Do Weak Villains Make for Weak Heroes?

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler


For the last couple of weeks, a lot of people have been criticizing Rey, the main protagonist in The Force Awakens, for being perfect.  While I agree, I think we are missing the big picture—Kylo Ren.  In any great story we always want to see the hero defy all odds and win.  That’s why it is so engaging to watch Luke fight Vader, Rocky face Apollo Creed, and Neo beat Mr. Smith.  Luke, Rocky, and Neo are all characters who achieve goals that no one believed that anyone could.  In order for the protagonist to be at a disadvantage, obviously, the antagonist has to be a convincing threat.  That said, we should also criticize Ren.  Why?  Well, if all of the other characters are laughable and/or fools (example: Ren’s tantrums), it doesn’t make for a convincing hero.  What if Obi Wan Kenobi was a stumbling drunk in Episode IV, instead of a guide for Luke?  What if Han Solo missed Greedo, then realized that he fired in the wrong direction?  What if Luke was already more capable than any of the other good guys (like how Rey was)?  Audiences would have attacked Luke for being a whiny character who inexplicably found the ability to blow up the death star.  Why?  Because you need supporting and main characters to strengthen the lead character.  Look at The Matrix.  Neo is a very bland character, but Mr. Smith is such a powerful antagonist that it makes sense that Neo has to become stronger and actually make a difference in the story.  Luckily, there are strong supporting characters, such as Morpheus and Trinity, to strengthen Neo.

What if Kylo Ren did not speak in the first thirty minutes?  The audience would become impatient to the point that when he finally would do something, it would make them pay attention.  Instead, the coolest thing happens with him in the first five minutes.  After that, it was downhill for him.  The same was for Red Skull in Captain America: First Avenger.  In the comics, not only is Red Skull stronger, but also smarter and has a loyal army behind him.  How does Steve Rogers defeat such a force?  Well, in the movie, Red Skull’s forces are weak, and the heroes are clearly much better.  No scene in the film shows the heroes lose.  Why should we care, then?  If Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo could defeat the agents each time, then there would be no movie.  The Empire Strikes Back is basically an entire movie about the good guys losing.  It’s also consistently considered by Star Wars fans to be the best of all seven films.  Coincidence?

The perfect example of the main hero being beaten is RoboCop.  From the first minute RoboCop is born, he is roaming Detroit City kicking the crap out of the villains.  But, in RoboCop’s previous life as Alex Murphy, he was blown away by Clarence Boddicker and his men, in a scene that demonstrated the power of Clarence as a villain.  Both characters were set up for the final fight.  Although RoboCop is virtually immune to bullets, he has his weaknesses.  Clarence has access to military weaponry, and is not scared at all of RoboCop.  Granted, he could be on cocaine at this point, but who knows with him.

The hero is only as good as the villain.  That has stuck with me for many years.  Whenever I see a movie about good versus evil, I get excited.  But most recent movies don’t have the heroes and/or villains who do a good enough job to excite me.  Even though I don’t like The Winter Soldier movie, the titular character did a good job of being a threat, until the point where he’s revealed to be a complex villain.  Once you find out he’s a tragic character who is under someone else’s control, he is suddenly a weaker villain.  Now, let’s compare Winter Soldier to the Terminator in the first one.  The T-800 does cool things throughout the movie, but what makes him scary is how Kyle Reese describes him to Sarah Connor.  The mystery (plus the dread-inducing music) behind the T-800 made him effective.

Hopefully, we will soon begin to see more films that break the trend of “hey kids, let’s watch the perfect good guys beat up the non-threatening villain!”.

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