I find myself of late pondering the nature of villains. To be honest, this line of thought stems mostly from my recent intoxication with Greggory Macguire’s Wicked, both the novel and the musical. I’m sure this makes our very own Rachel ecstatic. Though I’d been meaning to get around to those works, it was her, in her constant role as catalyst for my love of all things musical, that got me off my rump and actually delving into the wonderful works of Oz. While The Wicked Years have brought me close to the world of L. Frank Baum—until now a work I could find little enthusiasm for—my musings ventured beyond the confines of the Emerald City, past the borders of Munchkinland and the Vinkus. This past month of consideration has brought me to several conclusions, few surprising, but none that I had openly considered before.
Obviously, no piece of fiction is complete without a proper antagonist. Often it is the villain of our heroes that most stick within our minds. Why is that? Forced to consider it, I have to say that while we all strive to be the hero—saving the maiden, righting wrongs—do we not, perhaps, relate to those more villainous? Though unconsidered until I was jotting this down, I find myself increasingly convinced. It’s no surprise we have a tendency to see the worst of ourselves. This harsh introspection is a trademark of human character, and our fiction is ever a reflection of ourselves. Furthermore, heroes by nature are larger than life, and those that possess flaws seem flawed in ways we’d almost wish for. Let’s be honest, heroes, as a whole, are a fairly unbelievable lot. Without that constant foil of their dastardly foe, even our favorite protagonists would fall a little flat. Heroic figures are role models, unachievable in their epic proportions, and therefore they are hard to understand and hard for us to relate to.
Consider with me, what makes the best villains you’ve ever seen? Who are they, what do they look like? On the surface, they are either frightening and powerful, else so smooth and cool you may mistake them for an ally to our hero before realization comes crashing down on you. While there are all sorts of effective villains, many of them find their roots in something all too familiar to us. Perhaps it was heartache and love that drove them to criminal behavior, like Mr. Freeze from the Batman franchise, intent upon saving his wife at all costs. The villain may hide behind their pride and virtue, like Judge Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame, using that umbrella to justify his insatiable lust towards a woman and the deeds it drives him to. Maybe an immense ego places them above the reproach of their peers, like Professor James Moriarty from most Sherlock Holmes incarnations. After all, if one has no peers, does that not give them the right to do as they wish? My point, longwinded as it may be, is this; villains resonate within us because we see in them the vices and failings that we deal with in ourselves each and every day. Certainly we also possess the merits of the hero, more than we know, but those are far harder to recognize. How do you know that you were brave, or noble? Not only are the occasions to showcase those virtues scant at times, but often are so part of our nature that we don’t even realize when we have displayed them.
That all said, we come around to the central theme of this post, which seems to be a continuing examination of what makes Star Wars the cultural phenomena it is. An unintentional turn to my postings, but enjoyable nonetheless. When last I left you, I had examined some of the fights that, to me, had helped to make the franchise stand out. This time around, I will, obviously, look at the villains that challenge our ragtag group of heroes.
I can’t deny that the various antagonists of this universe have been central to the success of the franchise. From the Fetts to the classics—the likes of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine—the villains have captured the imaginations and support of a large portion of Star Wars’ fandom. Even though, cinematically speaking, the Empire is undoubtedly the “bad guys,” they have a loyal and, might I add, large fan following. Not only do the films present us with compelling figures to lead this tyrannical government, the various mediums within the Expanded Universe have done a wondrous job of introducing members of the Imperial forces that have taken us by storm. The likes of Thrawn, Pellaeon, and Daala joined the Imperial ranks as strong, powerful figures that secured themselves a place in our memories. We as fans found that, despite being cast as undoubtedly evil, we rather liked the Empire.
For all this, however, it all comes back around to the original villains in the films. When A New Hope hit the screens, we had our first look at Darth Vader, a dark, imposing figure that strikes fear into the heart. From the size, to his suit—was he a robot, or was that body armor?—to the brilliant voice of James Earl Jones, he was the perfect villain. We saw him as a highly skilled, merciless adversary. We certainly wanted to hate him. Yet, as we progress through the original trilogy, we come to learn more of his past and, more importantly, his present state. Vader is not evil, that had never been his intent. Instead, we see he is a man who lost everything, including much of his body. His spirit is broken, and he moves throughout the films as a specter of who he could have been. That changes in The Empire Strikes Back. When he learns that he has a son, more importantly when we learn he is Luke’s father, his first words are, “Come with me. My son, I’m offering you the galaxy.” Paraphrasing, sure, but that’s hardly a selfish sentiment. We see a depth that we thought beyond the man. When he witnesses his son being brutally murdered before his eyes, Vader rises up and destroys his master of decades. That spirit returns, Vader is healed, and it is a glorious redemption. In those last moments we see Vader for who he is, and suddenly the depth of his character becomes a little clearer. It’s subtle, but once built upon by the Expanded Universe and Prequel Trilogy, (Though, I think the character of Anankin Skywalker was criminally mishandled, so much so that it almost ruins the character of Vader for me, but that is a conversation for another day) we see that depth at its fullest and Vader steps forward as, perhaps, one of the best villains in recent history.
Even Vader, however, would not be nearly as effective without Palpatine looming over him. Here we have the classic villainous mastermind. Powerful, cunning, manipulative, you want to hate Palpatine. The Emperor, that classic twisted figure, boils your blood with his self-assured manner. A man that rose to take dominion of the majority of the civilized galaxy with primarily his cunning, he is the ultimate evil, serving to illustrate the merits of the heroes in the film. Add in the more minor villains—Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin with his condescending confidence, even the minor moffs and Jabba the Hutt—and you have a broad spectrum of top notch villains that certainly make the galaxy a far more complicated place for our scrappy little rebellion friends.
The films themselves see phenomenal success in the area of bad guys, but it’s not until we get into the Expanded Universe that Star Wars shines in the field of villainy. With the downfall of the Empire, we see factions and splinter groups cropping up everywhere. A young New Republic struggles to assert dominance. We see the introduction of new villains who, in the end, we’re not sure if they truly are villains. Politicians in the New Republic end up more corrupt than their Imperial counterparts. Every which way we turn, we can’t be sure who to root for and who to boo down. Logic may dictate who the “bad guys” are, but our gut tells us that it’s simply all one big mish-mash, and depending on your point of view, the tag of villain can be thrown all over the place, just as the moniker of hero can. In my opinion, this is when a work transcends a simple story and becomes a living, thriving world. As the reader—or viewer, or player, whichever is applicable—begins to realize that the depth of the universe is such that it is possible to see the merits of any faction, that there are no true good guys or bad guys, they begin to experience it all more personally. It feels more real. When you reach this point, everything is connected and the universe begins to develop such depth that it is easy and, in fact enjoyable, to get lost in the intricacies, to forget for a moment that you’re sitting on Earth, reading a book.
For all the flak I give Star Ward of late, in particular the Expanded Universe, the hodge-podge of ideas, beliefs, styles, and preferences of the various authors, illustrators, designers, etc. have all come together to form a deep, thriving world that’s alive in its own right. These characters and events aren’t just stories told us once upon a time, but people and places that have taken root and live a little bit in each of our hearts and imaginations. As a collective fan base, we have kept alive the universe we love between the droughts and valleys, waiting patiently for the next movie, the next series, the next video game. While the world is compelling, while the heroes are endearing, it’s the villains that, inevitably, keep us coming back to the Galaxy Far, Far Away.