A Hero Is No Good Without A Villain: What Makes An Iconic Movie Villain?

Thomas explores the relationships between the heroes and villains of pop culture

In most blockbuster movies, you get this eternal fight between good and evil — a hero rises to face the villain and free his city, his world, or even the galaxy. Heroes win, and villains are either captured or die. It’s the usual pattern, with some exceptions. A hero leaves his mark on the audience, he inspires them, but no matter how brave he is, if he doesn’t have a villain who threatens his values and his world, no one will remember his heroic actions. After all, there wouldn’t be any opportunities for him to become a hero in the first place.

Star Wars | Defining Moments: Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

I have often been fascinated by villains in movies, like Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga because he leaves his mark on us. He has a story, motivations, and a certain physical appearance. He isn’t just another enemy to fight, — he is a villain for the ages. Villains are just as important in the story as the heroes. So, let’s take a look at what makes a villain iconic and why filmmakers must create iconic villains.

Physical Appearance, Voice And Personality

The visuals make a villain iconic. The first impression you have of the villain is important because it determines what you think about them. A villain needs to look menacing, frightening, with a more or less level of intensity depending on what kind of villain we are facing.


Physical Appearance

For example, if Lord Voldemort in his « resurrected appearance » looked like a goblin in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, I’m not sure it would have had any impact on the audience (or even on Harry Potter); he wouldn’t have been scared of him. On the contrary, Lord Voldemort looks terrifying and doesn’t look human anymore. Just by looking at him, you know how powerful and dangerous he is and how it is going to be difficult for Harry to defeat him.

Costume Design

The outfit also needs to stand out from the crowd. It needs to be specific to the character and embody who he is. In a way, it’s the villain’s brand. The word that I often hear when it comes to villain outfits is “badass.”

It’s true, a villain who looks badass will more than likely get more attention from the audience than a villain who is dressed as a condiment (Condiment King from Batman, I’m looking at you!). For example, the Sith’s costumes are unique, imposing, and menacing. This best applies to the legendary villain, Darth Vader. When fans saw him, they immediately recognized the character. You don’t need to hear his name to know who it is. Yes, with every movie, Vader’s costume changes a little, but it keeps the same general appearance. It’s just a little tiny detail that changes.



Trademarks can be important for villains too. The Joker has different outfits depending on the story, but he generally has his trademark outfits too — a purple suit that everyone recognizes.

Dialog and Sounds

The voice makes all the difference as well. Each villain needs a voice that characterizes him and clearly identifies him. Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies speaks rather slowly at times but with an extremely threatening tone. A man in armor with a grandpa’s voice won’t be menacing, but Darth Vader‘s breathing certainly is. In Rogue One, during the hallway scene, you hear Vader’s breathing first and it automatically gives you chills! In the original Star Wars trilogy, characters don’t dare interrupt him if they want to stay alive. It’s the same as his armor — when you hear his voice you know it’s him and you’re afraid of him.

Character Traits

The personality of the villain also needs to be distinct. Take what Joker does in the animated movie, Batman: The Killing Joke, for example. He shoots Barbara Gordon, paralyzing her, and takes her father to an amusement park. He strips him and tortures him by showing pictures of a wounded and naked Barbara. His actions prove his insanity, a truly scary personality for a villain.


Darth Vader has a different personality. He is ruthless and brutal (we all remember that final scene in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). In each of the movies, he delivers a sarcastic line that just stays in our minds:

“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”

Everyone who has seen the movie knows this line and even probably uses it in every-day life when they can. It’s needless to say that the visuals and personality are everything that makes a villain. However, other elements are important in creating this type of character. One of these elements is the origins of the character.

The Origins Of The Villain

When it comes to main villains, it is essential to tell their origin story, whether it’s several flashbacks like in the movie Batman: The Killing Joke or through a story taking place in several movies like the Star Wars prequels. I think it’s important for the very reason that it lets the audience understand why these villains turned the way they are. It doesn’t make them any less evil but it gives them substance and more depth.

