The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On writing villains

"As for villains, I look for connections to the heroes, something that in essence makes the villain a dark mirror of the hero. If Batman is order than Joker is chaos. If Superman is strength, Lex Luthor is intellect. So I’m always looking for what it is that connects the villain and the hero; it doesn’t have to be a history, although obviously a backstory that connects them like Demona and Goliath is fantastic. It doesn’t have to be history but it has to be some, even metaphorical connection that makes the villain a good opponent.

Then the thing about characters, particularly Xanatos or Vandal Savage, Queen Bee definitely, and Demona; one of the things that I got tired of was stupid villains.I’m tired of villains who literally think “I’m the villain”, no one thinks that. Hitler didn’t think he was the villain, he never thought that for a second. He really was, but he never thought that so I don’t like that.

But I also don’t like, I’m tired of, it’s not like there aren’t dumb bad guys out there, there are plenty of them in real life. But I was tired of, from a fictional standpoint, of villains who in essence defeated themselves. Or when villains teamed up, one of the things that Brandon and I talked about at the very beginning of “Young Justice” is, we didn’t want bad guys to be defeated because they were infighting. We didn’t want a secret society of supervillains who, in essence, sabotaged themselves so all the heroes had to do was survive for twenty minutes because in the last three minutes you knew those villains were going to betray each other or get pissed off at each other and blow it. So one of the things we decided about the Light right off the bat was that Vandal, Ra’s al Ghul, Lex Luthor, Queen Bee, Ocean Master, Klarion, and Brain, that they got along. They each had their own individual goals but they had a common interest that was important enough to them that they would make allowances for their different points of view on certain issues but they would pull together as a coherent and cohesive unit to further their larger goals.

And the other thing that sort of bugs me about villains is I’m tired of petty villains. I don’t mind it so much if it’s a minor villain, like someone who’s working for the big bad guy, but the big bad guy who’s got his eye on the big picture, that notion of that guy who, when a flunky screws up he pushes him off a cliff, I’m so tired of that because what a waste of the resource. So one of the things we did, definitely with Vandal Savage, but this goes back to Xanatos more than Demona because Demona really did want to kill everybody, but one of the things about Xanatos was that he wasn’t wasteful. I was tired of wasteful villains so from Xanatos’s point of view, he didn’t set out to kill the gargoyles unless they were literally in his way for some specific goal of his, but in general he had no interest in revenge, he’s got a line where he says “revenge is a sucker’s game.” He had no interest in any of that because the gargoyles might prove useful later. And that was the same attitude that we had Vandal Savage take towards the team. People kept asking me “well if Vandal Savage knows Superman and Batman’s secret identities, why isn’t he just killing them?” Why would he want to? Look what he’s accomplished with them around. Look how he’s used them. He doesn’t need to kill the team, he doesn’t need to do that. He needs to thwart them in one manner or another, but killing them is a waste of a resource because from Vandal’s point of view, from David Xanatos’s point of view, everything is a resource. If you’re that smart, and your goals are that large, everything is a resource and you don’t waste it unless you absolutely need to."
- Greg Weisman

33 comments:

  1. eh. I can kind of agree with some of what weisman says but also think that

    a.) sometimes villains in fighting can be well done and well executed. If you have a lot of power hungry assholes in the same room they ain't gonna share.

    b.) the assumption that big bads can't be petty. The main thing is that many of the guys who claim "oh I'm doing this for a better world" tend to be narcissistic douchebags who are totally full of shit (i.e. they don't really care about a better world so much as their own power.) Narcissists are petty by their very nature; A common theme is how for all their grandiose pretensions they're basically petty thugs, and honestly that can work a lot of the time. Even if they have somewhat of a point it should be made clear that fundamentally they are awful people

    d.) Sometimes having a petty villain can be a good point (ie. it can show how much pain and suffering can be caused for such petty motivations. In the west memphis three case a common assumption is that the stepfather killed one of the three boys because the kid got defiant and murdered the other two to cover his ass. If it's true than so much anguish (three innocent teenagers rotting in jail, families torn apart, and a mother dying of drug overdose) can be laid to a single man's rage and anger.

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    1. "sometimes villains in fighting can be well done and well executed. If you have a lot of power hungry assholes in the same room they ain't gonna share."

      Funny how The Light had no problem sharing, which helped make them so formidable. Even the Sinister Six in Spectacular Spider-Man had no trouble working together. I don't like stupid villains either. I never bought the Legion of Doom from JLU or the Sinister Six from the 90s show as threats larger than Cobra in the 80's.

      "A common theme is how for all their grandiose pretensions they're basically petty thugs, and honestly that can work a lot of the time. Even if they have somewhat of a point it should be made clear that fundamentally they are awful people"

      I think we got that with the Light without making them petty morons in the process.

