This post (provided I publish it and don’t throw it in the drafts folder to die) will mark a fun milestone in this blog – the six hundred and sixty-sixth post.
So rather than doing a Blaugust theme post (it’s Developer Appreciation Week, and honestly right now, that’s a tough one!) or doing my actual next post (what if Endwalker has a meh story because it’s establishing a new direction similar to how ARR was weak for that), I thought I’d just talk about villains, evil, bad guys, because why not?
One of my favorite video essays is a look at villains done by Super Eyepatch Wolf, which gets at themes in villains I enjoy a lot.
The truth of the world is a simple one – in reality, there are very few actual villains, and even those I think we could get broad consensus on as villains are ultimately motivated by solving a problem they are struggling with in some way. Thus, villains in fiction always work at their best if they’re clearly driven by solving a problem of theirs, meeting a goal, or something of that sort. Because we so seldom see real, genuine out-of-nowhere villainy in the real world, it always works for the best to have things grounded in a realistic, believable motivation.
With fiction of all sorts over the years, storytelling around villains has grown more sophisticated and interesting, especially when you consider the delivery of stories and how you convey what that character is working towards when they are not a part of the main cast of protagonists. Something else I’m really excited to see embraced is antagonists as well-balanced characters. As the video above points out, the most common story structure is act/react, and typically, most antagonists are the ones that act, pushing things forward, while most protagonists/heroes react, which makes the role of a good villain all the more important.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into some of my favorite villains!
Final Fantasy XIV – Emet-Selch
This guy would likely be on the list for everyone who has played Shadowbringers, because he brings so much to the story. What I especially love about everyone’s favorite Ascian is that he starts off very much just a formless villain as he is introduced, but over time, you come to understand his true motivations and at that point, it becomes a far better story for it. Emet-Selch was part of the Convocation of Fourteen and had to make a difficult decision to summon Zodiark, knowing it meant losing half the Amaurotines, and has sought to bring him back through the life forces of us sundered souls to restore his kin. It’s evil, but you can see the thought process behind it and how he’s just trying really hard to do what he feels as right, undoing his earlier mistake. In the end, you can see that he has an understanding of where his logic was flawed and in those last moments he seems to be at peace with that at last, content to be relegated to history. His later cameo really sells this as well!
World of Warcraft – Arthas
This one might be controversial, but Arthas is an interesting case that I enjoy. His whole shtick in Warcraft III is helping his people, and as the intrusion of Mal’Ganis grows, his vision of what is helping his people is warped until it eventually is consumed by the darkness of the Lich King. I want to draw a fine line to say Arthas specifically here, because the Lich King as a character is a whole other can of worms (and less interesting to me, to be frank). The story of Arthas is a good one to me because through his eyes, you can see the logic for the most part and it makes his actions more fleshed-out. The earlier parts of his story also help to add layers for later, when he starts going off the deep-end and it makes each push into murkier waters interesting. In many ways, I find myself hoping that he isn’t around in Shadowlands, because while the story is building in that direction in a lot of ways, I find myself thinking there’s a pretty narrow set of possibilities that pay off his story with the ending it would deserve.
Yu Yu Hakusho – Younger Toguro and Sensui
I’m putting both of what are, to me at least, the defining villains of Yu Yu Hakusho into one section, because I think they both have very good, somewhat similar backstories that bring them into the series and pit them against Yusuke. Toguro is the quintessential villain of YYH – very evil, strongly defined, but the motivation for his evilness comes from an understandable place – he was weak and craved power, and he chased it until it cost him everything – his love, a normal life, and an ability to identify with other humans. In Yusuke he sees the better path, one he wishes he could have taken, and I think that adds such an interesting twist to the story, in the parallel of hero and villain.
Sensui’s journey is similar, but almost inverted – he starts with power but is unsure of how to use it and fearful for the things it brings into his life, but is able to direct that fear into learning, losing himself in a fractured personality that builds up to cope, as he comes to understand that his role as a Spirit Detective has him murdering demons but that demons are not just over-the-top evil. When he identifies the devilishness of humanity, that leads him to identify the humanity in demons and it inverts his whole world view. In the end, through Yusuke, he finds the synthesis of the views – a human with demon blood who does the Spirit Detective job in a way that realizes at least some of his vision and does not hold humans above contempt.