Motivations Through Origin Stories

Darth Vader didn’t become a villain because he thought it was fun. Anakin partly became Darth Vader for his love for Padmé and his desire to save her. These villains weren’t always bad men. They were either good people who made bad choices or outcasts rejected by everyone, leading them to a lonely and angry world. A compelling villain will not just want to kill the hero or take over the world, he will have a story that gives him reasons to do so.


Let’s take the animated movie Batman: The Killing Joke. The story shows that Joker used to be married to a woman named Jeanine, who was also pregnant. At the same time, he became a stand-up comedian, but it didn’t work out. Desperate to help his wife and future child, he agreed to work with criminals on a job to rob his former workplace. While planning the robbery, his wife was killed. He was heartbroken and tried to withdraw from the job, but he wasn’t allowed to leave. During the robbery, Batman showed up, scaring the Joker into a vat of chemicals, disfiguring him permanently. That and the loss of his family drove him insane, leading him to become the Joker.

That’s an origin story that explains how this man became The Joker, and also adds immediate ties with the franchise’s hero. It explains his motivations and gives good reasons as to why he would devote his life to crime and cruelty. With this, The Killing Joke offered the point of view of the villain.


There are other ways to tell the villain’s origin story than movies setting that up or having flashbacks. Take, for example, Avengers: Infinity War, we get Thanos‘ motivations through dialog. During his conversation with Doctor Strange, he reveals his past and why he is trying to wipe out half the universe.

The Villain’s Point Of View

Each character will consider himself as the hero and his adversary as the villain, so you will see both heroes and villains consider themselves as righteous.

A villain that just comes in and tries to kill the hero simply because he or she is the hero won’t be interesting; it won’t leave its mark on the audience. The audience will quickly forget about them because there’s no depth to their motivation. However, a villain whose character has been developed through a story, and has been given a point of view will have a lasting impact on the audience.


Let’s take this dialogue from Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith as an example:

Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
Anakin Skywalker: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.”

At that point, Anakin has become the villain, having just killed a group of younglings at the Jedi Temple. He has already fallen for Palpatine’s manipulations. Before that, he saw the Sith as evil, but Palpatine convinced him otherwise. It’s important to hear the villain’s voice and see their progression. While this is a case of a villain creating another villain, there’s also an interesting history of heroes that have been created by their nemeses.

The Villain Creating The Hero

What do I mean by the villain creating the hero? It’s when the villain’s actions lead to the rise of the hero who will later challenge them. A great example of this can be seen in The Force Awakens.


When Rey is captured by Kylo Ren, she wants to walk away from this fight. She has just escaped Maz’s castle after Anakin’s lightsaber “called” to her. At that point, she is walking away from the hero’s path, but because of Kylo, she is thrown back onto it. The one scene that changes everything for Rey is the torture scene. Kylo Ren is desperate to find the map to Skywalker, so he tries to get into Rey’s mind. By doing so, he awakens her powers. Without Kylo’s intervention, Rey might never have discovered the measure of her abilities.


You find the same situation with Batman (1989), where The Joker is the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, leaving him an orphan. This eventually leads Bruce to become Batman. A villain who “creates” the hero adds a lot to the dynamic between the two. It creates something that connects them in a bigger way, making them ultimate adversaries.

Challenging The Hero: Be The Ultimate Adversary


Both the hero and the villain need to acknowledge each other as their ultimate adversary. As much as the hero tries to stop the villain, the villain needs to try to defeat the hero. The hero can’t rest and the villain always needs to hunt him.

An interesting way of challenging the hero is in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Lord Voldemort isolates Harry Potter throughout the movie almost to the point where he can control him. Harry suffers throughout this movie, and doesn’t get to rest much; he is being challenged from start to finish. Another example is Darth Vader. He lures Luke to Bespin, trying to capture him and deliver him to the Emperor. During the fight, he shatters Luke’s world with the famed revelation in The Empire Strikes Back.

Challenging the hero is the villain’s role. His specific physical appearance, voice, and personality are all elements that create an iconic villain. Iconic villains such as the Joker, Sauron, Lord Voldemort, and Darth Vader leave an imprint on cinema that can never be erased. That’s exactly why we must keep creating these kinds of characters.


The Future of the Force. The future of pop culture writing.


Thomas Storai is the Collectables Editor for The Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and a wide variety of movies. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasStorai where he uses the force frequently!


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