The great Roger Ebert once wrote that each film is only as good as its villain. He also wrote a review of Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties from Garfield?s perspective and gave the movie three out of four stars, but he was right about villains. If there?s one trope that should never be neglected by a movie or TV show of geek appeal, it?s the bad guy. The audiences who love science fiction, fantasy, and animation will also love a magnetic villain, and it?s in these pulpy venues that old-fashioned, black-hearted evildoers can still have some resonance. They just need style.
Most lousy villains are found in equally lousy stories. In rare circumstances, however, appealingly rotten ne?er-do-wells show up in films or TV series that just don?t treat them right. We?ve picked out ten villains from modern geek culture (so don?t get pissed if Iago or Milady de Winter didn?t make the cut) and outlined the ways in which their handlers did them little justice.
10) The Predalien, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem
Pitting the stars of the Alien films (sorry, Ms. Weaver) against Predators is a silly, exploitive idea done best in comic books and video games. Perhaps that?s because it has the same playground-debate appeal as seeing King Kong fight Godzilla or watching Robocop take on the Terminator. We wouldn?t care about suspense or seeing the rituals of the Predator race; we just want to see two bad-ass aliens fight and blow stuff up. The first Alien vs. Predator film, though terrible, delivered a closing surprise sure to delight monster-movie fans. That surprise was an alien hatched out of a Predator. A Predalien. With four little mandibles. Aww.
So, for the sake of the monster-movie fan within, people sat through Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. They endured the film?s lazy take on Everytown, Texas and brushed aside subplots about gangly teens in love and scenes of the Predalien ramming xenomorph fetuses down a pregnant woman?s throat (tasteful!), because a Predator and a Predalien were both running around the town and they were going to have it out, dammit.
And what happens when they meet? They slap at each other like two graceless professional wrestlers in the rain, making it hard to tell just what the hell they?re doing. Then they?re both vaporized by a nuclear bomb. What a waste.
9) Tak, Invader Zim
Tak sounds like a lazy concept: Zim is a frustrated, often-psychotic alien masquerading as a human kid, so why not give him a female nemesis who?s pulling the same act, only with more competence? That?s Tak, and like many things on Invader Zim, she?s more fun than her basic characterization would?ve allowed in a lesser show. Introduced as the new (and apparently human) girl at Zim?s school, she starts off as Zim?s attempt to research Earth-creature affection, but quickly reveals herself as another invader, and her ambitions call for her to conquer the planet in Zim?s place.
Tak fell victim not to the show?s scripts, but to its cancellation. She was introduced toward the end of the first season, and the second one got through ten episodes before Nickelodeon killed it. Tak was slated to return as the primary opposition in at least one of Zim?s schemes, and her ship figures into several episodes. Today, she lives on only in the fiction and YouTube pastiches created by fans determined to ruin everything good about Invader Zim.
8) Takahashi and the Monowhip Guy, Johnny Mnemonic
As one of the rare movie adaptations of cyberpunk author William Gibson?s short stories, Johnny Mnemonic sure wasted a lot of opportunities. One of them came with the female lead, who went from the story?s streetwise, mirror-eyed, razor-handed (it?s cyberpunk, remember) Molly Millions to an under-augmented sidekick named Jane. At least she was played by Dina Meyer, for whom getting killed in Starship Troopers was a high point after this film and Dragonheart.
But the movie also squandered two of its villains. One of them was Takahashi, a distrustful Yakuza boss played by none other than “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, the accomplished actor/writer/director/comedian/game designer who modern teenagers remember most fondly as the dude who threw a knife into that one girl?s head at the start of Battle Royale. Kitano has little chance to throw knives, girl-targeted or otherwise, during the film, and there?s not much time to show off the other memorable villain, Shinji. A Yakuza-affiliated hitman, Shinji?s armed with a monowire whip coiled in his thumb, which would easily make him the coolest character in the movie. Yet Johnny Mnemonic is such a limp cyberpunk potboiler that Shinji doesn?t do much more than make some laser-like arcs on the screen.
The Japanese version of the film reportedly replaces the soundtrack (goodbye, God Lives Underwater) and adds in a few more scenes of backstory for Takahashi, who, like all mobsters, is really just having problems with his wife and kids. This would?ve arguably served the American version better than the scenes of Dolph Lundgren?s insane street preacher or that drug-addicted dolphin.
