In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.
It’s the villain who makes a movie — they bring the danger, raise the stakes, provide an essential contrast to the hero. Sometimes, they’re even a film’s real draw: Think of comic-book legends like the Joker and Loki, or silver-screen originals Agent Smith and Hans Gruber. They’re wily plotters, tech masterminds, interplanetary rivals, brutes, assassins, robots.
But who are they really?
To see, we compiled demographic data on the villains in the ten highest-grossing action films (domestically) from each of the last 30 years, looking at age, race, gender, occupation, motivation, and much more. (Excluded were sci-fantasy movies set in other worlds, though ones set on contemporary Earth were included. Period pieces were also excluded.) From Lethal Weapon to Jason Bourne, from Speed to Spectre, these graphs represent 300 of the past three decades’ most high-profile baddies. Note to Hollywood: Women can commit crimes, too.
Racial Breakdown by Decade
The majority of action-movie villains have always been white, but things in this particular arena have, over time, gotten steadily more diverse — or, perhaps more accurately, steadily less human. Indeed, the number of Hispanic, black, and Asian antagonists has increased very slightly over the last 30 years, but as technology has changed and blockbuster budgets have swelled, nonhuman and machine villains have become more prevalent. As for the one villain group that has been all but abandoned by Hollywood in recent decades: Middle-eastern terrorists were fairly common main antagonists going back to the ’80s and ’90s, but have seen their ranks reduced in the post-9/11 world.
Gender Representation by Decade
No version of this data set was going to reveal particularly encouraging numbers for women. But seriously: You know there’s a problem when machine antagonists have started outpacing female antagonists. There is, at least, Charlize Theron’s Fate of the Furious villain Cipher, who was too recent to include in our data set. Hopefully, she’s a sign of more to come.
Villains Who Have Killed
Unsurprisingly, a clear majority of action-movie villains haven’t been afraid to get a little blood on their hands.
Place of Origin
For the most part, villains have tended to be homegrown in the past three decades. But rogue foreign army and intelligence officials are fairly common bad guys, most of them hailing from the U.K., Japan, and, yes, Russia.
Out of our 300-villain sample set, fewer than 100 have survived to the end credits. The trend has been pretty consistent across the 30 years, but there was a notable spike in the last decade’s worth of data: Since 2007, nearly three-quarters of all villains died before movie’s end.
What method of villainy was best for survival?
Deception was the most popular method for these villains. And, along with tech warfare — which comprises anything from staging bombings to performing missile launches to hacking computer systems — deception tactics such as brainwashing and framing were the most successful in terms of leaving the villain alive. (As for those preferring to fight and kill? Not so much.)
Occupation Before Villainy
A good number of action movies like to keep their villains simple: They’re drug lords and mob bosses without any kind of noncriminal backstory. Nonetheless, as we looked at the data in three ten-year segments, it became clear that these films are starting to provide antagonists with relatively intriguing skills and occupations at a faster rate. Villainous scientists have consistently been on the rise, as have corrupted army men.
Motivation for Villainy
Some things never change. Over the last 30 years, action movies have primarily drawn their villains as vengeful adversaries with an eye toward world domination. In the superhero era, this characterization is only becoming more common.
Why do villains want to dominate the world?
Here’s a backstory breakdown of those who were motivated by world domination, the most common motivator of all the villains surveyed.
Additional reporting by Ashley Wu