This article is the third in a three part series dealing with the demise of characters in fiction. Part One and Two may be read here and here.
Thus far these posts have focused primarily on the deaths of heroic major and minor characters, with some attention paid to minor villains. The reason this author centered her attention principally on the heroes is due to the fact that audiences tend to care about them the most. Without an engaging hero and/or ensemble of heroes, how can one hope to bond with readers/viewers and entertain them?
But the heroes’ are one half of the equation. The antagonists, the other half of the story, require attention in this area as well. This is particularly true today, as many current authors either ham-handedly redeem their villains or destroy the hero when he delivers the final blow. Death is no longer dealt out as a part of the enemy character’s just deserts. Rather these writers tend to consider killing in self-defense and defense of others the equivalent of murder when it is manifestly not.
As part of this implicit suggestion, these authors assert the need to make the antagonist as interesting as the hero. But as Mr. Kurosawa and Mr. Kasdan point out in the above quote, this misses the point. A bad guy whose only motivation is that he is the bad guy and must therefore do bad things is, indeed, a cardboard character. However, there are many ways to make a villain compelling, mesmerizing, and frightening without diminishing or hiding his malevolence. Doing this properly, though, requires the writer to recognize what motivates most arch-villains as they devolve into wicked beings of pure iniquity that are eventually defeated and killed. And yes, for the most part, it is necessary for the villain to die at the end of the story.
There are exceptions to this rule, like The Princess Bride, The LEGO Movie, Detective Pikachu, and numerous superhero comics. But these tales each have good reasons for keeping their antagonists alive. The Princess Bride is a comedic twist on the classic fairy story, while The LEGO Movie’s protagonist and antagonist are stand-ins for a lonely boy and his business-obsessed father. Pikachu, Marvel, and DC are fairytales for both children and adults. Thus the villains the heroes face in these stories must remain more or less perennial in the same manner as the sea witches, bogeymen, evil wizards, etc. that populate the old fables from centuries’ past. What writers have to remember is that these are the exceptions to the rule.
Current trends seem to have more sympathy for the bad guy than for the good guys opposing him. This is a reversal of the ageless understanding that fiction represents and reinforces the reality that good always triumphs over evil either in this life or the next. It is also a highly relativistic view of good and evil, which has no place in fiction or life, as it obscures the obvious in an attempt to excuse the inexcusable.
The most recent franchise to demonstrate this is the new Star Wars trilogy. Aside from the fact that the writers have portrayed the New Republic and the First Order as equally corrupt, another major reason why the main villains are not a palpable threat is that the authors ignore the fact that evil is inherently self-centered. Every major antagonist who cannot be redeemed is marked by a strong narcissism that precludes everything and everyone else. Gradually, this vanity wears away at the antagonist’s humanity, leaving a human (or alien) covering for a monster from the depths of the abyss. Once the villain reaches this point his human/non-human mask slips, revealing the decaying creature that has subsumed and consumed the person who once inhabited his skin. The sequel Star Wars films do not have a single villain who believably meets these qualifications.
While this topic was discussed in the third article on evil, last week’s description of Marcus from Zoids: Chaotic Century* illuminates the point well, too. Marcus brings about his own death due to his short-sighted determination to win favor with Gunter Prozen, a power player in the Guylos Empire. In his eagerness to climb the ranks of the military to a position of power and prestige in the Empire’s upper echelons, he accuses the selfless Colonel Shubaltz of jealousy moments before perishing in the eruption of the volcano.
Prozen meets his end in a similar but more obvious manner. Determined to gain control of the Empire at any and all costs, viewers of Chaotic Century first see Prozen working to restart the war with the Helic Republic. From our first view of him in “The Battle of Red River” to “Prozen’s Conspiracy,” he seems to believe the territory claimed by the Helic Republic belongs to his nation and that the Republicans “are nothing more than rebels usurping the land.”
However, from “Prozen’s Conspiracy” onward, it becomes clear the would-be Emperor is less interested in the land itself and more concerned with the power controlling it and the Empire would grant him. He eventually decides to gain control over the two greatest zoids known to the world in order to rule not only the Empire and the Republic, but the planet of Zi and the entire universe. To acquire this power he is perfectly willing to murder any and all standing in his way, including the ten-year-old boy who is the true heir to the Imperial throne.