      "Sometimes having a petty villain can be a good point (ie. it can show how much pain and suffering can be caused for such petty motivations. In the west memphis three case a common assumption is that the stepfather killed one of the three boys because the kid got defiant and murdered the other two to cover his ass. If it's true than so much anguish (three innocent teenagers rotting in jail, families torn apart, and a mother dying of drug overdose) can be laid to a single man's rage and anger."

      I don't like making assumptions, and I am not in the mood to argue real life cases here.

      But, from a fictional standpoint, I don't like stupid villains. I. E. DCAU Lex Luthor.

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    2. The issue is that I think there's only so much suspension of disbelief that can be taken in seeing particular villains working together without problems between them. The Light sharing power was a refreshing change of pace, but after a while it got old seeing the heroes continue to have all the problems while the villains had none at all. Working together without any actual backstabbing is fine, but the dynamics should be shaken up a bit.

      DCAU Luthor started out just petty and with low EQ rather than stupid. But unfortunately, he got stupid in JLU. Especially in that blasted final season.

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    3. I would argue there was shake ups with the villains. Sportsmaster and Cheshire, especially.

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    4. I meant within the main group of the Light. The biggest conflict I recall there was Black Manta and his feelings towards Kaldur.

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    5. Well, there was no real infighting within the Sinister Six in "Spectacular Spider-Man" either.

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    6. I think one could make the argument that these characters for all intents and purposes could have issues with each other, but big picture wise, why would they want to do something that would just make more enemies? That's just bad business IMO.

      The Light also didn't seem too broken up over Ocean Master no longer being with them, seemingly discarding him as poor and disgraced.

      Also we did see The Light AND The Reach (such as Black Beetle) willing to betray each other. Though in The Light's case it was for good reason, going through with The Reach's plan would've been monstrous for their long term plans AND for Earth.

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    7. Exactly, the Light took a huge risk inviting the Reach to Earth... all so they could gain control of the War World. But, as we saw in an alternate future, they did lose to the Reach. And while they did win the War World, it did cost them dearly. Brain and Ocean Master were captured, Ra's al Ghul was stabbed and killed, and the impression I'm under is that he may not be re-joining the Light this time, or might need a very long time to recover.

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    8. Still, I just would've liked seeing how people like Ra's al Ghul and Lex Luthor worked to stomach each other's company for what they deemed the greater good, or how Klarion kept himself from screwing everyone up on a whim. Basically, not seeing exactly how the villains managed to work in unity without backstabbing one another in spite of issues they might have with each other felt like a wasted opportunity, since it would've given more reason to respect the villains.

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    9. "Still, I just would've liked seeing how people like Ra's al Ghul and Lex Luthor worked to stomach each other's company for what they deemed the greater good"

      You got that in Targets where it is shown that Lexcorp and Luthor himself can be used to stop senseless war that would cause far more pollution IF the war took place.

      "or how Klarion kept himself from screwing everyone up on a whim"

      You got that with his cat Teekyl. And Savage talking him down.

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  2. Where did you pull these quotes from? Cause I agree with them. Though I don't mind them as much in light hearted fare.

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    1. Agreed, Negaduck is fun but I wouldn't put him on Gargoyles or Avatar.

      And the quotes are from the YJ panel at CONvergence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsYuAoFvv38

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  3. Very interesting. I especially agree that it's too easy if the villains dispose of each other and the heroes basically don't need to be there. If they're going to fall by infighting, it should at least be because the heroes manipulate them into it.

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  4. See here's an odd thing. If a villain is entertaining to see, but isn't relevant to the story and the writer can't seem to think of use for them, what should be done with them?

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    1. If the they don't work for the story, don't use them.

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    2. Discard them and maybe use them somewhere else where they fit.

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  5. I just read an interview with the Once Upon a Time showrunners where they said something similar about the coming evil trio of Maleficent, Ursula and Cruella de Vil: http://insidetv.ew.com/2014/12/11/once-upon-time-cruella-ursula-maleficent-spoilers/

    "These are three very strong and malevolent characters, each a Queen of Darkness in their own right. Can they actually work together?"

    HOROWITZ: That’s part of the fun—these strong women with slightly aligned agendas, but wanting things for themselves, and watching the sparks fly between them.

    KITSIS: You have three leaders who all want to lead. Of course, only one can. For us, what’s interesting is watching villains take a page from the hero playbook. Heroes always work together and never put their ego first. Villains so often put their ego first and lose. These are smarter villains coming back to correct the mistakes from their past.

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    1. Once Upon A Time has grown a lot of faults lately, but villains are still a strong point. I'm eager to see those three working with Rumpelstiltskin, who is still the best villain they've got.

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    2. Some of the characters seem to have become less complex than they were in Season One, and Emma hasn't done a lot to resolve the major plot arcs since then for someone whose title is "the Savior", but I can still see what attracted me to the show in the first place.

