The Evolution of the Great British Villain

Jaguar have recently released a new advert highlighting the prominence of British actors when it comes to playing Hollywood villains. Now, in these films the hero may get the girls, the glory and the witty one liners, but they are nothing without a crazed supervillain to pit themselves against. But the nature of these villains can be just as complex and varied as the heroes themselves, so I’m here to talk about how the art of cinematic villainy has changed over the last 70 years.

There are plenty to choose from but we’ll kick the list off with Christopher Lee, and his performance in Dracula (1958) as the Count himself. The film, often described as the definitive adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, was a horror masterclass and helped put Lee on the map as a fantastic actor. Over the next decade, however, the depth and complexity audiences had come to expect waned, and Hollywood villains became little more than a one-dimensional sounding board for the hero to kill. These can still be entertaining though.

For instance, Donald Pleasence as the definitive Bond villain Ernst Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967). There have been many incarnations of Blofeld, but Pleasence tops them all with his trademark scar and white cat – you just can’t stop the hairs on your neck from prickling.

Next we have Laurence Olivier’s outstanding performance as the former Nazi Dr Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976). While the film itself can be a little clunky and self righteous, Olivier shines through, much to our discomfort.

What self respecting villain list would be complete without Alan Rickman? This time portraying continental super douche and professional terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988) and famously meeting his end after Bruce Willis drops him out of a skyscraper. This, of course, paved the way for Jeremy Irons to seek revenge as Simon Gruber in Die Hard 3 (1995).

At the end of the 1980s, Hollywood began to realise the potential in their villains once again, and one of the first to sport this new style was Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991). His harrowing portrayal has left its mark on audiences everywhere. Despite not being the main antagonist, Hannibal relishes the opportunity to mess with a young FBI agent trying to solve another case.

Not every bad guy has to be a sadistic cannibal however, sometimes they can be something as simple as a lion. Jeremy Irons’ laconic drawl really brings Scar to life in the Lion King (1994). A jealous brother desperate for his chance to be king of the pride, Scar proves that all you need is a menacing British accent and a lust for power to destroy countless childhoods worldwide.

Fast forward six years to the dawn of the gritty crime drama, we see Ben Kingsley play the terrifyingly psychotic Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000). This perhaps marks a change in Hollywood; a preference towards more realistic villains. Audiences never truly believed there could be a real life Hannibal Lecter or Hans Gruber, but the grim London underworld hits a little closer to home and the possibility of a real Don Logan is far more uncomfortable. He also has the honour of being the only person to make Ray Winstone quake in his boots.

In the same year we also see Christian Bale catapult Brett Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman into our collective conscious in American Psycho (2000). Everyone’s favourite Wall Street psychopath gets increasingly more erratic; killing and torturing randomly. Bateman is a truly unsettling character, a normal everyday investment banker on the outside, but a psychopathic, unfeeling killer on the inside – something that could be hiding inside anyone you meet.

We now leave the terrifying realism behind, moving to the exciting world of comic book superheroes. Marvel comics are renowned for their complex storylines and character depth, so it’s no surprise that being played by Ian Mckellen, Magneto makes it as one the most interesting villains on the big screen. First appearing in X-Men (2000) he makes for a poignant reminder of what discrimination and prejudice can do to people, especially when they have cool mutant powers. As the series progresses you learn more and more about Magneto and his past, he begins to change from a powerful indiscriminate bad guy to a more relatable and human anti-hero, violently fighting for mutant rights because of the treatment at the hands of the Nazis as a child. This ever-changing perception highlights how characters who seem irredeemably bad at first can be just as easily empathised with as your heroes can.

Leading finally to my favourite villain of the bunch; the loveable rogue Loki, played by Tom Hiddlestone for the first time in Thor (2011). Another Marvel masterpiece proving again that comics often provide the best and most complicated villains. Hiddlestone plays Loki wonderfully, highlighting both his good and bad sides. He is ambitious, power hungry and devious, but he also has a complex and intriguing back story. He has been lied to, cheated and mistreated by his ‘father’ Odin to say the least. If you ever want to see betrayal, anger, guilt, sadness and lust for power portrayed in one character, Hiddlestone’s Loki is the one for you.