Commentary: The Role of An Antagonist — Do All of Them Need Tragic Backstories?10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
So it is now canon that the iconic Disney villain Cruella de Vil, who has ‘cruel’ and ‘devil’ in her name, also has a tragic backstory to explain her villainous need to kill dalmatians. While storytellers have long used tragedy to humanise their antagonists, it does feel like the trope has reached a critical mass in recent years.
Used well, the technique could make for engaging storytelling that blurs the line between good and evil. Hollywood, however, has largely used it as a crutch, either as an ineffective way to flesh out characters or, worse still, make them the basis of spinoff films riding the success of established villains.
The most apparent example of the latter trend has been Disney’s latest endeavour to reimagine its classics. 2014’s Maleficent was a runaway success at the box office (although not so much for the 2019 sequel). While Cruella continues its run in theatres, a sequel is reportedly already in the works. We should probably brace for an Ursula movie soon which will explain her hatred for Ariel due to redheads killing her parents. Or something like that.
Beyond films about villains, it can be quite a challenge to think of an antagonist that has emerged in recent years who doesn’t have some form of life-changing calamity in their past. Armed with troubling perspectives audiences may find it hard to disagree with (see #ThanosDidNothingWrong) and the reliance on the formula speaks for itself.
It can be fun to be in the shoes of antagonists, villains or anti-heroes who don’t play by the traditional rules; a tragic backstory makes it even easier for relatability. However, this formula can easily be mishandled, and possibly even make films and stories far staler.
We take a look at the roots of storytelling, interrogate the role of an antagonist, examine how having a backstory adds or substract from the role, and how Asian cinema could capitalise on Hollywood’s current fixation on morally grey characters and stories.
Every Protagonist Needs an Antagonist
For any story to work, be it comedies, action films, or dramas, there needs to be conflict and tension. The story’s antagonist creates this by presenting challenges to the protagonist. Both characters often share the same goal but have different perspectives on how to achieve them or what the goal even means. The antagonists should be menacing and intimidating to seem like a credible threat. Both characters should be each other’s reasons for growth and change by the end of the story.
There are no hard and fast rules. Antagonists can take on just about any form — although a key differentiator when it comes to the accessibility of a film could be determined by the clarity of the threat. Adventure, action and horror films have always been the biggest earners in the box office exactly because there is a clear journey to follow along and a clear antagonist or villain to overcome.
Not all of Asian cinema has had the luxury to produce these films. Those that do — such as Hong Kong, India and South Korea — often enjoy a vibrant domestic film industry.
Those that don’t are usually defined by scaled-down, intimate dramas that may be considered arthouse gems but find it hard to attract domestic audiences despite their relatable themes. The antagonists in these films are mostly intangible social issues. Although these would usually be embodied by characters, it would be the problems they represent that stick out more, melding together with the everyday that these films aim to relate with, and casting aside any dramatic tension that the theme could bring to the story.
Pop quiz: Name a memorable antagonist from a Singapore film. The best answers seem to be Meng, the overbearing older brother in Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997) and Seng, the spoilt selfish younger brother in Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh’s Singapore Dreaming (2006). Both of them stand out for their memorable performances, their characters’ strong visual identity, and how they are more than the issues embodied.
Interestingly, the highest-grossing Singapore films — largely consisting of Jack Neo comedies — do not have standout traditional antagonists either. However, whether it is the trials of National Service or surviving the far more treacherous journey of Singapore’s education system, the struggles are portrayed in palpable, reachable and tangible manners. In fact, the ‘antagonists’ are practically in every frame, where social issues overwhelm and dominate just about every conversation in these films.
Not all films need antagonists. But it seems that having a clear one does make a story far easier to attach to.
Every Antagonist Needs a Backstory?
Saddling antagonists with backstories should be the icing on the cake rather than the main ingredient. What feels more important is the clarity of the threat they present, and how they are able to lead to the protagonists’ growth at the end of the story.