7) Ashram, Record of Lodoss War
Some anime fans may tell you that Record of Lodoss War is their hobby?s own version of The Lord of the Rings, but the more sensible ones will point out that it?s closer to those predictable Dragonlance novels you might?ve read in junior high. Based on a tabletop role-playing game, the Lodoss anime series shows a backstory-heavy fantasy saga through the eyes of a generic young swordsman named Parn and some other Dungeons & Dragons staples. There?s a na?ve cleric, a knowing wizard, a grumbling dwarf, a cynical thief and, of course, a huge-eared elf woman who?s drawn to our hero?s overpowering blandness. There is, however, a reasonably interesting antagonist in Ashram, an ambitious knight who, like many effective evildoers, starts off as an underling and works his way up. Ashram is quickly posed as Parn?s nemesis in the typical fantasy ways: he wears dark armor, he has a sword named Soul Crusher, and he wants to conquer and/or destroy the island of Lodoss. Oh, and his girlfriend is a dark elf.
Imposing as he is, Ashram?s still stuck in anime-Dragonlance land, and he ends up spouting generic bad-guy lines by the climax of the original Lodoss video series (seen above). Then the lower-budget Lodoss TV series comes along and re-boots the story from its midpoint, making it so that Ashram lives on and just sails off with his dark-elf woman to find a home for his accursed people. Then the even-lower-budget Legend of Crystania series continues Ashram?s story without actually having him in it very much. And then everyone stops caring about Ashram and Lodoss in general.
6) Shan-Yu, Mulan
Certain critics will never stop pointing out how Disney?s Mulan takes numerous liberties with the classic Chinese poem, cramming it with comedy, music, and animal sidekicks ready to be bundled with happy meals. In our view, however, Mulan does a lot of things right. For one, the villain starts off on the proper note. The leader of the Hun forces invading China, Shan-Yu exudes a tiger-like ferocity and ruthlessness, like the successor to the Jungle Book?s Shere Khan. What?s more, Shan-Yu actually has someone killed in his second scene. Are Disney villains allowed to do that?
Much like Shere Khan, however, Shan-Yu doesn?t get much screen time. He also falls victim to Mulan?s biggest problem: it can?t stop when it should. A beautifully animated battle between Shan-Yu and Mulan in snowy mountains should, by logic, be the movie?s climactic moment, but the script carries things on to a clash at the Chinese Emperor?s palace. Shan-Yu, having survived a huge avalanche, confronts Mulan and gets blown up by fireworks. After all, this is a movie about China, and fireworks have to figure into it somehow.
5) Mok Swagger, Rock & Rule
It?s hard to imagine a major studio making a movie like Rock & Rule in this modern age of Shrek-dominated computer animation. This 1983 experiment from Nelvana envisions a world where a nuked-out human race is replaced by animal people, in what resembles grimy futurepunk by way of Yogi Bear. In this dark yet oddly cartoonish realm, an amateur songstress named Angel (who resembles and has the singing voice of Blondie?s Debbie Harry) is ensnared in an evil rock star?s scheme to summon a demon, and her bandmates (loosely based on and sung by Cheap Trick) head out to Nuke York to rescue her.
Rock & Rule would be a much worse film if its evil rock star wasn?t Mok Swagger, a delightful bastard embodying both faded ?70s opulence and music-industry corruption. As any glimpse of him might tell, he?s Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Iggy Pop in creepy, anthropomorphized cartoon villain form. But he?s mostly Jagger-ish, and a cease-and-desist from the Rolling Stones frontman?s lawyers ensured that Mok?s last name is never said in the movie. That doesn?t stop him from being a potentially fascinating bad guy: a rock star so powerful, so utterly without morals, and so afraid of losing it all that he?s turned to making pacts with Hell for personal amusement. His songs are also provided by Lou Reed, whose Metal Machine Music made him the closest the real music industry ever came to a super-villain.
Yet Rock & Rule began life as a kids? movie, and some of it stayed that way. For example, Mok?s henchmen are a trio of thuggish brothers, including one who?s just dumb instead of evil. By the film?s climax, Mok?s become a cackling, organ-playing Snidely Whiplash, and he?s done in by an underling?s sudden attack of conscience. In the end, he?s just like any other generic cartoon villain not based on Mick Jagger or partly voiced by Lou Reed.
4) Lady Deathstrike, X-2
In the complicated tangle of stories still living and breathing in X-Men comics, Lady Deathstrike is a cyborg assassin with Adamantium fingertip claws and a tragic backstory. She?s a long-term rival of Wolverine and a recurring antagonist in X-Men stories. In the second X-Men movie, Lady Deathstrike is a hench-mutant serving an evil government-backed scientist. She tangles with Wolverine and almost manages to kill him before he desperately rams a nearby Adamantium injector into her and crams her so full of steel-colored liquid that it comes out her eyes, thus fulfilling some Internet user?s disturbingly specific fetish. It?s then suggested that Deathstrike was a victim of the same experiments that created Wolverine, and that she was brainwashed into her villain-aiding role. Oops.
