March 14, 2018
How to Be a Funny Villain
Here’s some advice for Kristen Wiig (not that she needs it).
Though she’s made a successful foray into dramas, Kristen Wiig is a comedic actor. Even her most dramatic roles (like her characters in Skeleton Twins and mother!) deploy her comedic timing. Even in a deadly serious scene, you’re never sure if she’s about to break out into a smile or not. So, her casting as Cheetah in the Wonder Woman sequel seems like the natural meeting of her comedic and dramatic skills. But, this begs the question: is she going to be a funny villain? And, if so, what kind of funny villain? In my mind, there are two different kinds of funny villains: Villains that are written funny, and villains that are taken as funny. Vizzini in The Princess Bride and Mugatu in Zoolander are hilarious villains, albeit in already very funny films. But characters like Kylo Ren or Loki are funny because they’re just sad emo boys at their core. They weren’t written for laughs, but they’ve become memes in their own right.
What’s interesting about Wiig’s casting is that Cheetah isn’t usually played for laughs. She’s neither The Joker nor The Riddler. Although I doubt Kristen Wiig or Patty Jenkins will be drawing on Jim Carrey or Joel Schumacher respectively for inspiration (unless it’s for what not to do), here are some ideas to inspire anyone who wants to write or play a funny supervillain:
1. Don’t turn it into a bit.
Comedians have portrayed villains before but to varying degrees of success. The directors can make the mistake of just stepping back in awe of the comedian and just let them run loose (Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor – ok, he wasn’t a villain, but you know what I mean), but this serves neither the actor nor the plot. There’s a difference between letting the actor shine and setting them loose.
2. Make a choice about what the humor is serving.
One of the reasons why the Joker is considered the best, most compelling supervillain is that he can be played so many different ways. Jack Nicholson played him as wacky and mad, but Heath Ledger took a completely different approach. He made him funny, but only to himself. His humor was a defense mechanism, a torture tool to make the torturing all the more twisted. On some level, it’s reminiscent of how internet trolls use humor to disarm their targets.
Then, there are villains that are just written funny. They’re witty and have great banter. Their humor functions as comic relief and makes them more approachable, more charismatic, more human. But sometimes, funny banter can be used as a weak substitute for personality. The humor should reinforce character.
Either option is fine, but the best is when I can tell a clear choice was made in the writing and the performance. I don’t just want banter for the sake of banter.
3. Make the stakes human.
This applies to all villains, not just funny ones. A principle that runs across all genres is that a good villain is one that you want to root for. For us to like them, we have to relate to them on some level—just hopefully not every level. Loki is great because his inner conflict can be reduced (or rather, explained as) brotherly envy. You gotta feel for the guy! And Killmonger is an even better villain because he easily could have been the hero. It was a tragedy, something out of his control, that tore him from his fate. And the film is interested in exploring him further as a character, not just establishing a motivation early on and letting that speak for itself. It’s not psychology by numbers.
4. Make their methods mad, not their motives.
When a villain’s goal is to rule over the human race or explode a planet, I quickly lose interest. Dr. Evil is a parody of this sort of world-ending mastermind, and yet straight superhero films still use this.
One of the traps so many superhero films has fallen into (with the exception of Black Panther) is that the crux of the film relies on “saving humanity.” Such grand stakes quickly become tiresome. As for the villain, to make their defining trait “greedy” and “power-hungry” misses the point of a compelling antagonist. A villain can be aware that they’re a villain, but they need to believe that their cause is ultimately the right one.
5. Have a killer costume.
If the hero and the villain were a double act in a comedy show, the hero would be the straight (wo)man and the villain would be the funny one. Although superheroes like Iron Man are written funny, Wonder Woman is not. Gal Gadot and Kristen Wiig are the perfect comedy duo. And I hope that this is reflected in the costumes as well. I’m just saying, if I don’t see Kristen Wiig in a bomb-ass cheetah pantsuit, I’ll be disappointed.