(This post contains spoilers for Alien: Covenant.)
One of the strange side effects of the rise of superheroes in Hollywood, as well as the borderline superheroes who populate franchises like The Fast and the Furious, has been a lack of equal opposition: The villains in these movies can’t hold a candle to the protagonists. Marvel in particular has taken a lot of guff for its villain problem, but the issue extends beyond just the MCU; in general, the new stress on cinematic universes and endlessly iterative properties puts the onus on continuity, and the agents of continuity are the heroes. There’s no better example of the problem at work than the recent decisions by both the MCU and Fast and Furious to pit the heroes against each other.
Meanwhile, one franchise is showing it’s still possible for a modern blockbuster to have a great villain. In Alien: Covenant, David — the android played by Michael Fassbender, first introduced in Prometheus — comes into his own as a fleshed-out, dynamic, and genuinely striking antagonist, one who isn’t just an equal match for the heroes, but even becomes the central thread of the series. He’s a huge part of what makes Alien: Covenant work, and you can rest assured he’ll play a major role in whatever happens with the next two installments Ridley Scott has teased.
In addition to his importance to the Alien series, though, David offers a few useful lessons that other franchises can take away in trying to solve their own particular villain problems.
1. Give the villain a coherent philosophy
Over the course of Alien: Covenant, we slowly learn David’s worldview. At first, he seems simply scientifically interested in the aliens, but as our understanding of David evolves, we come to recognize him as a much more complex, and insidious, figure. He’s the enlightened monster, the educated, urbane intellectual who should be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of 20th-century history. Like Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, David is a eugenicist and murderer who couches his philosophies in Nietzschean rhetoric about furthering the species, complete with quotes from Romantic poets like Lord Byron — except in this case, the species is the terrifying, parasitical Xenomorph.
While there are plenty of dangers in basing something as relatively innocuous as a baddie in a popcorn film on horrific real-world analogues — at another point, David annihilates the indigenous life forms of a strange planet he lands on, which has definite shades of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — it’s also what gives the film its resonance and meaning. It’s just as true now as ever that an elegant sophisticate can be a great perpetrator of evil, and that the urge to create can be used for terrible ends as well as good. David is a far more relevant and instructive villain than, say, Marvel’s generic Ultron, who’s basically a less interesting version of HAL 9000, or the ultracartoonish Cipher of Furious 7, a hacker whose entire plan seems to based on a freshman-level understanding of game theory. If you believe that big films as well as small can aspire to the achievement of art and meaning, then the interrogation of themes like these is a welcome sight.
2. Let the villain do stuff
Similarly, David gets to actually play a physical role in the plot of Alien: Covenant. He welcomes the gang to his lair, climaxing with a fascinating moment in which he rages at one of the crew for shooting and killing a Xenomorph, and, like any good villain, he gets the film’s most interesting dialogue, including a strangely touching scene in which he teaches the other android, Walter — also played by Fassbender — to play music. That might seem an obvious thing for a villain to do, but you’d be surprised how many modern blockbuster villains don’t pass that test. Instead, they often spend their entire films separated from the main characters, hiding behind faceless minions who get killed by the thousands.
Not David. He’s constantly doing stuff in the film: reciting poetry, making art, cutting his hair, lurking. He is active within the fabric of the film, not just a catalyst that makes it happen. And the way he does factor into the end is another major factor:
3. Let the villain win — or at least give him a chance
The biggest problem with the villains of most contemporary studio movies is that they never stand a chance. Their plans are always so hysterically large — destroy Earth! enslave all humans! turn all living matter into an extension of themselves! — that their success wouldn’t just mean the end of the main characters, but also the end of the franchise, the cinematic universe, and, well, everything, in general. Since a big-budget tentpole movie can’t end like that, their villains are hopelessly neutered.
Alien, of course, has a huge advantage, in that the main draw are the aliens, not necessarily any one hero or group of heroes. (Although the fact that the series still produced a hero as emblematic as Ripley is also worth noting.) But that didn’t require Covenant to pull off the coup that it did, in which David ultimately gains the upper hand, taking over the ship while the helpless heroes look on. And beyond that, the mere thought that this could happen makes David a drastically more compelling figure than your average villain: He’s actually dangerous, not just a convenient conduit for stunts and CGI battles who will be disposed of by film’s end. Like many of the best movie bad guys, including Hannibal Lecter and Seven’s John Doe, he represents a demon that even his total defeat couldn’t fully banish.
4. Let the star be a star
Of course, none of this matters without Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is so good in Alien: Covenant, so fully committed and clearly happy to be playing the role, that it’s hard to imagine the part without him. Actors playing blockbuster villains are often obviously showing up for the paycheck, or else so bereft of material to work with that they end up lending the character distracting and unnecessary affectations. But in David, Fassbender has a disturbing, and disturbingly complete, mindset to work with, and he plays the part with relish, never more than in the classic moment at which he kisses himself.
More than just about any other type of role, villains allow actors to leave their stamp on a character — which is why they’re so much harder to play than heroes. In a heroic role, particularly a superheroic one, you basically just have to reflect the arc of the audience, an arc that’s pretty much identical in the vast majority of contemporary blockbusters. Play a villain, on the other hand, and you always run the risk of looking like Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending: You’re giving 110 percent to the movie, but the movie has nothing to give you back. With the best villainous performances, the film will instead nurture and reflect the actor’s performance, as The Dark Knight does for Heath Ledger, Mission: Impossible III does for Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Skyfall does for Javier Bardem. Sure, those actors can’t win — but they’re such an integral part of the movie that it doesn’t really matter.
That’s what Scott’s latest Alien iteration has managed to achieve with Fassbender. And totally apart from what happens with the Xenomorph, the esoteric mythology of the series, and the fate of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, it’s David who’s worth returning to for another go-round of the franchise.