When The Force Awakens was first released one year ago, I sang its praises, but even I had to admit that the film had, for lack of a better term, a “Villain Problem”:
I’ll be completely honest: I personally don’t consider Ren to be a particularly strong villain. […] He is, however, a fascinating character. His clearly defined goals, ruthless ambition, and fierce internal conflict make him a borderline co-protagonist, and […] his arc is integral to the film’s central themes.
Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux […] lacks the raw, magnetic presence required to be a truly intimidating Heavy. Sure, he delivers a chilling Big Speech, but […] Hux spends much of his screen time barking orders on the command deck of his Star Destroyer; in other words, the narrative disconnects him from the action, thus diminishing the concrete threat he poses to Rey and company.
The earliest footage of Rogue One didn’t fill me with confidence that its central antagonist, Director Orson Krennic, would fare much better. His pristine white cape, billowing dramatically in the breeze, gave the impression that he would be yet another flat, generic Imperial Officer, sinister enough to serve his narrative purpose, but hardly memorable. Watching the finished product, however, I was pleased to discover that, in fact, Krennic combined the best aspects of Ren and Hux while discarding most of their shortcomings, creating one of the franchise’s most unique and complex villains.
From the moment he enters the frame, Krennic establishes himself as an arrogant, detestable snake, worthy of the viewer’s condemnation. Before his introductory scene has ended, he has made young Jyn Erso an orphan, kidnapping her father and murdering her mother in cold blood. Because Krennic plays such an integral role in our heroine’s backstory, her personal investment in the overarching conflict increases exponentially, and the audience anticipates their climactic, cathartic final confrontation that much more eagerly.
If hatred alone defined our relationship with Director Krennic, he would still be a solid antagonist. But the most enduring, iconic villains are also great characters in their own right, shaped by their desires and the obstacles that stand in their way. Thus, the writers of Rogue One constantly deconstruct the motives behind Krennic’s despicable actions: as the plot unfolds, we learn that he is little more than an expendable mid-level bureaucrat, belittled by his superiors, blamed for setbacks that aren’t always entirely his fault, and frequently denied recognition for his accomplishments. Gradually, it becomes clear that his ruthless ambition arises primarily from his desperation to make himself seem indispensable to men like Governor Tarkin (who kills people as a means of amassing political power) and Darth Vader (who kills people for sneezing while he’s talking). Seeing Krennic casually strangled and taunted by a bloodthirsty Sith Lord for a relatively minor infraction inspires the same uninvited twinge of sympathy as, for example, watching Norman Bates squirm as the car containing Marion Crane’s corpse fails to sink into the swamp as quickly as he’d hoped.
Like Disney’s own Dawn Bellwether (Zootopia) and Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War) before him, Krennic is able to elicit disgust and pity in equal measure, sometimes within the space of a single scene. Though their actions are morally reprehensible, their motivations are easily understandable—even, on some level, relatable. And that inherent spark of recognizable humanity makes these immaculately-crafted monsters all the more terrifying.
[Originally written December 23, 2016.]