Monday, August 30, 2010

Smart Villains, Smarter Heroes.

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I've been talking a lot of politics the last few months, I hope someone actually read one or two of those write-ups. The next series I plan on doing will be on economics, ranging from "where currency gets its value" to "how financial bubbles occur", but that's many many weeks away and in the interim I'll blab on whatever comes to mind.

I dabble in screenwriting, and back in 2004 this led me to a website called, which is a fantastic resource for screenwriters, because it's run by two very successful writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin, Shrek, to name a few). One of their articles spoke of having smart villains, but smarter heroes. It's an art that's often lost on good stories, because there's nothing interesting about a story where a bad guy keeps getting lucky, or when a good guy is just cursed with bad luck.

The great example they used was in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the opening scene you had Indy escaping dangers galore for an archaeological treasure, only to find upon his exit that the villain was waiting for him. In fact, the entire movie is filled with what Ted & Terry refer to as "epic failure", Indy for all his intelligence never really succeeds in the entire film, and it's only through the success of the villains do they find their own downfall, but Indy was smarter than them so he survived their fate. (I'm trying to not spoil it for those who may have ignorantly not seen it :)

Nothing makes for great writing quite like having your hero fail in epic fashion, yet still keep his wits to tunnel his way out of dire straits. I'm not saying that dumb villains aren't interesting as well, as can be seen in "Gladiator", where you have a bitter & ruthless villain who manages to do nothing right, but the writing is true to that character in that he never is bailed out with a dash of written luck, his brash decision making is his ultimate downfall.

At the heart of a well written film should be the feel that characters discover and make their own paths, and these paths are carved according to their character. The other side of this coin would be where someone has thought up "cool" scenes and simply filled in the characters to meet the criteria without adjusting for the characters themselves. A recent example would be the atrocious film "Knight and Day", where serendipity floods the entire movie, and at few points does anything happen that feels organic. The bad guy dies not because he was truly outwitted by the hero, but because the director needed to end the film with a bang. We were plagued for two hours with a dumb antagonist, and a dumb protagonist.

A good story leaves you with the feeling that you've learned something you didn't know, and a well written hero/villain combo leaves you feeling like they were the ones who created their circumstances, and it was a battle for the last laugh. Luck should be used sparingly, and then only against the hero. Nothing cheapens victory more than good old "Deus Ex Machina".


M. Cook said...

I liked this post a lot. Funny irony in this though, I'd say Raiders has a near literal "Deus ex machina" and perhaps the most famous in film history.

Wes Hemings said...

ha! True enough, about as literal as you can probably get it. But it all still managed to feel true and deliver something magical you hoped for from a movie about the Ark.

M. Cook said...

Absolutely. The fact that they had been setting it up the whole movie with little moments like the burning of the schwastika on the box, etc. made it work just fine.

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