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    3. Yeah, it was on a Jumping The Shark slope ever since the Wicked Witch arc, but the villains still manage to keep me entertained and invested in their plots.

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    4. And there are occasional flashes of brilliance from the heroes too. What I like is emotional depth.

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  6. I think there are allowances for more emotional villains whose goals are less logical and bureaucratic than Xanatos or Savage were. But I think what makes Weisman's villains great outside of that flexibility is that they're intelligent, strong and in some respects (and in some cases) terrifying.

    What makes Megatron a bad villain in the 80's Transformers isn't just that he's intent on world conquest or that he's unintelligent. It's that he's flat-out dumb, and does things that a small five year old child would think were a good idea. Also he's just totally ineffective. But it's that juvenile nature that I think defines a lot of what makes a lot of cartoon villains just flat-out bad. Like that example of the villains 'beating themselves' because they can't get along. Is it usually because of irreconcilable moral or tactical reasons? No, it's because "The Joker's Crazy!" or "Lex Luthor is only out for himself!" or "He keeps interrupting me!" or just a total lack of illogical trust ("I have to betray him or he'll betray me first"). Really basic things that these people should have probably understood when they went into business together.

    Gargoyles actually has a good example of the villains' team-up breaking down for good reason. Xanatos and Demona's partnership breaking down, and it breaks down not because Demona called Xanatos 'her servant' or anything that childish, but because Demona's methods and goals were totally irreconcilable with Xanatos'.

    There are plenty of good villains that don't have long-term plans, that don't take defeats in stride, but they have a basic level of intelligence, or they're charismatic or powerful (as in strength of character, not physical or magical strength). Ozai is a good example of this. Is he cunning? Sort of, but I wouldn't call him a great long-term strategist and his goals certainly aren't as elevated as Xanatos' or especially Savage's. Is he easy-going? Definitely not. Is he temperate and agreeable? No. He was also very wasteful. He was willing to burn an entire nation to the ground just to stop any thought of rebellion. Excessive but I think in that excessive action there was also the idea that he was powerful enough to succeed and it was definitely a way to accomplish his goal. The same is true of Demona's Hunter's Moon plan. It's an awful and excessive idea and could even conceivably lead to her own death, but it just went to show how far gone she was and how willing she is to throw things away to obtain victory.

    To get back to Ozai: Ozai was powerful. And not just a powerful bender, but a powerful personality with strong goals and a strong drive. And, arguably the most important benchmark for a good villain: he was effective. He got results and was winning the war. Mostly because of Azula's actions, but hey delegation is an important skill too.

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  7. (I wrote so much I went over the 4000 word character limit, oops.)

    Which brings me to another point. Bad delegation. Another reason Megatron (g1) was such a bad villain is he kept trusting obviously duplicitous and incompetent minions to accomplish goals. While Xanatos had Owen obviously, Megatron (Beast Wars) had effective and loyal minions too. Outside of maybe Waspinator (who was really only given cannon fodder jobs), Rampage, Scorponok and Inferno all got results. I can't emphasize how important this 'results' aspect is. Nobody cares about your villain if he can't do anything and he succeeds in nothing or if he succeeds despite himself.

    I find moral complexity is also overestimated as a benchmark for a good villain. Just because a villain is sympathetic or maybe has a good point in a certain respect doesn't mean they're a good antagonist, if anything moral complexity can take away from a strong villain's purpose in the story. Emotional complexity and psychological complexity I think are much better benchmarks for what makes not only a good villain, but a good character.

    Sorry Greg, didn't mean to rant quite so much but this topic is obviously a very interesting and broad one. And it's one of the things I appreciate most about Weisman's shows.

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  8. another problem is that by and large most villains DON'T care about a better world. They might THINK they do but by and large most real villains are motivated by base petty motivations.

    As heretical as it sounds Unalaq is actually closer to what real villains are like than Xanatos. He thinks he makes a better world (his rant about how "human's shouldn't need a bridge, the spirits and humans should live together" etc) even his rant about a dark avatar is the misguided belief he's just leveling the playing field. the problem is that it's mixed with hypocrisy and selfishness. Greg Weisman's great, but he doesn't get that most villains really are just petty self serving monsters beneath their glamor.

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    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLEo7H9tqSM

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  9. another problem is that greg weisman's villains come across as very invincible. In gargoyles Xanatos gets a bloody nose when he's caught with stolen goods but the light very rarely suffers a real loss (coldhearted being a noticeable exception.) What's more he could have given them A LITTLE tension in between them (they could disagree on matters.) Having them get along perfectly all the time was a little silly. In TMNT Ch'rell survives the initial explosion but has bad burns that take him out of actions. If that had happened to green goblin (he survives but gets injuries) it would be somewhat easier to swallow.

