emotional trauma of not being able to control her actions or even her desires for a long time is directly linked to Kilgrave.
Her PTSD and her fear of being controlled by him again prevent her from thinking straight, from realizing that the reason why he is always running away instead of staying and command her to do what he wants, is because she is immune to his control.
The same way, her sense of duty works both in her favor and against her. In another article (The 3 elements that make an inciting incident) I’ve written about how Jessica’s decision to stay and face Kilgrave instead of running away, defines her character’s greatest quality.
Her sense of duty managed to prevail over her fear and guilt, forcing her to become the hero she always wanted to be.
But at the same time, it is an obstacle. When she finds out that she is no longer a victim of Kilgrave’s power, the only thing that stops her from getting to him is the fact that he uses her sense of duty against her. Every time she is close enough to catch him, he orders the people around them to harm themselves or others and Jessica has to save them.
When Jessica confronts him in a bar after kidnapping Hope, he threatens to kill the survivals group. In the very last episode, when it seems that Jessica will finally manage to catch him, he orders a crowd of people to fight each other to death. Both times Jessica has to slow down and try to save them.
Value of the story
The main focus of the story can be summed up in one word: control. Kilgrave is the personification of the absence of free will, he doesn’t just force people to do horrible things, he also makes them doubt their own intentions and their own sanity.
After meeting Kilgrave, Malcolm has to deal with his addiction to drugs, Trish with her fear of being assaulted, Simpson with his feelings of anger and desire for revenge, and Jessica with the guilt for killing Luke’s wife.
No one who gets under the influence of Kilgrave is able to live a normal life, even after his influence is gone (not even the guy who simply gave him a jacket for some reason…), because regardless of his power he is a master at manipulating people and making them live in fear.
In the end, what allows Jessica to defeat him is not her strength alone, but the fact that she decides to deceive him and therefore take the control away from him.
The lovable villain is not just an obstacle for the hero, he’s an opportunity for the hero to change and become better.
The reason why stereotypically “evil” guys that live in dark palaces and sit on dark thrones going “Muhahahaha” all the time are not memorable villains, is because their existence provides a pointless challenge for the hero.
After the final battle he might get a love interest or a boost of popularity, but within him, nothing changes, and by consequence, the audience has nothing to think about once the movie or the episode is over.
But the lovable villain stays inside the head of every audience member for a while after the screen has gone black. The challenge, the pain and the trauma that he created for the hero have enriched the story and made the audience reflect on its message.