Perhaps the most common criticism levelled against antagonists in films is with how they might be uninteresting or have motivations that are too shallow to be relatable. Having a tragic backstory is often a cure-all, making it easier to understand and even relate to their twisted perspectives especially when we like to believe that nobody is born evil. Another causal effect is with how they inject a shade of grey, giving films an air of maturity with how its moral ambiguity challenges the ‘good vs evil’ narratives that are familiar within children’s stories.
Besides, it can be far more fun to root for antagonists, villains and anti-heroes than superheroes because the former group has grown to represent a more ‘realistic’ and pragmatic side of our humanity; that not all of us can remain steadfast in our morals after life-altering tragedies and would rather lash out on all that they have been wronged by.
Nonetheless, backstories do have their drawbacks. They can feel extremely lazy and unnecessary, especially now that the trope has seemingly reached a critical mass in popular culture. Cruella is a timely example — a (literal) cartoon villain that everyone loved to hate now saddled with a backstory completely incongruent with her goals. The runaway success of Joker (2019) can also be seen as particularly puzzling when the character’s enigmatic past is exactly what makes him terrifying and intriguing.
Granted, they have made for an overall more mature hue in storytelling, where even the lines between protagonists and antagonists are blurred. Yet, it also feels like the trope has narrowed popular storytelling exactly because it avoids black-and-white dynamics.
A one-dimensional antagonist does not mean that they have to be uninteresting. The Internet age, where just about any information about anything or anyone can be found, has normalised backstories; normalised questions being answered in a quick Google search. Yet, in the long run, this might make mystique a far more valuable commodity than outright explanations for motives — supposing that characters do have motives.
Sometimes it adds to have one-dimensional antagonists. They can be characters that we love to hate exactly because they are irredeemable. Not every character has to have a backstory to be humanised or even humanised at all. Antagonists can be sheer forces of nature who are terrifying and intimidating because there is no method to their madness. A great example of stories that can be told from this starting point is the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007), where it is the inhumanity of the antagonist that brings out uncomfortable questions of human nature.
Disney’s recent villain-centred films have highlighted that not all antagonists from another franchise need their own spin-off films — lest they want to make a quick buck at the box office. It’s a concept that is still relatively fresh for the company but it’s not a wild prediction to say that the formula set by Maleficent and Cruella will be short-lived with audiences catching on to how lazy and unnecessary they are — if they haven’t thought so already. Backstories need to understand what makes their characters tick and why they are beloved in the first place.
These films show the full potential of how having a sob story can remove everything that makes characters good villains while completely misunderstanding what a great antagonist brings to any story. Humanising antagonists and all their vile actions could also easily veer into excusing their behaviour rather than explaining them — which, in today’s minefield of sensitivity, makes the whole exercise seem all the more unnecessary and risky.
It feels like the trope of antagonists and villains with tragic backstories is throughout pop culture today. And personally, it’s a trend that has long worn its welcome when it comes to Hollywood. This is the same reason why I have found safe harbour with mainstream Asian cinema, particularly films from India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China.
They understand the beauty of traditional antagonists and the straightforwardness these characters bring. Irredeemable characters such as Gabbar Singh from Bollywood classic Sholay (1975), Dean “Virus” from comedy 3 Idiots (2009), or Shing from gangster drama A Better Tomorrow (1986). Chinese blockbusters such as The Eight Hundred (2020) and Wolf Warrior (2015) — as much as they are seen as propaganda — can definitely be appreciated for their strong storytelling foundation too.
Actors portraying antagonists and villains in Asian cinema are also often just as celebrated as their counterparts. In India, Pran was so effective and vile in his antagonistic roles that, during the height of his film career, Indians avoided naming their children after him. In Hong Kong, Shing Fui On, Ho Ka Kui, Wong Kwong Leung and Lee Siu Kei are revered by fans as the top four villains during the film industry’s heyday (四大恶人).
Of course, action films tend to be the ones where uncomplex antagonists are the most effective but the same principle could be better embraced as well. Hollywood is tripping over its own overcomplications and audiences will grow tired of morally grey storylines sooner than we think. There seems to be no better time to garner attention elsewhere. For Asian cinema to grow, perhaps Asia should not only continue to find its next film hero, but should also start searching for and developing its next top antagonists and villains.