We detect a certain disparity here. In the original X-Men film, the significantly less fearsome Mystique fights Wolverine and survives her stab wounds. But then Mystique is played by Rebecca Romijn (then still married to John Stamos) and naked most of the time. Lady Deathstrike keeps her clothes on and is therefore dead, dead, dead by the end of her first film appearance.
3) The Beast, Krull
Krull isn?t a completely terrible movie. Granted, it?s a tepid rescue-the-princess fairy tale that crams in an outer-space villain and some armored hi-tech soldiers straight from Star Wars, resulting in something both more serious and less entertaining than the Masters of the Universe film. That villain, however, is an interesting piece of work. A hideous yet well-spoken abomination, The Beast lands his rocky, misshapen space castle on the world of Krull and sends out his Stormtroopers to kidnap a local princess for him.
There?s some confusion about just where the Beast comes from. The trailers say he?s from the future, but it?s quite clear from the movie (and the Krull novelization by Alan Dean Foster) that the Beast is some medieval-fantasy alien who travels from one planet to another. It fits with what we see: his castle is a hybrid of strange set design, and the creature himself is introduced in murky half-glimpses, capturing that Lovecraftian effect that kids and adults just love.
Unfortunately, Krull reduces this otherworldly horror to a complete pushover. Like a Beauty and the Beast tale stripped of a proper moral, the script has the monstrous overlord trying to seduce his abducted princess due to some prophecy, but they?re just killing time until her bland prince shows up with the Glaive, a legendary, mind-controlled, throwing-star-boomerang-thing. While he?s possibly spent eons traveling the galaxy and amassing an army, the Beast just breathes fire at the couple while they destroy him with the power of love. And magic boomerangs.
2) Cobra Commander, G.I. Joe
Among ?80s cartoon rat-bastards, Cobra Commander?s done pretty well for himself. He?s been reinvented several times since the decade closed, and he?s second only to Megatron among iconic toy-based villains. Yet in his original cartoon incarnation, Cobra Commander was put through the greatest indignity of all: a terrible retcon.
For all of the G.I. Joe episodes leading up to the movie, Cobra Commander was a raspy-voiced despot concocting increasingly bizarre forms of international terrorism. For trying to take over nations through fast-food franchises and Dreadnok-played rock songs, he arguably deserved to be replaced by a more imposing leader, even if it was the less entertaining Serpentor.
But Cobra Commander didn?t deserve what G.I. Joe: The Movie did to him. While his face was always obscured during the TV show, he was clearly some sort of white human guy, albeit a disfigured one. In the movie, it?s revealed that he?s an emissary of an ancient snake-based civilization called Cobra-La, and, in punishment for failing to conquer the world, he?s mutated by spores and turned into a giant snake. Much like the writers who killed Optimus Prime, the keepers of G.I. Joe?s animated canon realized their mistake and turned Cobra Commander back into a reptilian man for the post-movie TV series.
The damage had been done, however. If you?re worried about the live-action G.I. Joe movie, take heart that it probably won?t have a mutant serpent Cobra Commander slithering around and croaking about being ?once-sssss a man??
1) Darth Maul, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Yes, there?s no getting around this one. Just as the original Star Wars trilogy unified an entire generation in cheering at the Death Star?s glittery explosion or gawking at Princess Leia?s chain-mail bikini, The Phantom Menace brought us all together in disappointment with many, many things. Darth Maul was one of them.
We can blame the movie?s buildup. The first round of Star Wars villains emerged into a world without website production photos and pre-release toys. The Phantom Menace had its soundtrack, its action figures, and its characters revealed before the movie arrived. For kids and anyone trying to recapture that kid-grade movie wonder, it was impossible not to imagine just how cool Darth Maul might be. Not that Lucas is off the hook in any way, but Maul and the rest of the movie couldn?t possibly live up to expectations.
And they didn?t. Despite his totally awesome double-bladed lightsaber and totally sweet hover bike and bitchin? horns, Darth Maul is barely around for two fights. They?re well-choreographed fights, but they don?t really fill in much. For his motivations and whatnot, you?ll have to check the ?expanded? Star Wars stories. And that just kicks off other problems.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.