    Eric pointed out that "Still, I just would've liked seeing how people like Ra's al Ghul and Lex Luthor worked to stomach each other's company for what they deemed the greater good, or how Klarion kept himself from screwing everyone up on a whim. Basically, not seeing exactly how the villains managed to work in unity without backstabbing one another in spite of issues they might have with each other felt like a wasted opportunity, since it would've given more reason to respect the villains." If Greg had done THAT I'd be more forgiving but having the villains constantly going "just as planned" gets old. Have them suffer a little setback or internal turmoil.

    I mentioned Unalaq because if you listen to his full speech "You think what Avatar Wan did was good? Driving almost all the spirits from this world? The Avatar hasn't brought balance, only chaos. You call yourself the bridge between the two worlds, but there shouldn't be a bridge: we should live together as one." He honestly thinks he's making a better world. The only problem is that it's filled with hypocrisy; HE has to be the savior and no one else can. It's mixed with a lust for power and control. What little good points he makes are drowned out by his heartless lust for power and selfishness.

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  10. "how does a billionaire CEO and the leader of the largest assassins guild get along?" Because they're adults and it's part of their job to interact civilly with people they might not like. Lex Luthor's not Donald Trump. (at least not YJ Lex)

    If the villains can't "get along" then how are they successful villains? Lex, Ra's, Vandal, Black Manta, Queen Bee, they're all too "evil" to get along then how have they made their own organisations with people who follow and work for them? If they aren't competent enough to get along with other like minded people then they couldn't possibly hold together their own organisations.

    As for the injury stuff, it sounds like you want the villains to superficially get battle scares but still be able to properly face the heroes again next time like nothing happened. When the Team does actual real damage to the Light and their plans in Summit at the end of season 2, you actually feel like it's a real victory rather than something that happens every week.

    Also you don't think Norman Osborn being outed as the Green Goblin and forced to fee the country is a big blow to his villainy? But somehow giving him a facial scar makes that blow actually real?

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  11. I'm saying they could have argued a little; they still would have worked together but had minor disagreements on how to carry out their plans. Not full scale infighting.

    Xanatos got a bloody nose in the pilot; he was still effective but it showed he wasn't completely invincible. The light was usually going "just as planned" and it got kinda old.

    With Norman....fair enough that is a setback.

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    1. Well we didn't see them together as a group a whole lot. This isn't the Justice League cartoon where half the episode is just seeing the villains team-up. We didn't get to see that level of interaction between all the Light members, there wasn't full episodes about them solely as a villain team, unlike in the JL cartoon. Hell I think we only saw them all together once in person, the show kept The Light in the shadows as much as possible. We certainly got to see disagreements in the lower ranks, the ones which we saw on screen the most. There was an entire subplot about Sportsmaster breaking rank to kill Black Manta.

      As for the "just as planned" stuff, you know they actually rarely did that? Most of that stuff was them saying "well we lost some of our objective but gained something too." or "we lost our goal, but there will be opportunities to gain it back later." They weren't saying "just as planned" but instead taking their losses in stride. Hell they lost so badly in Downtime that they had to split the world in two to gain it back, that certainly doesn't sound "just as planned" to me.

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  12. It gave that impression. A lot of the time Greg Weisman's villains don't get a lot of comeuppance. I've seen people who LOVE young justice think the villains were way too invincible. Klarion admits he could beat them but he'd kill them in the process which they can't afford. That got old. As was the fact that the heroes usually only had strife while the villains got along perfectly.

    I also mentioned Unalaq's speech because it IS actually one that seems to advocate a better world. The only problem is that it's completely hollow.

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    1. You know something, Ryan? You're a fucking idiot. Every single comment you have posted in every single blog entry here, and my YouTube account, has done nothing but leak stupid all over the place... seriously, you've stained the furniture with your stupidity.

      Why do you keep coming back? It's pretty obvious that I don't like you or your comments.

      That's a rhetorical question, btw. I don't care nor do I want a response.

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    2. "Klarion admits he could beat them but he'd kill them in the process which they can't afford. That got old."

      And that has come back to bite them in plenty of ways. The Light ever since they cloned Roy Harper, was the catalyst for The Team, the ones who have been a bigger thorn to the Light's plans than even the Justice League. It's because they arrogantly assume that they are not enough of a threat to kill them, that has come back to haunt them. Whether its them no longer having the League under their control; or losing more members.

      -"As was the fact that the heroes usually only had strife while the villains got along perfectly."

      That's because the YOUNGER heroes, haven't been doing this as long as the OLDER villains. So of course the team's inexperience is going to lead to more strife, why wouldn't it, in comparison to the experience the villains had in spades?

      Also got along perfectly? Sportsmaster completely debunks that..

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    3. Nygma, you're talking to an idiot. It's not worth it. See my most recent Game of Thrones post's comment section for how Ryan isn't all there in the skull.

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