Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #159: The Villain Needs A Solid Motivation Too

You’ve heard me say that I loathed Dark Knight Rises, and that I liked Avengers for the most part.  Another recent action movie that I haven’t mentioned yet but I massively enjoyed was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  Nevertheless, loathe ‘em, like ‘em, or love ‘em, all of these movies shared one big problem, which is apparently becoming a trend: the villain with no real motive.

When I walked out of The Avengers, once the adrenaline rush wore off, I asked my friends, “Was this movie written by George W. Bush?”  Whenever anyone asked the villain Loki why he was blowing stuff up, his only answer was, “I hate you for your freedom!”  Who says that? 

The Mission Impossible villain, meanwhile, just gets a brief speech about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki both have thriving economies today, so why not nuke the whole world?  That’s all the movie felt that it needed to justify two hours of (admittedly awesome) running, jumping and shooting. 

Loki is literally a god of chaos, but that job description could apply to all of these villains.  In retrospect, it applies to the villains of all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman villains, Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker and Bane, none of whom had any motivation outside of “destruction is good”. 

My favorite classic Joker stories from the comics were those in which he was pursuing a concrete objective, whether it was a logical goal, like in “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” (getting back at old allies who betrayed him) or a crazy goal, like in “The Laughing Fish” (transforming every fish in the sea into a “Joker Fish” and then trying to copyright their faces). 

Nolan’s movie, however, was based on the more recent Joker stories, where he just wants to create sadistic homicidal mayhem.  One problem with this is that it makes the villain’s job way too easy.  It’s impossible for him to fail in his efforts, because, win or lose, mayhem will ensue.  Indeed, Nolan’s Batman catches the Joker and hangs him from a hook, but he just bounces up and down, laughing triumphantly at how much he messed everything up. 

Heroes only become believable when we understand their motivation.  Villains are the same way.  It’s a lot more interesting if we get to see how every step is helping or hindering their overall goal and their mini-goals. 


Michael Hoskin said...

Wait a minute... Ghost Protocol had villains? I must have blinked at one point. It seemed to be as much man vs. nature as anything (or man vs. skyscraper, man vs. dust storm, man vs. parking lot).

Dan McCoy said...

One problem with this is that it makes the villain’s job way too easy. It’s impossible for him to fail in his efforts, because, win or lose, mayhem will ensue. Indeed, Nolan’s Batman catches the Joker and hangs him from a hook, but he just bounces up and down, laughing triumphantly at how much he messed everything up.

I'm not sure how that's a flaw, if the story the movie wants to tell is about how it's always harder to beat back chaos -- to build something, than to tear it down.

j.s. said...

Another problem with the villain in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is that SPOILER ALERT it turns out he's not the really real villain. So on top of the motives of the guy we thought was the baddie being somewhat vague, there's a highly specific revenge motive that's behind it all -- but one that's been kept from us the entire story.

This rule is a very close cousin to Rule 149: The Villain's Plan Should Be Good For The Villain. And Shawn Ryan's LAST RESORT has all of these problems up the wazoo. Since there's a big conspiracy element to the show, the writers think they can get away with having vague or ludicrous or no apparent motivations on the part of the part of the big baddies -- or maybe they just think they're being "mysterious." But the absence of understandable motives for the extreme situation the heroes find themselves in makes each new episode even less believable than the last. Especially because none of them is really in a position to play detective. And strangely, nobody seems all that curious about WHY it's all happening to them.

j.s. said...

I agree with Dan McCoy about THE DARK KNIGHT, though. The Joker is the cartoon incarnation of the quintessential terrorist. It's not so much that it's easy for him to wreck havoc as that it's impossible to reason with somebody like a supervillain version of Bin Laden. What the Joker wants is to mess stuff up in a bigger and more glorious fashion each time (which by the way Bin Laden did too), so he is kind of making it hard on himself. His competition is his last act of mayhem. He has an aesthetic of destruction that requires an elaborate choreography of manipulative violence. And, like Bin Laden, too, he's not satisfied with easy targets or unworthy foes.

Jeff Moskowitz said...

The villain's motivation is such a fine line to walk. One the one hand you have to understand their motive, and it has to be real and believable for the villain to be a real character in the movie and not just a joke.

On the other, if you understand their motivations and their motivations are real and believable, then what's to keep you from liking them instead of hating them, or at least having some interest in their survival?

Matt Bird said...

But that's not what Bin Laden wanted to do. He wanted to force foreign troops to leave his country. Which is something anybody would want.

Right-wing ideologues (which, based on DKR, seemingly includes Nolan) like to accuse their political opponents of being capable of empathy, as if it were a bad thing, and they pride themselves on ignoring the statements of terrorists. In their world, all terrorists are like Nolan's Ghul, Joker and Bane: chaos-gods who have deigned to challenge the order-gods represented, I guess, by Bush, Obama, and Batman.

They feel this way because they fear that if they were to allow themselves to empathize with Bin Laden's situation (Gee, how would I feel if my country was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship that allowed hostile foreign troops to occupy us and take all our resources?) then they would have to sympathize with his actions (psychotic mass murder).

