Villains can be very bad, not bad as in evil, but bad as in terribly written. Villains can make or break a story, even more so than heroes.
You can define ‘the villain’ of a story in different ways, but I like to view them as ‘the antagonist’. The antagonist opposes the hero in their story arc. Most stories have a heroic arc where the hero starts out wanting something, tries to attain it, and eventually learns that what he needs is not the same as what he wants. The antagonist is what gets in the way of that need.
For example, in Die Hard, all that John McClane really wants is to make up with his estranged wife. Unfortunately, Hans Gruber takes everybody hostage. John tries to get everybody — and especially his wife — to safety, but Gruber fights him every step of the way. Until the final confrontation, where John kills Gruber. Hans Gruber is the bad guy, the villain, the antagonist.
Antagonists do not always get in the way of what the hero wants, though. They might even facilitate it. They mostly get in the way of what the hero needs. Look at the Devil’s Advocate. John Milton (the devil, played by Al Pacino) gives Kevin (Keanu Reeves) a high-profile lawyer job in New York after Kevin wins a case for a client who he knows is a child molester. Kevin really wants the high-profile job. Unfortunately, it leads Kevin down a path of sin. What Kevin really needs is to listen to his conscience instead of using technicalities to get a child molester free.
Antagonists don’t even need to be people. Look at Requiem for a Dream. Four people become addicted to drugs. There’s no person leading them down the wrong path. It’s the drugs that does that. The drugs is the antagonist, giving them what they want (a quick fix), but not what they need (a long-term sustainable life).
There are no villains
The first rule of villains, is that there are no villains (yeah, Fight Club reference). The point is: villains do not see themselves as villains. They have their own stories and feel justified in what they are doing.
Fight Club is an interesting example. The antagonist in the movie is Tyler. Tyler is not some mustache-twirling villain, though, bent on doing evil things. No. He sees himself as a hero, trying to save the protagonist from his old boring life, and righting the wrongs of society with his Fight Club.
Gruber in Die Hard is one of the most iconic villains of all time. He knows that he is doing illegal things, but he feels justified. He’s very smart and very ruthless (probably a psychopath), but he isn’t evil for the heck of it. No, he has a very clear goal of his own: money. He is the protagonist in a heist story where he gets away with a fortune, and John McClane is his antagonist: getting in his way at each step. And really, deep inside we’re all rooting for him a little, because it is a brilliant plan, and it’s fun to see him outsmart the police and the stupid FBI officers.
That brings us to bad villains. You probably already guessed what makes a bad villain: bad motivation and no sympathy. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith is a prime example. This movie affronts me on many levels — I lampooned it after watching it for the first time — and one of those is how it ruins Darth Vader. Revenge of the Sith is Darth Vader’s origin story, and Darth Vader is even higher on the list of iconic villains than Hans Gruber.
We learned in the original Star Wars trilogy that Darth Vader was originally Anakin Skywalker. He betrayed the Jedi and murdered all of them, joining the Emperor at the head of his evil empire. In Revenge of the Sith we learn why: Anakin Skywalker couldn’t stand the Jedi council passed him over for a promotion (rightfully, I may add) and he was afraid his wife would die in child birth because of a prophecy vision he has. I have zero sympathy for him on the first count, and he falls for the second one like a conspiracy theorist for insinuating YouTube videos. That’s what makes him destroy the Galactic republic? That’s what drives him to stab a bunch of children to death with a light saber? And ironically, kill his own wife?
Contrast that to Joker, where Joaquin Phoenix slowly descends into evil. You can’t help but feel sympathy for how he is beaten up, fired, discarded by the man he thinks is his father. You see him step down the ladder into the darkness, and you can understand.
Unfortunately, bad villains abound. How many movies show the bad guy laughing maniacally as they wreak wanton havoc for no reason? How many comic books have bad guys attack the superheroes because… well, they’re the bad guys, right?
And a special circle of bad-villain hell is reserved for the villains that kill their underlings callously. Would you give your life for an employer that kills your colleagues in bouts of anger? I mean, evil henchmen are a thing in the real-world, but there, they get perks, and are slowly manipulated into it (go see Gomorrah for example). They don’t just up and decide ‘well, I’m going to dedicate my life to this lunatic who might kill me on a whim.’
Without sympathy, and proper motivations, villains are just caricatures. They are no longer characters in a story, but glorified plot-movers, that have no other purpose than to be a roadblock for the hero. And by not being real people, they reduce the story to a rat maze for the hero. The hero is no longer fighting a villain, but escaping a gauntlet, with mindless traps that have no clear rules.
And unfortunately, so many movies and books fall into this trap that it’s almost laughable. Almost.