The Good, The Bad and The Morally Gray

Villains and antagonistic forces are a mainstay, not just in the world of comics, but in media as a whole. They are crucial pieces of the puzzle that introduce or exaggerate the conflict of the narrative, and depending on their complexity, can shape the story in a way that forces the protagonist to adopt new mindsets and face new challenges to overcome this threat. Recently, villains like Marvel’s Thanos and Loki, and D.C.’s Joker have gained some serious traction for being interesting, multilayered, and complex villains that have beliefs that they not only genuinely stand behind, but ones that, on some level, the audience can understand and even in some cases, sympathize with.

One individual that I believe portrays this better than most is Lord Tywin Lannister from G.R.R.M’s A Song of Ice and Fire. While Tywin is not native to the medium of comics, I personally believe that he represents the apex of what an antagonistic character can be. He is a ruthless, cunning, and intelligent patriarch that is devoted to the concept of leaving behind a family legacy that will transcend generations. He’s not a morally good man and never claims himself to be, rather he concerns himself only with what he can manage, and how such things affect his ultimate goal.

Tywin himself.

I bring Tywin up because he is the antagonist by which I compare all other antagonists to. Are their motives as compelling? Do they provide an interesting counter to the ideologies of the protagonist? The two may even agree on some level regarding a conflict but differ on how that conflict should be resolved. In short, there is more than one way to create a compelling villain; sometimes this mark is hit, other times it’s missed spectacularly and the villain falls short. Tywin Lannister, I believe, hits the mark on pretty much everything that makes him a compelling antagonist to the Starks, and when I compare him to some of the more notable villains from popular comic media, I unfortunately find that there are quite a few that fall short (though there are definitely a handful that get pretty close to hitting the mark), and there are even a few characters that are better in one medium than another.

Film Thanos, for example, believes the universe is overpopulated and that current resources cannot reasonably sustain the amount of life it currently holds. While his belief isn’t really anything groundbreaking, it is often considered leagues better than the motives of Thanos’s comic counterpart, who simply gathers the Infinity Stones in order to wipe away life to impress Death. Comic Thanos gets rather close to the villain pitfall of being “evil for evil’s sake,” while the widely acclaimed film version of Thanos takes a concept that is very real to the audience and adds threat to it. Death is not a character that the audience can reasonably relate to, but the fear of not having enough food, money, clean water and resources is one that is discussed in real world politics and has bearing with the viewers. The result is a more compelling viewing experience, and one where we can say “I can reasonably understand how Thanos came to this conclusion.” Conversely, eliminating swaths of life for what amounts to a crush on the embodiment of death is not one that plays into preexisting fears or issues that are relevant to the audience.

Together at last…

I’ve always maintained that writing a hateable character is easy, but writing a character that you hate to respect is an entirely different ballgame. Multilayered comic villains need more attention so that other writers can learn from example, while we as readers and movie goers need to know that our job is to promote good writing and characters, while letting villains like “Asbestos Lady” fade into obscurity.

Sourcing and Works Cited

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Thanos and Death:

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