But in fact, as with Tony Soprano, Walter White, Michael Corleone, and lots of other fictional characters, it's possible to empathize with Bin Laden's motivation without sympathizing with his horrific, delusional, messianic, bloodthirsty actions.

Sometimes, a finale is so bad that it forces you to say "Not only does this suck, it sucks so bad that it's convinced me that the entire series must have somehow sucked and I didn't notice it" (See also: Lost). That's obviously unfair, but, in retrospect, it's hard not to see Nolan's series as one big failure of empathy (and thus a failure to grasp the reality of good and evil.)

Harvey Jerkwater said...

If the motivations for a villain make too much sense, then the sense of righteous outrage we feel at their actions is compromised, if only a little. One of the joys of escapist fiction is allowing us to feel those emotions without compromise.

It's that spectrum between "entertainment" and "literature" you discuss sometimes. The more cartoonish the villains' motivations, the more you can justify extreme actions and the less you have to think about morals and ethics. Our Hero blew up a warehouse filled with The Villain's mooks? Eh, they're just Bad Guys.

It prevents depth or meaning, but it makes the punchy-smashy-splodey less problematic. Villain motivation is a strategic decision that defines how the movie should be interpreted by the audience.

j.s. said...

Well, it's arguable exactly what Bin Laden wanted to accomplish through his mass murder. The reductionist fantasy that Bin Laden really truly merely only specifically and finally wanted U.S troops out of Saudi Arabia is absurd. To believe that, had the withdraw happened, he would have hung up his terrorist hat forever is likewise silly. Or what about justice for Palestine? Bin Laden said he wanted lots of things, including a worldwide Islamic caliphate (with him or somebody very much like him) in charge, starting with whatever land he was presently occupying.

It's too easy for liberals (my pre-9/11 self included) to believe that somebody like that might be reasoned with.

Sure the roots of Muslim rage have something in common with some (but not all) of Bin Laden's publicaly stated goals. Just like Walter White's, Michael Corleone's and Tony Soprano's original motivations -- to provide for and protect their families -- had something in common with more normal human instincts.

But that's where the similarities end. Each one of those fictional characters is way more sympathetic than you could ever make Bin Laden. In large part because his religious convictions and personal narcissism removed any modicum of doubt or conflict from his mind. Which is where I come back to the Joker of Nolan's film and some of the more recent graphic novels. As a pure agents of chaos, the Joker and Bin Laden are peas in a pod, worshipers of the spectacle of mass destruction who don't really want anything except to see the world burning bigger and brighter than ever before.

How do you write honestly about a psychopathic villain, telling the truth of his/her nature, if the very definition of such an extreme character necessitates a lack of empathy for all other humans?

Have a look the 2012 Austrian film MICHAEL and try and tell me that the film's anti-hero is relatable (or should be more so). The thing that's so great about this film is that it doesn't matter. You don't have to understand why the protagonist wants what he wants, you don't have to be rooting for him -- in fact, you're rooting for his downfall. But because of the filmmaker's attention to detail and his precise procedural focus, you certainly do grasp every one of the protagonist's macro and micro goals in a way that makes it utterly compelling viewing.

Matt Bird said...

No, no one could have reasoned with a psychotic zealot like Osama bin Laden, but just because you can't be reasoned with, doesn't mean you don't have your reasons.

I haven't seen Michael, but I agree that it's more important to grasp the goals and mini-goals than it is to understand why the protagonist wants what he wants, which sets up today's post...

j.s. said...

I suppose I'd be more comfortable with saying that Bin Laden said he had reasons or believed himself to have reasons. Because his numerous so-called "reasons" were actually pretexts or retroactive justifications (especially his come lately concern for the plight of the Palestinians) for engaging in a neverending war on innocent civilians with himself cast as the avenging hero.

He's of a different ilk altogether from insurgents with legitimate political grievances and limited, achievable goals like Che or the rebels in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. And also of a substantially different bent then more traditional state users/sponsors of terrorism who believe themselves able to nudge geopolitics in their favor with the strategic application of managed mayhem -- Arafat, Assad and the current Iranian and North Korean regimes. All of these guys at the very least have/had a fixed return address and the responsibility to govern a populace keeping them somewhat in check. In other words, something to lose.

j.s. said...

I guess part of what I'm getting at is that Bin Laden and Nolan's Joker represent a valid and relatively new type of baddie, and that the rules for this villain are a little different. Think of Blake Snyder's argument for the emergence of what he calls The Nihilist Monster. While these baddies can claim to have all the reasons they want -- Blake Snyder uses the Jigsaw Killer as his defining example -- there's nothing behind their stated reasons that goes much deeper than a bottomless desire to inflict suffering on others and then to sit back and watch.

Anonymous said...

I like this post a lot, Matt!

The Joker's one note motivation seems to cause a lot of people to characterize him as more terrifying because there is no method to his madness, but that in turn give the movie such low stakes (a common thread in Nolan's films).