Friday, February 25, 2011

Stock Stereotypes: The Elegant, Cultured and Well-Educated Villain

Good News: I'm very close to being published on 

Since, I've been very interested in various stock characters in fiction, and when someone on a message board I frequent recently asked me which of several examples was the best "Elegant, Cultured, and Well-Educated Villain," I thought I'd take on the trope in general:

When someone recently asked me for a good example of an elegant and sophisticated villain, he was missing a key point: Perhaps making a villain elegant and sophisticated is more stereotypical and cheap rather than something to be admired and emulated.

If you make a villain elegant, cultured, and well-educated and nothing more, it ends up boring and familiar. Very weak movies such as Johnny English and The Avengers have introduced us to characters like these with little to no variation.

Portraying someone as overtly intellectual is just a screenwriter's prop to show us that they're smart or that they mirror qualities of the protagonist (presumably the protagonist is smart too) which makes them a more ruthless enemy.

Ironically, I think of these traits with regard to Hannibal Lechter's character as a weakness of the way the screenwriter(s) of Silence of the Lambs constructed him. Lechter is undoubtedly a great character but his penchant for listening to classical music before eating someone or entertaining people at a formal dinner party come off as over the top. Similarly, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) of Batman Begins Henri Ducard was never a very strong or memorable character and his somewhat philosophical soliloquies on why he should poison the city to expose humanity's underbelly was a case of telling more than showing.

Four of my favorites are Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, Wall Street), Magneto (Ian McKellan, X-Men and Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz, Inglorious Basterds) and Cal (Billy Zane) from Titanic. The first three don't jump out at me as being elegant, well-educated and sophisticated for the sake of being well-elegant, educated and sophisticated and they tell rather than show. Landa speaks many languages and is occasionally poetic and from there we see that there's more to the villain. Other than that, the writers don't go out of their way to show he's sophisticated. Similarly, Magneto might have some sense of refinement and knowledge but it's just organic to the story. If Gekko is enjoying the high-life it's because that's what people in his profession do, and if he appears educated, it's because intelligence oozes out of everything he's saying.

As for Cal, that's just a classical example which is executed very, very well. There's usually only room for one or two iconic performances in the mold before everything else seems stale. It also helps that his villainous character is organic to the era of history and he represents an old-money/new-money dichotomy which is a legitimate fear.

As for an example that I find very odd, Chirstopher Lee as Count Dooku in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Even if Christopher Lee nailed the part, it would be hard to make it fit in place with some of the sillier and base characters with which George Lucas populated the Star Wars universe. If Hannibal Lecter was acting alongside the Muppets, it would be tonally awful. Same thing here. Another more nitpicky concern is that the cultural, elegant and well-educated are traits that are specific to an Earth-bound setting. If we read too much into the 't think it ever holds up in a fantasy world or galaxy far, far, far away. Cultural and elegant applies to perceptions of someone who has, for example, read Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. I don't doubt that people in the Star Wars universe are well-educated and cultured, but for all we know, someone who's cultured and well-educated on Tattoine might be someone who sounds by our standards as if he's speaking in a cockney accent

Another interesting example is Henry Blackwood from Sherlock Holmes but this could apply to any villain from Victorian times and it reminds me of how we tend to assume people speaking with British accents are automatically more refined. I read Blackwood as disturbed. He might have sounded refined, but that's because he comes from Victorian times where everyone is refined. In order to fit this category, you have to be more refined than the protagonist or anyone else.

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