Both men meet their end at Yusuke’s hands, finally finding the peace they were looking for in different ways. To top things off, their approach to life then casts doubt on Yusuke, who enters the final fight sequence of the anime wondering if his demon blood and journey into Demon World is him seeking the same as those two men – a powerful foe he can identify with to take his life. It gives us a powerful anchor to the story of the series and leads to a beautiful conclusion as Yusuke is able to reconcile his identity, his role in the world(s), and to discover what it is he wants most – and he gets it, curtain down.
Final Fantasy XV – Ardyn
Final Fantasy XV anything being on a top list is contentious to begin with, and I get that. However, I think Ardyn’s story is genuinely quite good and is one of the absolute highlights of Final Fantasy XV, particularly if you also play the Episode Ardyn DLC, the only one of the last 4 planned DLC chapters to see release. Ardyn’s story is great because in many ways, he is a hero – he takes on the Starscourge for his people until the Crystal rejects him, denying him his ascension as his brother takes away all that he loves. His hatred for the line of Lucis comes from an understandable place and it defines his whole journey in such a well-done way. In a story easily described as “missed opportunities galore” Ardyn stands out positively as a really well-done villain.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe – Loki
This one might be a surprise, as I’ve hinted in a couple posts that I hold the controversial opinion that the MCU films are Not Amazing Storytelling(tm), but they do weave a web with shared characters and events that plays really quite well. My favorite, without even having seen the Disney+ series, is Loki. He vacillates between would-be hero and supervillain quite well, in a way that is very fitting of both a character based on the God of Mischief but also his story in the MCU. There’s such a charisma and energy to the role that I really enjoyed and what I especially like about it is that he can be in comedic gags like being smashed into things by the Hulk without it underplaying who he is as a character.
WWE – Roman Reigns 2020-Present
Using a wrestling heel here is interesting (and I’m going to do it twice in total, so be warned!) because wrestling is such a long-form art when done well, with performers having continuity in their characters that can span decades. Roman Reigns in his current run is a pretty well-done villain, and it all comes from a logical place while also melding in the behind-the-scenes stuff that wrestling fans like me love.
Roman Reigns is the cousin of The Rock and part of the legendary Anoa’i Samoan Dynasty. He tried a football career before winding up in WWE. He went through Florida Championship Wrestling and then NXT, WWE’s developmental brand, before coming up to the WWE main roster in late 2012 as a part of the trio The Shield. The group was mostly heel-aligned prior to 2013 and becoming faces on the back of some excellent matches and a turn against the Authority. In 2014, the Shield split up, with Seth Rollins betraying his friends for the Authority.
From the outset, Roman was the identified big name they would push. He was the tallest, the beefiest, and he has a look and charisma about him (plus, the family ties). There was just one problem – fans vastly preferred Seth Rollins (even as a heel) and Dean Ambrose over him. In a classic example of WWE obstinance, Roman remained highly pushed, getting one of his first-ever singles matches on the WWE main roster as the main event of Wrestlemania 31 in 2015, after returning from an injury and winning the Royal Rumble that year to a cacophony of boos (even putting the Rock in the ring with him to raise his hand wasn’t enough to stop it). Fans hated him because he was the worst performer of the Shield trio (still quite good, to say nothing of that, but Rollins and Ambrose just delivered more in the ring and in promos), and the push became over the top for years, with WWE unwilling to change much of anything about his character – he delivered awful, whiny promos and had good-enough matches with high-caliber performers like AJ Styles and his former Shield compatriots.
