In my pursuit of 152 movies, I have come to realize how critical a good antagonist can be for most movies. Some men just want to watch the world burn! A great antagonist brings so much to the movie – providing contrast to the protagonist, demonstrating their limitations, and competing for some goal against our hero. Similarly, the antagonist must be presented in a reasonable way – when an antagonist creates conflict, the stakes must be real and plausible, and I can’t stress how important that last point is… it’s why so many comic book movies feel hollow. If the fate of the universe is always at stake and you know there is a sequel, there isn’t much tension. The difference in development of the villain is exactly why the original Star Wars movies are legendary and The Force Awakens is just ok. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Just to reiterate, I will do a few different styles of blog posts here, but mainly I will present an important part of film making first and then elaborate on the specifics in a series of more specific posts that follow up. So without further ado, the 10 characters I have chosen to demonstrate the importance of an antagonist (in no specific order):
- Anton Chigurh – No Country For Old Men. What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss? What a way to start, with perhaps my favorite movie of all time. What makes Anton Chigurh great as an antagonist is the contrast he creates with No Country’s protagonist, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Wait a second, you mean the protagonist, Josh Brolin aka Llewelyn Moss, right? Nah, but you aren’t far off. I can’t wait to dig deeper on this one.
- Billy Mitchell – King of Kong. Steve Wiebe is the classic American hero we all wish we could be. Despite his reserved nature, he is an accomplished athlete, musician, father, and worker. Speak softly and be successful at everything, a Teddy Roosevelt/Justin Timberlake Renaissance Man, if you will. It’s not hard to root for him since I think we can all see a part of ourselves in his everyman persona, so not much of an antagonist is needed. BUT OH, WHAT A DICK BILLY MITCHELL IS. He represents a massive obstacle to Steve Wiebe’s pursuit of success, increasing tension to the climax. JUST LET THE MAN WIN AT SOMETHING FOR ONCE!!
- Darth Vader – Star Wars. We all know the deal here, but mostly I want to use this example as a case study in comparison to Kylo Ren, aka Darth Vader’s shitty clone, in the new movies.
- Michael Corleone – The Godfather trilogy. Shaq once compared the three young, All-Star shooting guards that he played with to the Corleone brothers. Penny was Fredo – weak, and never quite ready to take over the empire. Kobe was Sonny – overly brash and short-sighted instead of cold and calculating. And lastly, Dwayne Wade – Michael, just the right mix of aggression and intelligence to lead a mob family, or an NBA team apparently. Michael begins as a protagonist in the first movie, but as he becomes Don Corleone he changes in to a completely different character. I’ll focus more on this metamorphosis and how the contrast between the two Michaels establishes a perfect good guy/bad guy comparison later.
- Daniel Plainview – There Will Be Blood. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” How amazing that this movie and No Country For Old Men came out the same year? This is a movie about a relentless man who sees only the worst in people. From the very first scene, Daniel Plainview rises, seemingly from the depths of hell, physically broken as a man but driven by his compulsion for the wealth beneath his feet to crawl on his back god alone knows how far to get help. Oh, but first he stops to pick up a check for that gold and silver ore he found. He doesn’t speak for what feels like the first half of the movie, chosing to forgo the humanizing tools of society to instead focus all of his energy on the tools of getting rich. He is covered in a thick layer of scum literally and metaphorically thoughout this movie and systematically disembowels the other despicable swindlers who cross his path. My favorite part of this character is that the original actor quit the shoot after only two weeks of dealing with Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously immerses himself in his roles.
- The dinosaurs – Jurassic Park. Alan Grant and the rest of the team of scientists in Jurassic Park deal with various immutable laws of science. Throughout the movie, it becomes clear that while the rules still apply in the park, the scientists may not understand them as well as they had believed. The dinosaurs here challenge the protagonist’s rules and principles, creating one of my favorite movies of all time.
- HAL 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 is a powerful and eventually frightening tool in the hands of humanity. Perhaps our tools had evolved a little faster than our ability to use them. HAL 9000 and his interactions with the astronauts in 2001 is a representation of our limitations as a species. As Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
- Terence Fletcher/John Fitzgerald – Whiplash/The Revenant: JK Simmons and Tom Hardy are two of the best actors in the business. Seriously, see any movie either of these two make, it is almost guaranteed to be great. Both play essential characters in two of the best movies to come out in the past few years. In a world of participation trophies, JK Simmons forces the viewer by means of the protagonist to confront the most extreme definitions of sacrifice and question whether it justifies the payoff of excellence. Similarly, in a series of escalating conflicts, Tom Hardy undermines the goals that Leonardo DiCaprio pursued throughout the film. Completely different roles, completely different outcomes, similar characters.
- John Doe – Se7en. Kevin Spacey plays what is maybe the best developed villain in all of cinema in Se7en. He is potent, competent, singularly focused on the specific flaws
of our detective protagonist, and able to force our hero to test his character in an excellent moral dilemma, built through the entire course of the movie to the climatic crescendo.
- Alien/The Thing – Alien/The Thing. I feel like I have covered this ground by now, but these two iconic monsters serve such a specific purpose in a sci-fi story that I think they deserve special treatment. Though humans are apex predators on earth with few natural threats to our survival, space creates a world where an adolescent mankind is under-evolved, naïve, and weak. Both characters revert our brains to a particular vulnerability that is surely programmed in to our human DNA but often lays fallow in modern society. That existential fear of weakness is brilliantly exposed by these powerful antagonists.