In a neat scene that answers the relativist, sympathetic modern portrayal of villains, when confronting the hero in “The Doom Machine” Prozen justifies his vain ambition by saying that “each… must sacrifice others” in order to essentially get what he wants. He literally elevates the desire of the individual over the good of others, disregarding the value of human life and the virtues of selflessness, compassion, friendship, and love. It is a chilling scene, especially since Prozen frames his words in such a way that his opponent is so befuddled he is briefly unable to recognize the difference between himself and Prozen.
The writers for Zoids kept this motivation in mind for Prozen’s eventual demise. Gaining control of the ancient zoid that destroyed the original inhabitants of Zi, the Death Saurer, Prozen loses his mind as the monster takes control of him and he becomes the beast’s mouthpiece. Facing the combined armies of the Republic and the Empire, along with Van and his friends, he maniacally glories in the destruction wrought by the Death Saurer. Absorbed in himself and the raw strength he “commands,” he stands alone and terrible in the midst of the burning Imperial capital.
All of this is quite fitting, as it emphasizes just what Prozen has lost in pursuit of power for its own sake. His single-minded drive for control has made him the slave of pure evil, leaving him an unreasoning and babbling madman. Those who were loyal to him have either died in previous conflicts or they are incapable of approaching him due to the damage the Death Saurer wantonly dishes out during its rampage. He has the power he dreamed of, but he no longer has the agency to direct it toward the goals he desired (the rule of the Empire, the Republic, Zi, and the universe).
Thus when he is eventually defeated by the heroes, the combined might of the Republican and Imperial armies, and the virtues for which they are willing to die, Prozen can only gape. He wildly asks how he could possibly be defeated, lamenting that even though he had “all the power in the world,” it still was not enough to gain him victory and control over the universe. His scream of “WHY?!” further illuminates his vanity, showing that he refuses to recognize anything greater than himself and his desires, as personified in the demonic Death Saurer. He is unwilling to change, to become a better person, and remains determined to take control of the cosmos. Therefore he must be removed from Zi for its populace to live free and happily.
Marvel’s Thanos has this same Achilles’ heel. His conceit is based on the idea that he alone knows what is good for the entire universe. Convinced that the universe cannot support the growing populations of the many and various species who call it home, he takes it upon himself to bring it into “balance” through genocide. When he realizes his methods will take too long to achieve his desire in a manner that will leave him the unquestioned “savior” of the universe, he decides to claim six powerful, ancient relics known as Infinity Stones to accomplish his goals more quickly.
Avengers: Infinity War takes pains to show the vanity of his view. While the heroes stand physically and morally united in their opposition to Thanos, two in particular take him to task for his belief that he alone can save the universe through murder. Dr. Strange and Gamora each tell him, “You don’t know that [the only way to save the universe is through mass murder]!” Both are, in their own way, attempting to defuse the situation and make Thanos see reason. Neither wants to kill him if they can avoid it, but both know their appeals to rationality are unlikely to make a difference.
Both are proven right as their arguments fall on deaf ears. The Mad Titan actively refuses to accept the premise that he could be wrong. He takes credit for Gamora’s escape, despite saying in Guardians of the Galaxy* that he holds Ronan the Accuser responsible for the rift between them. When confronted by Strange he claims that the only way to solve his homeworld’s growing environmental problems was through mass murder.
Yet Thanos rejects these facts. He will kill rather than admit that he could be wrong, demonstrated best when he throws his “favorite” daughter off a cliff to gain the Soul Stone. As Gamora said, if he truly believed what he preached, he would have jumped off the precipice on Vormir himself. Instead, he chose to murder her so that he could fulfill his destiny and “watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.”
Time and again Thanos demonstrates that there is no one and nothing he loves more than himself. By maintaining his allegiance to himself at the expense of every living person in the cosmos, it follows that he must perish in order for true balance and harmony to be upheld. So in the final battle of Avengers: Endgame, Thanos is the last villain on the field to die. Having attempted to destroy and recreate the cosmos in his own image, before he dissolves into dust upon his defeat, he watches the empire of death which he built reduced to ash before his eyes. The Black Order and the Outriders all vanish ahead of him and the artful death machines he masterminded are vanquished or have turned against him, in Gamora and Nebula’s cases. Thanos is left to sit, hollow-eyed and crushed, staring out on an avenged universe that breathes a sigh of relief as he disappears forever.
