A hero’s story is defined by the conflict that he faces. In movies and TV, that conflict usually takes the form of an antagonist. If there were no vampires, what would be the point of being The Vampire Slayer? If Lilly Kane hadn’t been murdered, Veronica Mars might never have become a PI. If the Alliance hadn’t been formed, Malcolm Reynolds would not have become a space pirate.
While the characters would undoubtedly have preferred these scenarios, these stories that we love need a good villain. Without the threat they pose, our heroes would never find the strength, courage, and ferocity that lie within them. Villains can’t just be generically bad, though. In order for a story to work well, the villain and the protagonist must clash on a personal level.
In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is prideful and powerful while our heroes, Frodo and Sam, are humble and small. In fact, it is by virtue of their small stature that they survive the arduous journey through Middle Earth, sneak into Mordor, and destroy Sauron. Even so, they couldn’t have done it if Sauron had not arrogantly ignored his own borders to grasp at the destruction of his enemies. No one could have opposed Sauron the way Frodo and Sam did, and no one could have threatened Frodo’s and Sam’s way of life the way Sauron did. Protagonist and Antagonist are made for each other.
In Marvel’s new show, Jessica Jones (*Spoilers Ahead*), Kilgrave is a diabolical mind-controller, bending anyone in his way to do his will. Jessica stands against him, both practically and thematically. While Kilgrave strips people of their free will and identity, Jessica consistently confronts people with choices. When her neighbor almost overdoses, Jessica tries to talk him down. Once she’s said her piece, she throws the drugs on the floor next to him, and announces “you choose”, which, while bad advice for a recovering addict, is a powerful moment for these characters. When Jessica’s friends want to help her, she lectures them about the dangers they could be in for, but she accepts their help. Kilgrave commands mindless obedience, Jessica asks people to make their own informed decisions.
The hit BBC show Sherlock introduced us to a modern-day interpretation of the quintessential Victorian detective. Each episode pits him against a different clever criminal, but they are all practice compared to Moriarty. Jim Moriarty is the anti-Sherlock. He has the same aloof disposition, similar skills in manipulation, deduction, and logic, but he chooses to use these gifts in order to get rich and create chaos rather than to help people. He and Sherlock understand each other in a way that no one else can. Because of their separation from the “ordinary people,” they each have a choice: whether to use that separation to exploit people, or to help them. Sherlock’s choice is best illustrated by his friendship with Dr. Watson, a very ordinary person who helps him to stay engaged with humanity. Meanwhile, Moriarty works alone, despising human connection and using people merely to advance his schemes.
When the clash between good and evil is aligned in this fashion, the story becomes doubly powerful, because the triumph of the hero’s ideals and the defeat of their opponent’s worldview happen simultaneously. When Sherlock defeats Moriarty, we cheer because the one who values his friendships (only slightly more, but it counts) has triumphed over the conniving lone wolf. When Kilgrave is defeated, it shows both the failure of control and the power of freedom. And when Sauron is destroyed, pride is laid low and humility is exalted. That is the value of a good villain.