My favorite scene in the Lion King is the one where Scar kills Mufasa.
It might not surprise anyone to learn that when I share this fact, I usually get reactions of shock and horror. This scene makes me excited; it makes most people extremely sad.
But how can you not love it? It’s the culmination of the brilliant villain’s evil plan! It’s the rise of Scar, voiced by the magnificent Jeremy Irons. In an instant, Mufasa’s rescue of his son is turned from triumph to tragedy as Scar utters the bone chilling words, “Long live the king.”
Seriously, that’s incredible.
As a general rule, villains are just flat out better than heroes. Scar’s mix of dripping sarcasm and megalomania was one of the first examples of this phenomenon that our generation encountered, but there have been plenty more.
All due credit to Liam Neeson, but Darth Maul was on screen for maybe a tenth as much time as Qui-Gon Jin, and yet is one of the most recognizable and famous Star Wars characters. Darth Vader is an even more potent example – people imitate his force choke much more often than they imitate anything Luke does.
We may be rooting for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but every one of Voldemort’s appearances is terrifying and scarring, both in the books and in the movies (we don’t talk about the hug).
We all respect and love Ned Stark and his almost absurdly honorable sons, Robb and Jon, but the Stark clan hasn’t had the most success in Westeros. Meanwhile, the beautifully creepy Littlefinger is inching closer and closer to taking complete control.
Or take Breaking Bad. Walter White is a complete monster, but you can’t help but love him. His fall is tragic and wrenching, but it draws you in and makes you want to root for him even when he’s doing horrible things. Gus Fring, from the same show, is every bit as compelling.
Villains are almost always more memorable, more interesting, and/or more entertaining than heroes. They often drive the plot. They give the heroes reasons to fight. They transform the world in dark and frightening ways, drawing the audience in and giving them a reason to care. A good villain can elevate any work and make it run more smoothly.
Consider the moral ambiguity some villains can bring to a piece. Many of the best villains are tragic figures, with sympathetic backstories or aims. Look at Littlefinger. No one would claim that he isn’t evil. But he grew up as the extremely poor only child of a pathetically minor noble house. He was raised in the court of a major house, but was looked down upon and treated poorly by everyone he lived with. Yet, in a world controlled by bloodlines and aristocracy, he rose to become one of the most powerful players in Westeros.
Even Lord Voldemort, who is basically Harry Potter’s version of evil incarnate, comes from tragic beginnings. It’s tough not to feel a twinge of sympathy for him when you hear about the orphanage where he spent his summers as a student, or when you see just how similar to Harry he really is.
None of this is to say that heroes are worthless. Heroes can be pretty great, actually. But a lackluster hero isn’t going to hurt a work nearly as much as a lackluster villain. Christian Bale’s Batman is fine, but he’s nothing special; it’s the Joker that makes the Dark Knight a masterpiece.
Similarly, I don’t feel particularly strongly about Luke in either direction, but Darth Vader helps to propel Star Wars to its intergalactic heights (I’m sorry, but I had to say something about space). For their parts, the prequels probably couldn’t have been saved, but less stereotypical and boring villains might have given them a boost. Look at Darth Maul. Even if you don’t care much about Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, you’re gonna be glued to the screen when they face down Maul.
And of course, not all villains are great. Mistakes have been made. Unalaq in The Legend of Korra is a painful example of this. The whiny Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars Episode III is another one that many people would rather forget.Perhaps unsurprisingly, Unalaq’s season of The Legend of Korra (season 2) is usually regarded as the worst one. Further, the other seasons all feature stellar villains. Correlation is not causation, but you can’t tell me that Zaheer isn’t a crucial part of why season three was so incredible.
So again: this is not meant to bash heroes. Heroes can still rock. But villains? Villains can give even the worst movies some great moments (Darth Maul), they can inspire both sympathy and hatred (Voldemort), they can have incomparable impacts on the plot (Littlefinger and Zaheer), and they can be completely entrancing (Heath Ledger’s Joker).
Heroes are neat.
But villains are where it’s at.