The Art and Architecture of Hollywood, Villains and a Good Story Well-Told
by Ashley Arielle from In Defense of Villainy
Poor Mario, it’s a good thing he’s so super, because he has the worst luck. If it’s not his girl getting kidnapped, it’s his castle being overrun or his brother disappearing. And as any child given any variation of a Nintendo gaming system in the last thirty years knows, he’s going to have to fight through Goombas, Koopas and Chomps before taking on Kammy Koopa and then finally, his arch-nemesis Bowser.
A good action film is set up very much like a good videogame. The larger and more varied the force of villains arrayed against your hero, the more he has to overcome, the stronger both your hero and your story will grow.
Three Categories of Villainy
In videogames villainy is broken down into three categories: henchmen, villains and uber villains.
Henchmen are on the lowest level they generally don’t have names, are terrible shots and rack up body counts like no other. These are the stormtroopers in Star Wars, the orcs in The Lord of the Rings and the Nazis in… well most any movie involving Nazis.
Villains are usually the hired muscle of the big bad; they do have names and can get personal with the hero, but are not the main event. Think Count Rugen (aka the six-fingered man) in The Princess Bride, Frederick Sykes (aka the one-armed man) in The Fugitive and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. They are usually defeated in a prolonged physical struggle that weakens the hero before his battle with his ultimate nemesis: the uber villain.
The uber villain is an entirely different kettle of fish. He is the puppet master, the perpetrator of some great evil against the world at large and (hopefully) the hero in particular. He is smart and cunning and usually his confrontation with the hero involves some sort of chicanery. Theirs can be a physical fight, but it can also be a battle of wits and not infrequently the hero is, at the last minute, saved by some kind of outside help or piece of hidden knowledge. Entering at stage right we have Commodus from Gladiator, Agent Smith from The Matrix and The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Die Hard with a Villain
One film that utilizes all three categories with verve and panache is Die Hard. Die Hard is the story of our hero, John McClane, who is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, who faces one of the great villains in action film history. The stage is set, Christmas Eve, an unhappy couple, a mostly empty skyscraper and a truckload of villains intent on robbery and mayhem.
Our henchmen are the nameless and numerous bank robbers, these are the ones toting machine guns and looking tough, but not doing much else. Karl moves from nameless tough to the role of villain when McClane kills his brother, Tony making the conflict quite personal. Their fight rages throughout the film, Karl becoming further and further enraged by McClane’s antics. The final conflict between Karl and McClane is an epic, bare-knuckled brawl from which, McClane barely escapes; whereupon he goes after Hans Gruber, who is of course, the uber villain.
The relationship between McClane and Gruber in this film is truly marvelous…