Villains: They're crazed, they're flamboyant, and they're the smoggy, sparking engine that keeps many a story chugging along. Except that a villain who can't kill the hero for some contrived reason is worse than having your hero fight global illiteracy.
Welcome back to Monday Hate, an irregular feature in which we hate things because it's Monday.
Seriously, we love villains, except when they're weak and watered down. An underwhelming villlain is like incidental music with too much pizzicato violin plonking. An underwhelming villain makes your hero, and all the other characters, look proportionately less awesome as well. And there's nothing more unimpressive than a villain who's got a mental block against disposing of his or her nemesis.
So here are some of the most absurd rationalizations that villains use, instead of just getting on with it and being freaking villainous:
"It's too easy."
This is the most common weak-villain rationalization. As if killing is only worthwhile if it's a challenge, or as if murder is a form of self-improvement. You know, you can always kill the hero and then go and seek further challenges: Work out at the gym. Read the complete Tolstoy. Learn a foreign language. Etc. I'm not even including the common trope where the villain puts the hero into a silly death trap instead of simply shooting him/her, or pauses to gloat about his/her scheme instead of getting it over with — even leaving those things aside, there are plenty of villains who have the heroes at their mercy, but then walk away because... well, having is not so pleasant a thing as wanting. Or something. The Other Murdock Papers (which supplied the image above) has an amazing collection of this cliche in action, throughout Daredevil comics.)
"The hero has an important part to play."
The first two seasons of Angel, the Buffy spin-off starring David Boreanaz, were like watching treacle slowly drip down a wall. And the major reason for that was because the main villains, the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, had decided they couldn't actually kill Angel because he was important in the Apocalypse. Or they had a spicy peanut noodle recipe that required Angel's own brand of cilantro. Or something. The point is, they spent dozens of episodes screwing with Angel, but they couldn't just stake the smug bastard. It was a glorious relief when the Beast and Jasmine replaced W&H as the show's main baddies, and even though we finally got some amazing payoff on the way-too-long-simmering Wolfram storylines in the show's final season, that doesn't make the first two seasons any less turgid.
"I enjoy our little games."
Then there's the villain who treats the life-or-death battles with the hero as a kind of chess game, and really it's all just a lark. At which point, my interest in the story immediately goes downhill. If the villain's not taking it all seriously, why should I? This is related to the "villain needs the hero, or life won't be meaningful any longer" problem, which is also totally bogus and way too metafictional. The idea that the villain has no meaning without the hero is only true if the villain thinks of him/herself as a character in a story, honestly.
"It's against the rules."
Okay, so this isn't an example of "villain can't kill hero," since they're both villains. But do a google search for the phrase "why can't Ben kill Widmore?" And you'll see a lot of confused people on the internet. Why can't Ben kill Widmore anyway? He's in the guy's bedroom with a gun. Let's hope this is on the giant list of things that Lost plans to explain before it wraps up.
Otherwise known as the Darth Vader clause — the villain doesn't want to kill the hero. Instead, there's a whole Jehovah's Witness recruiting thing. Actually, it makes sense in the case of Vader and Luke — this is probably the one instance in which the "join me" thing does work, since Luke would be a valuable asset to the Empire and a possible Vader replacement. Force-sensitives are a precious recourse and all that. But that's really the exception — 99 percent of the time, when the villain tries to recruit the hero, it's completely weak. The villain's recruiting pitch is usually pathetic, and the hero's pretense at going along with it is so transparent, you wonder which one of them is the bigger idiot.
"We can't kill him until we find out what he knows."
Okay, seriously. Goldfinger contains the greatest scene in movie history, followed by the weakest. Goldfinger has James Bond exactly where he wants him, with a laser slicing remorselessly across the table towards Bond's splayed legs. You get the immortal exchange: "Do you expect me to talk?" To which I shouldn't have to tell you Goldfinger's response. And then Bond babbles something about how he knows all about Operation Grand Slam, which he read on a Denny's menu or something, and Goldfinger abruptly decides he really doesn't expect him to die after all. He has to keep Bond alive, until he finds out how much he knows. Guess what, Auric? If Bond is dead, it doesn't matter how much he knows. A crotch-laser doubles as a knowledge extinguisher.
"I can't kill you until you're a broken shell of your former self, begging for death."
Obviously, many megavillains are deeply disturbed individuals who tortured small animals when they were younger. But still, this compulsion to toy with their prey? Gets a bit old. Here's the most ridiculously insane passage from Dennis O'Neil's largely ridiculous novelization of Batman: Knightfall, which I've already quoted from before:
The time had come to decide what to do with his enemy. Kill him? A death, painful but swift? No. That would destroy this Batman, but with little satisfaction... To conquer the enemy — that was admirable. But to break him, to watch him writhe helplessly, to hear him plead for mercy — that was magnificent. A man who could do that would have cause to fear nothing.
"I will keep you in a cellar," Bane said aloud. "Once a week, I will have them drag you across the floor by one foot —"
Bane could see it. Batman, pale, blinded by light, smeared with filth, dressed in tatters, so thin his ribs almost burst from his skin, his arms and legs flopping, drool leaking down his chin. "Give him a cockroach to eat," Bane says. "Give him a live mouse. Then put fire to his feet. I want to hear him scream."
The brief vision had the power of a prophecy.
It's hard to argue with prose like that. But still. What the hell, villains? You know what's more impressive than a broken hero, begging for death and stuff? A dead hero, possibly with his/her head on a stick or something. (Of course, as with the "Join me" thing, there is one great exception here — Khan in Wrath Of Khan. If you've got Ricardo Montalban delivering an incredible speech, and he's refusing to walk into one of Kirk's traps, then you get a free pass.)
Really, the main reason for a villain's inability to kill a hero is the same as the reason heroes can't kill villains — if either side had any real resolve, there'd be a lot less room for the villains to come back again and again, in serialized narratives. If your villains really are determined to wipe out their opposition, then they either have to keep failing, again and again, or they have to succeed — which is probably inimical to the "ongoing saga" thing. So it's a choice between "incompetent villains" and "villains with a weird mental block." Is it too much to ask for a third option: Villains who are competent and ruthless?