Creating a good villain is no joking matter

David Kelly

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald had great potential. The title alone would lead you to believe it would centre on Grindelwald, and his crimes. However, Grindelwald as an antagonist fails on almost every level, as does the film.

Grindelwald’s motivation is intrinsic to his ethno-fascist ideology. He views non-magic people as lesser and seeks to subjugate them with force. He is a fine orator and uses manipulation to gain support. He is relatively interesting as a character, yet inconsequential as an antagonist, which is why the film feels so empty.

Look at the Dark Knight, The Joker is not so much a character as he is a malevolent force of nature. He is the evil aspect of chaos incarnate. However, the reason he works so well as an antagonist, and hence why The Dark Knight works so well as a film, is because he is direct opposition to the protagonist; Batman.

“A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” said Robert McKee, author and story-consultant.

The Joker constantly forces Batman to make difficult choices that reveal his true character. He exploits Batman’s strengths and morphs them into weaknesses. Batman must learn to overcome this, and his character grows as a result. The Joker has a direct effect not only on the protagonist, but on the story.

Compare this with The Crimes of Grindelwald. Newt, our story’s protagonist, has no direct connection to Grindelwald. There is no relationship to speak of, he merely acts as a proxy for Dumbledore. Newt doesn’t even want to get involved with the story, he is just pushed into it by Dumbledore.

Newt’s arc is that he realises he needs to fight against Grindelwald, but he only has this epiphany because he was forced to by those around him. His journey is not profound because he is not in direct opposition to the antagonist.

The second approach is the one taken with the creation of Thanos and would have perhaps suited Grindelwald better than The Joker approach; make him relatable by explicitly examining his motivation and background.

Infinity War is Thanos’ movie, the story of a man going on a spiritual journey to complete a task he believes to be just. We empathise with Thanos because we understand the direct reasoning behind his motivations. He doesn’t manipulate or hide behind a façade, he views himself as the only person with the conviction to do what he believes is for the greater good.

A writer of Infinity War, Stephen McFeely, describes Thanos’ as a ‘sociopath with a messianic complex’. He doesn’t view himself as a villain, he views himself as the hero, and his actions are consistent with these beliefs.

Compare that with Grindelwald, another villain driven by ideology. Why does Grindelwald hate muggles? He presents a very one-dimensional, poorly reasoned argument at a rally to his followers. He justifies muggle subjugation with a vision of World War Two; the violence of muggles, and the wizards who would protect them.

Yet, only a moment later he attempts to murder not only his opponents, but all of Paris. He undermines his own character and his articulated beliefs lose all credibility. It’s as if J.K Rowling wanted to write a greyer Voldemort but ended up with a blander Voldemort.

The Crimes of Grindelwald had the potential to do so well. Had it centred on the character of Grindelwald, and developed him into a layered, fascinating character, it would have enhanced the film immensely. But, it didn’t. The film might as well have been called ‘The Crimes of Who-Cares?’.

David Kelly

Image Credit: Rachel Halpin