The month of October is synonymous with Halloween. As an homage to this fabulous festival of the macabre, we’ve decided to contemplate the complex nature of the animated villain and how it continues to develop.
When you think back on the baddies who graced the animated screens of your childhood, which characters come to mind? Jafar, Captain Hook, Ursula, Cruella or Scar from the Disney tomes? Loki, Green Goblin or Magneto from the Marvel vaults? No matter who starred in your particular juvenile nightmares, chances are they shared some physical attributes with the rest of the nefarious gang – narrow eyes, gaunt faces, pronounced jawline, unusually tall or short stature, prominent cheekbones, dark eyes and impressive costumes or props.
Coincidence? Not so much.
In real life we are taught not to judge a book by its cover, but in an animated universe the storyteller needs you to. Universally accepted ‘evil’ physical attributes are visual shortcuts that allow us to point out a character’s role as antagonist without having to spell it out. In the same manner that heroes help normalize what is considered good and right, representations of villains determine what is bad and wrong.
But villains are increasingly becoming more complex. Recent animated films like Wreck-It Ralph, Megamind and Despicable Me have introduced a new kind of bad guy. These movies disregard the established binaries of good and evil in favour of a moral gray zone where villains are portrayed as misunderstood victims of a situation who aren’t necessarily inherently bad. Also consider characters like Syndrome in The Incredibles, who grew up to be an evil mastermind after being rejected by Mr. Incredible as a kid.
These contemporary ‘relatable’ villains call for a new approach to illustrative style. Unlike Jafar and Hook, Syndrome doesn’t cut a tall, strutting, imposing figure. He is short, red-haired and freckled. Wreck-It Ralph may be a tank of an animated man, but his facial features are soft, even childlike.
The role and appearance of the villain in animated narratives will continue to develop as the socio-political landscape evolves. Who knows, in future the collective visual zeitgeist may get to a point where our villains are little old ladies who collect cat figurines. Oh wait – Dolores Umbridge already did that, didn’t she (#10points4gryffindor).
In short: we live in interesting times and our choice of animated villains is a good indication that there are subtle but decisive shifts in prejudice and stigma.
With that we consider this month’s knowledge bombs successfully deployed. More intellectual artillery fire coming your way soon – stay tuned!