It was so bad that some segment of fans even continued to boo him after he came back from leukemia treatment in 2019! So in 2020, he sat at home for a while as an immunocompromised person during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as WWE was running shows with questionable protocols at their Performance Center. In August 2020, he returned and immediately went full heel, leaning into everything bad people had said about him – having more slow, dominant matches, cutting much-better promos with quieter inflection and more interesting delivery, and going all the way on douchebaggery – telling everyone to “acknowledge him,” having big matches with his family members the Usos and beating them down, including one that was out for injury at the time, and becoming the “Tribal Chief” and the “Head of the Table.” With that, he brought the Usos into the fold, first Jey who was not injured, and then when Jimmy returned from injury, bringing him in as well. His presentation now is perfect – he takes minutes to enter the ring instead of the typical 30 seconds or less, he walks slowly, he has the most pyro of any performer on the main roster, he lavishes in the boos and carries himself as the attraction, such that he almost never holds his own Universal Championship belt, instead leaving his “advisor” Paul Heyman to carry the belt for him. It’s a mix of subtle touches that all add up to a strong heel character.
AEW – Kenny Omega (2020-Present)
My last entry for now and second wrestling heel on the list, the current Kenny Omega run is one of his best heel runs ever and his first in the US on national television.
As a face, Kenny Omega is the “best bout machine” and largely billed as a muscular weirdo into anime, video games, and strange flourishes. He speaks weirdly, he cuts short and fun promos, and has a great time with his friends.
Throughout 2020, Omega was involved with Hangman Adam Page in a tag team, winning the AEW Tag Team Championships and holding them even after competitive matches, like one with their friends the Young Bucks at Revolution 2020. Throughout, the theme was the Hangman was having a drinking problem to cope with his failure to become the first AEW World Champion, and his own feelings of inadequacy were pushing him away from his friends, who were also being selfish, failing to back him up and judging him for his descent. In the end, new to AEW team FTR were able to dethrone Page and Omega by buddying up to Page, and while Page never fully aligned with them, FTR played on his insecurity well enough to win. This led to Omega and Page facing each other in the finals of the late fall 2020 tournament for a shot at the AEW World Championship, which Omega won. Since then, he’s been aligned with long-time real friend Don Callis, who is a scumbag manager in wrestling with a long history. He’s been ramping up with more nonsensical promos, more dominant in-ring performances, and more heelish tactics – cheating to win, distractions from Callis and the Good Brothers (a tag team that were once with Omega in the Bullet Club in Japan), and eventually brining the Young Bucks in to form the Super Elite as a stable with most of the titles in AEW (the world and tag championships, now on the Young Bucks). Omega used Callis’ real-life link to Impact as part of the crossover between multiple non-WWE organizations and won their world championship, which consisted of two belts at the time, and thus Omega became the “belt collector” – a cocky, arrogant champion with no fewer than 4 belts – the AEW World title, the Impact and TNA world titles (collectively a single honor), and the AAA Mega Championship.
Over the last several months, this has all wound back in with Omega facing an ascendant Hangman Page, who seemed a shoe-in to face Omega at All Out in a few weeks until he was given time off for the birth of his first child. Even then, it seems like they’ll build to that story for their fall PPV Full Gear, as Omega’s character is reaching an interesting point – he’s surrounded with his friends, the ones who ostracized Page, but while he’s beaten Page multiple times now, it seems like Page gets closer every time and could, given the time, actually beat Omega, shattering his whole world view. He’s grown visibly more desperate as a result, and even lost the Impact World Championship on the debut episode of AEW’s new show Rampage last week. It builds Omega as a fascinating villain – he’s let the praise of his face character build up his ego such that any loss is a sharp fall, and now he’s on the precipice of losing more belts and more of his external validation, which would leave him to reckon with what he’s become. It’s really great storytelling, and while All Out against Page would have been the best possible conclusion to the storyline and a chance to move to the next stage (which is likely the Super Elite dissolving by dismissing Omega as a loser and the group losing cohesion as more Bullet Club members from NJPW are able to cross over and challenge their former stablemates), AEW does long-term storytelling exceptionally well for wrestling and I am hopeful that Full Gear brings back Hangman fully ready to see his ascension completed.
And with that, I think those are a good sampling of my favorite villains!