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The Poetry of Violence: Slaying the Dragon

[WARNING: The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS for 13 Assassins, Skyfall, Django Unchained, and Avengers: Endgame.]

What defines a great supervillain? His morally complex motivations? His convoluted schemes? His ruthless pragmatism? The answer, of course, depends entirely upon narrative context; there is no “one size fits all” method for crafting a compelling antagonist. That being said, I firmly believe that a villain is only fully realized at the instant of his own demise: does he accept death with quiet dignity (Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, Batman Begins’ Ra’s al Ghul)… or does he greet it with maniacal laughter (The Dark Knight’s Joker, A View to a Kill’s Max Zorin)?

Consider, for example, Lord Naritsugu, the corrupt daimyo at the center of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. This sadistic tyrant spends the majority of his screen time torturing, dismembering, raping, and murdering his subjects. He doesn’t even attempt to justify his wanton cruelty, viewing it as his divine right as the shogun’s brother. When he is fatally wounded during his climactic showdown with protagonist Shinzaemon, however, his confidence and bravado immediately dissolve, reducing him to a whimpering, sniveling coward. Despite the voracity of his bloodlust, he is totally incapable of enduring the sort of pain and suffering he routinely inflicts.

Skyfall’s Raoul Silva experiences a similarly ironic/karmic reversal of characterization in his final scene. As the disgruntled MI6 operative prepares to take revenge on his estranged mentor/mother figure, he suddenly lurches forward, a knife buried in his back. The last thing he ever hears is one of James Bond’s insufferably smug quips: “Last rat standing.” Deprived of his moment of triumph, Silva can only howl in incoherent, ineffectual rage—a childish tantrum that epitomizes the previously unflappable mastermind’s utter loss of control.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the death of Django Unchained’s Calvin Candie reinforces his established character traits, rather than subverting them. As the revisionist Western nears the conclusion of its penultimate act, the depraved plantation owner has essentially achieved a decisive victory, exposing our heroes’ plan to liberate the eponymous gunslinger’s enslaved wife and forcing them to pay an extortionate fee in exchange for her freedom. Unfortunately (for him, anyway), the arrogant aristocrat simply cannot resist the urge to incessantly taunt his already thoroughly humiliated foes. Thus, Candie’s pride, ignorance, delusions of grandeur, and overestimation of his own intelligence earn him a bullet through the heart.

In my personal opinion, though, the most memorable villain death of the past decade occurs in Avengers: Endgame. After Iron Man utilizes the power of the Infinity Gauntlet to literally “snap” Thanos and his army out of existence, the would-be galactic conqueror can only watch helplessly as his minions, acolytes, and ambitions crumble to dust around him, burdened by the knowledge that he will soon join them in oblivion. Josh Brolin’s mo-cap enhanced performance elegantly conveys the subtlety and nuance of the Mad Titan’s every emotion, from numb denial to soul-crushing resignation. He doesn’t rant or soliloquize before he fades away; he makes no effort to curse his enemies or rationalize his barbaric actions. He merely sits in silence and patiently awaits the inevitable.

The aforementioned antagonists represent a wide variety of personalities, psychologies, and philosophies: some are sympathetic, while others are irredeemably monstrous; some pursue noble goals (from their distorted perspectives, at least), while others revel in petty, gratuitous wickedness; some are shrewdly manipulative, while others are dim-witted brutes. Despite their diversity and distinctiveness, however, they share one vital quality in common: they are all defined (and, in certain cases, redefined) by how they behave when confronting their own mortality.

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