Palpatine dies in a similar manner in Return of the Jedi. Convinced he has won in spite of Luke Skywalker’s refusal to commit patricide, he is taken by surprise when Anakin Skywalker resurfaces due to the torture of his son. It is not fear that makes the Emperor strike his former apprentice with Force-lightning. He is not attempting to save his own life as Vader lifts him over his head and throws him down the reactor shaft. No, Palpatine lashes Anakin Skywalker with Force-lightning in a fit of pure hatred and rage. He wants to destroy the other for daring to shatter his view of himself as the master and conqueror of the known galaxy. More to the point, he wants to kill Vader for overcoming the years of manipulation and corruption to which he continually exposed him. He wants to avenge his violated ego, and if he must die to do so, then he will take Anakin with him.
This is why the Emperor falls screaming to his death, lightning flashing throughout the reactor core as he drops into the abyss. He could conceivably save himself, but his pride is so offended that he does not even consider that option. With his narcissistic view of himself as the grand manipulator and conqueror destroyed, Palpatine loses all sense of self-preservation. He can only scream and rail in blind fury at the defeat he believed to be utterly impossible.
The death of the Borg Queen in Star Trek: Voyager* also reflects this pattern. In the final episodes of the series, a future version of Kathryn Janeway goes to the past in order to bring Voyager home several years earlier. The Borg, who are monitoring the present Voyager crew, learn of this and attempt to stop both Janeways in their endeavor. In an effort to protect her crew and past self, the future Janeway attempts to parlay with the Borg Queen as a distraction.
Sure of her ability to adapt to the older woman’s advanced technology, the Queen debates the Starfleet Admiral until Borg scanners detect her craft. Once they have her position, the Borg beam the Admiral straight to the Queen’s chamber. There, the Queen herself begins to assimilate the elder version of the woman who has been a thorn in her side for so long.
But just as the Queen is about to capture and assimilate Voyager, the Borg Hive-mind begins to fall apart. Horrified at how her control has begun to slip, she turns to Janeway, realizing too late the older woman injected herself with a virus specifically designed to “bring chaos to order” and vanquish the Borg. Though the Queen manages to send one last vessel after Voyager, she herself literally falls to pieces moments before the vessel and central hub where she held court is destroyed. The ship’s destruction at Voyager’s hand simply completes her defeat.
Priding herself on her power to dominate others through Borg cyberspace and via assimilation, the Borg Queen believes herself incapable of being defeated by any individual. Her continued failure to overcome Captain Janeway and her crew means that her wounded ego will happily take the opportunity to exert her power over an elder and, presumably, less capable version of her valiant counterpart. The idea that Janeway – both the older and the younger version – would exploit that conceit hits her far too late to do her and her empire the least bit of good.
Looking out over the vast field of fiction, one can find many more examples of arch-villains or lesser antagonists who were undone precisely by their own vanity. While this is not the case across the board, the fact remains that every hero’s adversary is more concerned with himself and his own goals than he is with anyone or anything else. He may make a show of worrying over his “friends” or declaim the very atrocities he commits, but in the end he will have interest only in what affirms his ego and/or desires. And he will do whatever it takes to preserve and/or achieve both, up to and including destroying the entire universe.
So when you craft a villain for your hero to overcome, future writers, consider this fact carefully. There is a reason why we were told that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled,” while “whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” A hero humbles himself by putting the needs and concerns of others ahead of his own, while a villain exalts his desires above the good of those around him. By doing so he sets himself up for a fall, both physical and spiritual, from which it is unlikely he will turn away.
Each choice has a resultant reward, in this life or the next. Those villains who will not let go of themselves, who put their wishes above others and refuse to alter that view, have chosen their recompense. Make sure you chronicle its delivery accordingly, so that others will not be tempted to follow them. Otherwise your antagonists will walk all over you and your protagonists.
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