Anthony Horowitz / Where have all the bad guys gone?
Where have all the bad guys gone?
It used to be easy to spot the baddies - they were the ones with the facial scars and incurable megalomania. These days, they hide in plain sight
Anthony Horowitz & Mark Jones
Bryan Cranston's Walter White - part on the new breed of villainry
If you ask me, Mike Myers has a lot to answer for. By taking the piss out of James Bond's Blofeld in the Austin Powers franchise, he made it almost impossible for a modern audience to relish a big-screen, larger-than-life villain. The collarless jacket, the scar, the Persian cat, the wheelchair – they've all gone the same way as the prosthetic limb, the dwarf and the third nipple. Villains can no longer spend a scene describing what they are going to do before, inevitably, they are killed off in some improbable way. The last Bond villain died with a knife in his back. He didn't even get a larger-than-life death.
Speaking personally, it is the deaths of my bad guys that often keep me going. I may be sitting in a room with 23 chapters and 100,000 words of Alex Rider to write, but at least I have a spectacular and bloody finale to reward myself with. Damian Cray sucked into the engines of a jumbo jet on a tea trolley. Julia Rothman crushed by a hot-air balloon. Dr Grief sliced in two by a sleigh. I can actually feel the writing picking up speed as I head towards these final confrontations. You'll notice that none of my characters has ever been arrested and sent to Broadmoor. It wouldn't be the same.
Anthony Hopkins' understated Hannibal Lecter. Photograph: Rex
Why are modern movie villains so ineffectual? It's been 22 years since Anthony Hopkins created a truly memorable, iconic and believable monster. Maybe Hannibal Lecter worked so well because he was presented to us so simply, wrapped in silence. And when he did talk: "I'm giving very serious thought to eating your wife." Delicious. By contrast, most bad guys in big summer blockbusters find themselves contending with a tornado of special effects, leaving actors even as brilliant as Benedict Cumberbatch, as he was in Star Trek Into Darkness, with little to do but race around with their quiff blowing in the wind. And if you're planning to blow up New York or San Francisco, who really cares? They've been blown up so many times and in so many different ways that as an audience, we're tempted to just let you get on with it. What with their over-inflated budgets, film-makers in Hollywood seem to have forgotten an ancient truth: it's the no-frills finales that really chill. Kicking a dog or telling a child there's no Santa Claus – now that's bad.
Supervillains are, to my mind, uniquely uninteresting. If they wear silly costumes and can fly, are they really going to give me bad dreams? Consequently, film-makers have spent more and more time recently on humanising them. Not that it always works. OK, so Magneto had a bad time at Auschwitz. But that still doesn't make me empathise when he uses his magnetobility to fold up the Golden Gate Bridge. However, there are exceptions, especially in Batman. Heath Ledger was a brilliant Joker, andDanny DeVito did the impossible and made sense of the Penguin. The point of these performances, though, was that they found the human being inside the costume. More often than not it seems that their actual humanity has been written out by the 19th or 20th draft.
Danny DeVito's monstrous Penguin in Batman Returns. Photograph: Rex
This is what makes Quentin Tarantino so special. I'm afraid I didn't enjoy either Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds – they were too self-reverential for my taste – but, as a writer, nobody in the world has a better ear for the foibles and vulnerabilities of his bad guys than Tarantino. My favourite scene? The one in Reservoir Dogs where all the gangsters argue about the colour codenames they've been given: "Mr Brown… that's a little too close to Mr Shit." You could add to that the hamburger discussion in Pulp Fiction: "They got the metric system there. They wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is." It's scenes like these which illuminate the violence that follows. These days, it often seems that in the rush from action scene to action scene, nobody has any time for real dialogue. And the result is that nothing much feels very real at all.
It has been noted how many directors and stars have turned their talent to the small screen, and it's fair to say that a lot of the best villains can now be found on TV. Breaking Bad alone is a masterclass in how to do it. Watching Bryan Cranston develop from put-upon chemistry teacher with cancer into ruthless criminal and meth dealer Heisenberg has been a pleasure in itself, but along the way, the series' genius writer Vince Gilligan has come up with some uniquely unpleasant types too. Step forward chicken-selling drug lord Gus Fring, delectably played by Giancarlo Esposito, dying one of the bloodiest and most memorable deaths on TV, ever. I also had a fondness for the deeply cowardly and almost permanently bruised and battered Ben Linus, leader of The Others in Lost, before the series disappeared up its own backside. And of course, the world is still mourning James Gandolfini of The Sopranos.
The late, great James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Photograph: Allstar
The point is that series television gives the bad guy time to settle in and develop. To this, I might add that less is more. Writing Sherlock Holmes, it's always surprised me that Moriarty has become one of the best-known villains in English literature. He only appears in two stories and otherwise he is barely mentioned. It's even unclear what it is, exactly, that he does. Maybe the fact that he has such a wonderful name helps, although, really, it's the way that he hides in the shadows, very rarely centre stage, that adds to his potency. He was brilliantly played by Andrew Scott in the BBC reboot, by the way.
One of the pleasures of writing young adult fiction is that you can, to a certain extent, bypass political correctness and create characters who are very horrible indeed. The more abominably the villains behave, the more admirable they are; there is equal pleasure in the story's joie de vivre and, indeed, its joie de mourir. Young readers still seem to like their villains big and unapologetically bad and I celebrate that. They might even allow me to keep the Persian cat.
Russian Roulette by Anthony Horowitz is out now in hardcover, e-book and audio formats
MARK JONES PICKS FIVE OF THE BEST CONTEMPORARY VILLAINS
Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin J Candie. Photograph: Allstar
Calvin J Candie – Django Unchained
There's nothing as effective as a smooth-talking devil when it comes to villainy, and Leonardo DiCaprio pulls just the right amount of oily charm out of the bastard bag here to match his mephistophelean beard. He prances around his estate, abusing his slaves as though they're characters in a sadistic game of The Sims.
Dr Strangeluv – The ABCs Of Death
The baddie at the climax of the horror-comedy anthology might make your head spin: a brash mash-up of Kubrick's Dr Strangelove and every unfair Japanese cultural stereotype imaginable. Ultraviolence and giant rice-spurting Nazi hermaphrodite phalli have never seemed so much at home.
Mom – Futurama
Named by Forbes as fiction's fourth-richest individual, the ruthless MomCorp CEO is a wiry plutocrat, manufacturing endless platoons of killbots. Far more driven than Springfield's Monty Burns, Mom will throttle the life out of anything threatening the profit margin.
Crimer – @Crimershow
Some villains shun power and money – it's sheer mayhem they crave. Take Crimer, the antihero of cult Twitter "series" Crimershow, for example, whose misspelled exploits range from simple blimp theft to contaminating the water supply with broccoli. It's sociopathy with a surreal twist.
While David Morrissey's portrayal of the murderous leader of Woodbury is menacing enough, it's in Robert Kirkman's original comic book version where The Governor's true malevolence lies. Comic Book Gov lives by his "kill them all!" mantra.